Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 36 James Fenton
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He has been a drama critic, a foreign correspondent (not many poets saw the Vietnam War from the nose of a tank), a prawn farmer in the Philippines, a journalist, an essayist on art history for the New York Review of Books, and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. His work has the same swathe-cutting range (in form, genre and tone) as the terrain and anthropological milieus he has covered. But whether he's doing satire, light verse, ballads, historical pieces, complex meditation, indignant attacks on rebarbative American critics, horror, or love, there is always an Audenesque power which comes from combining moral, intellectual and political responsibility with playful, patterning, musical, sceptical, compassionate wit.

The form looks classical and isn't. On the rhyming front, each stanza starts with an x, a variable, then follows a b a b. There is no word-dazzle to disguise rhyme, but the flexibility (love/enough, ashamed/change, fetch/edge, serious/it does), flags a balance between respect for convention, for traditional ways of going about things (rhyming or falling in love), and fresh revelation; both form and tone balance the conventional with something independent and new. The first words, awake, alert, with no rhyming partner, pitch you into the subject: this is about waking up untied (waking literally, in bed with someone, or emotionally, or both, we need not know) and launching into rhyme. They set the tone rhythmically too. Each is an iamb (u -) with stress on the second syllable: the poem is about looking and moving forward, to the next syllable, next beat, next foot, next moment. The lines start short in a two-beat line which lengthens easily over the first three to three beats (and later on four). You're a surprise you could decode metrically as a dactyl with an extra half foot (- uu/-) or as a single foot, a choriamb (- uu -): a unit you meet more often in ancient Greek than English lyric. Never mind the technicalities: the rhythmic point is variability, different ways of feeling or seeing the same thing: for a poem about suddenly seeing (and feeling about) someone in a new way.

Simplicity and directness are the key to both language and feeling. Fenton gets them by invoking a deeply English childhood blend of almost (but never falsely) shy reticence, plus absolute honesty. (Embarrassed is an embarrassingly explanatory word to sling into a poem; the ballady rhyme, and disclaimer it's not that I'm, make it poignant instead.) Behind the A A Milne-like explanations (That's why I went and kicked that stone, that's why I cartwheeled home - with the double resonances in cartwheeled of "head over heels" plus love as a coming home) lie "Now We Are Six", and the verse of Kipling's Just So Stories. The little tasks (I've got the newspapers to fetch), the doglike, retrieving, confidential obedience of fetch, the sense of trusting someone who has far more power in the world than you (the way I hoped they'd change, you have the edge, but I feel cheerful even so), the placing of home at nearly the end (so the poem moves from awakening to homecoming), all draw brilliantly on the odd and unique achievement of British children's literature in the first half of the 20th century (carried out while the world was absorbing Freud's insight into the importance of childhood experience): finding meaning and depth through a child's imagination. All the stuff that all middle- class Brits over 40 read as kids.

In the last line, this should mean something followed confidently by a full stop and Yes, it does have Fenton's trademark mix of immense sophistication and childlike discovery. The poem's paradox, brought out by the title, is that laughter signals seriousness (that's why I laughed ... I'm serious!) Which draws also, I'd say, on the British psychoanalyst D W Winnicott's Playing and Reality. The next poem in the collection, "The Ideal", follows up the childhood-psychoanalysis subtext, again treating falling in love as an occasion for self-stripping, but this time the medium is not domestic ordinariness - fetching newspapers, kicking stones - but reaching back inside yourself for everything you honestly historically are: not a screen that can change, that you hide behind, but fetching your whole being up to offer the other person, to love that person from. "This is where I came from/I passed this way. This should not be shameful/Or hard to say. A self is a self. It is not a screen./ A person should respect/ What he has been. This is my past/ Which I shall not discard./ This is the ideal. This is hard." Clearly and unpretentiously, these poems sign up love poetry - a slippery genre, easy to glitter in, made for play, pretence, reproach, eroticism, but very hard to be original in (which seems to invoke all that is deepest in everyone and often only manages to seem and not to do) - for committed self-examination via the big 20th-century intellectual filters (philosophical "ideals" of love, psychoanalytic insight into play). But he does his being serious in direct, water-simple language, plus the short plain lines, rhythms and candour that breathe (in a deeply British context) childhood.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'Serious' is taken from 'Out of Danger' (Penguin)


Awake, alert,

Suddenly serious in love,

You're a surprise.

I've known you long enough -

Now I can hardly meet your eyes.

It's not that I'm

Embarrassed or ashamed.

You've changed the rules

The way I'd hoped they'd change

Before I thought: hopes are for fools.

Let me walk with you.

I've got the newspapers to fetch.

I think you know

I think you have the edge

But I feel cheerful even so.

That's why I laughed.

That's why I went and kicked that stone.

I'm serious!

That's why I cartwheeled home.

This should mean something. Yes, it does.