In an open letter in this week's New Statesman magazine, Mitchell, one of Britain's leading post-war poets, challenges Fenton to a 'Public Poetry Bout to take place before August 1995' (venue to be agreed, but the Olivier Theatre, Hackney Empire and London Palladium have all been suggested).
The challenger readily accepts that the title-holder is a 'dynamite poet' and worth every penny of the pounds 4,059 he earns in his professorial chair. What rankles is a recent seven-page article in the New Yorker magazine which lauded Fenton as 'Auden's heir' and elsewhere described him as 'the chief' and 'greatest poet in all England'.
Speaking from his bardic training camp near Betws-y- Coed in the north Wales countryside, Mitchell said yesterday: 'The gripe is the hype. It's not against James at all. He is one of the 50 best poets in England, but for the New Yorker to write seven pages hailing him the greatest in England is inflation. If he gets inflated like this he will turn into a bouncy castle and eventually explode. What he needs is a little pin prick to let out the air and I am that prick.'
Mitchell is proposing a two-hour contest, including interval. Round one would consist of one 25-minute and one 5-minute performance each. A series of 'shorter, wilder bouts' follows the break, 'culminating in a flying exchange of insulting couplets and a farewell exchange by each fighter. There shall be a neutral referee and timekeeper. Each contender shall appoint his own Manager, M/C and Seconds. Shake hands and come out reciting.'
Fenton, a former war correspondent and currently a columnist for this paper, refuses to budge from his Oxford base and believes Mitchell is being unduly aggressive. 'I'm not going to do it, not for a minute. I'm not going to stand up in public and have Adrian Mitchell hurl insults at me. I don't claim to be anything in particular. If he thinks he can make himself the greatest poet in England in this way, I'm not going to help him out.'
Which is a pity because both men have the form to bruise. Mitchell himself is only too happy to point out that he too has earned the odd kind notice. Kenneth Tynan once introduced him as 'The British Mayakovsky' ('Mayakovksy was a sort of verse Joe Louis,' he explains).
Mitchell believes Fenton's aversion to a pummelling will pass - 'he will come out fighting eventually' - and has composed a couplet to goad him from the cloisters:
Are you too posh for some rough and tumble
Jim it's time for the Poetry
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