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This is a little gem of a book, which does precisely what it says on the cover, leading the reader simply and succintly into the ideas and methods of English poetry.
This is a little gem of a book, which does precisely what it says on the cover, leading the reader simply and succintly into the ideas and methods of English poetry. Fenton is somewhat in favour of formalism, though he acknowledges the value (and dangers) of free-verse forms. This enables him to structure his guide according to the building blocks of English poetry, taking us from 'Iambic Pentameter', through 'Stanzas', 'Sonnets', and 'Rhymes', leading us to 'Free Verse' and 'Song'. The genius of this form is that it reads like an instruction manual for the aspiring poet. It builds up to the completion of the multifaceted English poetic canon, which is, metaphorically, a poem in its own right, rather than deconstructing and murdering existing texts. Poems are introduced as the working examples of the fundamental blueprint Fenton draws first; poetry never stands on the specimen slide to be dissected, burnt and decomposed in order to prove their architecture.
Fenton caresses his verse, careful never to impose a singular reading on a particular poem but always delighted to point out a particularly effective line or phrase. He acts like a gentle guide through the naves and annals of the English poetic museum, always interested but never prepared to bore with his own superior knowledge. For the serious student of literature, the brevity of each chapter must make this an introduction rather than a completion; whole books have been devoted to the sonnet form and the five pages dedicated to it here cannot do the theme total justice. Yet even the most knowleagable reader is likely to find pointed out to him, alongside Tennyson and Shakespeare and Milton, some new incident of poetic genius. For me, this was the beautiful and innovative poem by John Fuller called 'The Kiss'; coming under the heading of a 'Minor Form' it is the kind of anecdote in the margins of the poetic canon that larger, more scholarly works, might overlook or dismiss as unimportant.
He has a wonderfully easy prose style - no doubt this is why The Guardian Review snapped him up to serialise some of the articles contained within this text - and at times his phrases have a peculiarly poetic quality. "The voice is raised, and that is where poetry begins", Fenton's expression of the difference between 'poetic' language and 'normal' language, has its own iambic rhythm. However, it is in moments like this where the short book exposes its greatest weakness. As an introduction, there can be no room for ambiguity. Every argument must be definitive and concise; there is no room for dialogue with the self or with alternative critical opinions. Yet the book succeeds despite this precisely because Fenton is concerned with providing us with the tools as readers to analyse any work outside of his text. It is for us to discover the ambiguities and contradictions in our own later poetic journeys. His mentoring voice is a confidence builder, inviting us to act alone as our own critics, rather than an undemocratic assertion of his individual perspective and opinion.
Fenton, James. An Introduction to English Poetry. London: Viking, 2002. ISBN 978-0670911004. £9.99. 144pp.
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This page was published on 2003 | Keywords: James Fenton, poetry, form, An Introduction to English Poetry