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"This is the ideal. This is hard.",
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This review is from: Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968–2011 (Hardcover)
This was the first book by James Fenton that I've purchased. I'd heard of him through various sources (Clive James' memoirs, The Faber Book of Reportage, Zachary Leader's biography of Kingsley Amis.) Now Fenton has graduated to the status of Faber poet - previously he was published by Penguin - the time seemed right to check him out.
How did it go?
For all the tests you can put verse through, I have a simple one: read the book once, slowly, then put it down. An hour later, see which poems you can remember, or which lines remain the most vivid. (Call this the Williams Test.) I found I remembered the later poems most, and noted how they seemed to flow more smoothly than the earlier ones, make their points more clearly. I should add that 'God, A Poem' was the sole, witty exception - which is a useful poem for fellow atheists to commit to memory:
'I didn't exist at Creation,
I didn't exist at the Flood,
And I won't be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud-
'Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is
In soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.'
Particularly, I liked 'The Ideal', 'Tiananmen', 'Blood and Lead', 'Jerusalem'. In spite of its weak last two stanzas, special mention goes to the collection's beautiful title piece, 'Yellow Tulips', which hits all the same high buttons as Les Murray's masterpiece 'The Broad Bean Sermon':
'They have come out of the wood now. They are skirting the fields
Between the tall wheat and the hedge, on the unploughed strips.
And they believe anyone who saw them would know
Every secret of their limbs and of their lips
As if, like creatures of legend, they had come down out of the mist
Back to their native city and stood in the square,
And they were seen to be marked at the throat with a certain sign
Whose meaning all could share.'
If I didn't like the collection as a whole as much as I expected, I subsequently bought (and enjoyed) his prose work All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of Southeast Asia (Classics of Reportage). Maybe you will too.