The Strength of Poetry Oxford Lectures

James Fenton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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Fenton is unique among contemporary writers in having achieved equal distinction as a poet and, in his reportage and criticism, as a master of trenchant prose. What is more, he has shown himself a devoted critic of both American and British modern poetry, an explainer of each tradition to the other and to itself. In the lectures collected in this book, all of them delivered at Oxford (where he succeeded Seamus Heaney as Professor of Poetry from 1994 to 1999) and many of which later appeared in The New York Review of Books, Fenton moves easily from Philip Larkin's laments for the British Empire, to Heaney's uneasy rebellion against it, to Robert Frost's celebrations of American conquest; from W. H. Auden on Shakespeare's homoeroticism to the vexed "feminism" of Elizabeth Bishop; from Wilfred Owen's juvenilia to Marianne Moore's youthful agitation for women's suffrage.

In The Strength of Poetry, Fenton makes sense of the last century in verse, accessibly and intelligently exploring modern poetry's antecedents and its legacies with the lucidity, wit, and gusto that have made his criticism famous.


Praise for The Strength of Poetry

"Suprise attack by a quirk of thought or erudition is a pleasing feature of these entertaining, worldly lectures . . . The Strength of Poetry is really about human weaknesses and the compensating strengths of poets."—The Economist

"An erudite, provocative, witty collection meditating on the nature of creativity and ambition."—Carmela Ciuraru, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"A fine book . . . Conspicuously free of contemporary scholarly jargon . . . [Fenton] does not shy away from literary ideas and very close readings of poems, but he combines them with close scrutiny of poets' biographies in search of small, revelatory details . . . Poets seek that elusive something called poetry, and so do those who write about them. Fenton is very much aware of that in his lectures, and that is part of their strength."—Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books

"A series of passionately intelligent conversations between critic and poet . . . The Strength of Poetry exemplifies the inherent generosity of intelligence."—Edward Mendelson, The New York Times Book Review

"[Fenton's] essays educate, enlighten, surprise, and thrill, unfailingly."—Robin Lippincott, The New York Times Book Review

"Fenton adeptly handles the textualities of these writers' lives and uncovers many of the pressing urgencies that make the study of poetry provocative and vital."—Library Journal

"Fenton's twelve pieces were originally lectures he delivered as professor of poetry at Oxford, and they exhibit the liveliness and humor of a speaker who wants to engage and even entertain as well as inform his audience. Ten of the essays focus on particular poets, three of those on W. H. Auden, whom Fenton admires for his range, his sympathy, and his total achievement. Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, D. H. Lawrence, and the foremost female American poets of three successive generations—Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath—are the others' subjects. Politics, sexuality, influence, and love are the thematic lenses of Fenton's regard for these masters, and one of the pieces not about a single poet is about political poems that lie, such as Dryden's Annus Mirabilis and Frost's 'The Gift Outright.' The other, which takes flight from a marvelous anecdote about Michelangelo, ponders influence and the ferocious, defensive egos of some of the greatest artists."—Booklist

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The celebrated British poet and literary critic James Fenton has been a foreign correspondent and a theater critic and has written about the history of gardens.
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  • James Fenton

  • The celebrated British poet and literary critic James Fenton has been a foreign correspondent and a theater critic and has also written about the history of gardens.
  • James Fenton © Dominique Nabokov
    James Fenton