No one can have been more surprised than James Fenton that In Memory of War turned out to be one of the most acclaimed books of 1982. A year ago, used to being told by reviewers that he was a 'difficult', even 'esoteric' poet, it looked as if he had decided that small publishers and little magazines were the most appropriate place for his work. Although as a political columnist and foreign correspondent with the New Statesman and Guardian, filing copy from Cambodia, West Germany and Westminster, he had built up a modest reputation and following in the 1970s, this did nothing to unburden him of the thousand copies of his first book of poetry, Terminal Moraine (1972), many of which lay throughout the decade in the basement of his publishers, Secker and Warburg: that is where I picked up my copy, and Fenton eventually bought up the unsold stock himself, believing (rightly) that he'd make a better job of disseminating it. His next publication, the pamphlet 'A Vacant Possession' (1978), was slimmer and more difficult to get hold of still. And even occupying the position of theatre critic of the Sunday Times, with 'over a million readers every week', didn't do much, initially, to help Fenton with The Memory of War, published by his brother Tom at the small Salamander Press: there were advance orders of only 200 and at the end of September, three months after publication, the book had sold a mere 569 copies. But then in early December several writers, nominated it as their 'book of the year', almost a thousand copies were sold in a week, and Penguin bought the paperback rights. Not for ages has 'difficult' poetry been known to achieve such commercial success.
LRB 10 January 1983 | PDF Download