On Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, Buckingham Palace announced the award of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry to James Fenton.
On February 17 last year, the TLS published three poems by Fenton, including “Memorial”, which was originally commissioned by the BBC to honour journalists and their colleagues killed while covering wars. As a young man Fenton was himself a foreign correspondent, and was present at the fall of Saigon to the Vietcong in 1975. His experiences in Cambodia lie behind the long poem Dead Soldiers (1981)
We spoke, we chose to speak of war and strife —
A task a fine ambition sought —
And some might say, who shared our work, our life:
That praise was dearly bought.
Drivers, interpreters, these were our friends.
These we loved. These we were trusted by.
The shocked hand wipes the blood across the lens.
The lens looked to the sky.
Most died by mischance. Some seemed honour-bound
To take the lonely, peerless track
Conceiving danger as a testing-ground
To which they must go back
Till the dry tongue fell silent and they crossed
Beyond the realm of time and fear.
Death waved them through the checkpoint. They were lost.
All have their story here.
JAMES FENTON (2006)