Born in Lincoln, Fenton grew up in Lincolnshire and Staffordshire, the son of Canon John Fenton, a noted biblical scholar. He was educated at the Durham Choristers School, Repton and Magdalen College, Oxford. He graduated with a B.A. in 1970.
Fenton acquired at school an enthusiasm for the work of W.H. Auden. At Oxford John Fuller, who happened to be writing A Reader's Guide to W.H. Auden at the time, further encouraged that enthusiasm. Auden became possibly the greatest single influence on Fenton's own work.
In his first year at university Fenton won the Newdigate Prize for his sonnet sequence Our Western Furniture. Later published by Fuller's Sycamore Press, it largely concerns the cultural collision in the 19th century between the United States and Japan. It displays in embryo many of the characteristics that define Fenton's later work: technical mastery combined with a fascination with issues that arise from the Western interaction with other cultures. Our Western Furniture was followed by Exempla, notable for its frequent use of unfamiliar words, as well as commonplace words employed in an unfamiliar manner.
Whilst studying at Oxford, Fenton became a close friend of Christopher Hitchens, whose memoir Hitch-22 is dedicated to Fenton and has a chapter on their friendship. Hitchens praised Fenton's extraordinary talent, stating that he too believed him to be the greatest poet of his generation. He also expounded on Fenton's modesty, describing him as infinitely more mature than himself and Martin Amis. Fenton and Hitchens shared a house together in their third year, and continued to be close friends until Hitchens's death. Fenton read his poem 'For Andrew Wood' at the Vanity Fair Hitchens memorial service.
His first collection, Terminal Moraine (1972) won a Gregory Award. With the proceeds he traveled to East Asia, where he wrote of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and the end of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia which presaged the rise of Pol Pot. The Memory of War (1982) ensured his reputation as one of the greatest war poets of his time.
Fenton returned to London in 1976. He was political correspondent of the New Statesman, where he worked alongside Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. He became the Assistant Literary Editor in 1971, and Editorial Assistant in 1972. Earlier in his journalistic career, like Hitchens, he had written for Socialist Worker, the weekly paper of the British trotskyist group then known as the International Socialists. Fenton was an occasional war reporter in Vietnam during the late phase of the Vietnam War which ended in 1975. His experiences in Vietnam and Cambodia from summer 1973 form a part of All the Wrong Places (1988). The publication of the book revealed some of Fenton's second thoughts about revolutionary socialism.
In 1983 Fenton accompanied his friend Redmond O'Hanlon to Borneo. A description of the voyage can be found in the book Into the Heart of Borneo.
Fenton won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1984 for Children in Exile: Poems 1968-1984. He was appointed Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1994, a post he held till 1999. He was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2007. The American composer Charles Wuorinen set several of his poems to music, and Fenton served as librettist for Wuorinen's opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories (2001), based on Salman Rushdie's novel.
He has said, "The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation." In response to criticisms of his comparatively slim 'Selected Poems' (2006), Fenton warned against the notion of poets churning out poetry in a regular, automated fashion.
Fenton has been a frequent contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The New York Review of Books. He also writes the head column in the editorials of each Friday's "Evening Standard." In 2007 he appeared in a list of the "100 most influential gay and lesbian people in Britain" published by The Independent on Sunday.
Fenton's partner is Darryl Pinckney, the prize-winning novelist, playwright and essayist perhaps best known for the novel High Cotton (1992).
Fenton has been influenced in his writing by musical theatre, as evidenced in 'Here Come the Drum Majorettes' from Out of Danger:
He was the original English librettist for the musical of Les Misérables but Cameron Mackintosh, finding his lyrics uninvolving, replaced by Herbert Kletzmer; Kletzmer has credited him with creating the general structure of the adaptation. He nonetheless received credit for "additional lyrics" and considerable royalties.1968 Our Western Furniture, poetry
1969 Put Thou Thy Tears Into My Bottle, poetry
1972 Terminal Moraine
1978 A Vacant Possession, TNR Publications
1980 A German Requiem: A Poem, Salamander Press, a pamphlet
1981 Dead Soldiers, Sycamore Press
1982 The Memory of War: Poems 1968–1982, Salamander Press, 1982, ISBN 978-0-907540-39-7
1984 Children in Exile: Poems 1968–1984 Random House, 1984, ISBN 978-0-394-53360-5 These poems combined with those from The Memory of War made up the Penguin volume, The Memory of War and Children in Exile; published in the United States as Children in Exile; Salamander Press
1983 You Were Marvellous, selected theatre reviews published 1979–1981
1986 The Snap Revolution
1987 Partingtime Hall, co-author with John Fuller, Viking / Salamander Press, comical poems
1988 All the Wrong Places: Adrift in the Politics of the Pacific Rim, reportage; Viking; Atlantic Monthly Press (1988); reissued with a new introduction by Granta (2005)
1989 Manila Envelope, self-published book of poems
1994 Out of Danger, Fenton considers this his second collection of poems. It contains Manila Envelope and later poems; Penguin; Farrar Straus Giroux; winner of the Whitbread Prize for Poetry
1998 Leonardo's Nephew, art essays from The New York Review of Books
2001 The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0-19-818707-3
2001 A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed Viking / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2002 An introduction to English poetry, Editor James Fenton, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, ISBN 978-0-374-10464-1
2003 The Love Bomb, verse written as a libretto for a composer who rejected it; Penguin / Faber and Faber
2006 School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts, (2006) a history
2006 Selected Poems, Penguin
2006 The New Faber Book of Love Poems, as editor
2012 Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968–2011
2012 The Orphan of Zhao, adaptation of the classic Chinese play for the Royal Shakespeare Company