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James K. Baxter: The Selected Poems
ed. John Weir

On a poet's many guises, talents and flaws.

By June 14, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

John Weir has become the major editor of Baxter’s work – poems, prose and letters – and has described this Selected Poems (he did an earlier one back in the 1980s) as his last task in what has been an enormous project. He deserves honour for this comprehensive work on an important (some would argue the most important) New Zealand poet thus far.

Recently I heard a singing coach or teacher, an advocate of ‘Everyone can do it. All you need is encouragement and tuition’, refer to ‘the myth of talent’.  From her now common point of view, the idea of ‘natural talent’ which some have and others lack, is undemocratic, elitist. Of course it’s true that anyone can make singing noises; but whether they can hit the right notes, and in the right order, and expressively, depends alas, largely on your genes, and nature is not in the least democratic. We have the same argument about writing: since we all learn to read and write, why should we not all be writers?  All you need is encouragement and a good teacher.  Creative writing classes are producing graduates who feel they are ‘qualified’ as if they had done an apprenticeship in plumbing, or nursing.

Baxter was like Mozart – the natural talent was immense, and he grew up in a house where it was fostered early. By the time he was eighteen, when his mother, the formidable Millicent, presented his first collection of poems to the Caxton Press and introduced her prodigy to Lawrence Baigent there, he was already exceptionally knowledgeable about poetry in the English language. These – the talent and the knowledge of the tradition he was to become part of – were the secure foundations on which his poems were constructed.

And yet Baxter was also, or was to become, Baxter – James K, Jimmy, Jim, and later Hemi – the natural man, the moralist, the sexy hippie, the serious Catholic, the temperamental Calvinist, the boring monologuist, the Māori-by-marriage, the would-be visionary and mystic, the self-mocking showman, the fashionable sixties rebel: all of these Baxters come and go in his poems, which bear the burden with varying degrees of success.

They are all represented in one way or another in this book; and although Weir says it is ‘in the tradition of a “Best Poems”’ he also describes it as a selection of Baxter’s ‘best or most recognisable poems’. I assume a poem like ‘Ballad of the Junkies and the Fuzz’ would come under the heading of ‘most recognisable’ rather than ‘best’ – and it’s as well to be reminded of just how predictable and intellectually shallow ‘Hemi’ could be at his worst. Showing some of the bad Baxter as well as so much of the good is what makes this book a first-rate introduction to his poetry.

My first encounter with Baxter as public reader is described in my novel All Visitors Ashore when he enters the University of Auckland Hall (though I moved the venue to the North Shore) held closely on either side by R.A.K. Mason and A.R.D. Fairburn (initials rather than forenames were favoured in those day). As he goes on down the aisle the narrator realises that the galoshes he is wearing are swinging, not touching the floor, and that he is being supported by the elbows. He collapses into a chair, looking helplessly drunk, but when his turn to read arrives he delivers his poems faultlessly in a thrilling, resonant and somewhat posh voice: ‘Mey first pooem…

On one of his early visits to Auckland, when I met him as a respectful student-poet meeting an established elder (by six years!) he urged the poems of George Barker on me, and even lent me a copy of a little pink paper-back, The True Confessions of George Barker, which I never found occasion to return and still have. He was clearly admiring of, and keen to emulate, Barker’s dissolute muse, and perhaps thought I might profit from that example. He warned me against falling under the shadow of Curnow, having escaped from it himself.

At his poetry readings in those days he liked to shock, ‘épater les bourgeois’ in the manner of Baudelaire. But for myself, somewhat proper and wearing a tie, when I read Baxter with pleasure and admiration it was poems like ‘Letter to Noel Ginn II’ that gripped me, gliding so beautifully and seemingly effortless, through fifteen six-line stanzas rhyming a,b,b,a,b,a. It was a poem that had a lot to say about its author and the world, and there was already some of the moralising Baxter I would never quite like; but that didn’t matter so much to me as the ease, the gliding simplicity, the control, the form.

Curnow, having just discovered the young Baxter, added some of his poems to the 1945 Caxton anthology, and remarked

…since Mason in 1923, no New Zealand poet has proved so early his power to say and his right to speak.  He is directly aware of the great audience that is addressed by a poem in English. […] Like a few younger English poets, most unlike modern Americans, he seeks the eloquent rather than the inquisitively precise word.  This is a weakness as well as a strength.

Curnow honoured Baxter, at the same time typically pinning down his early strengths and limitations, the strengths nowhere better illustrated than by the title poem of his second collection, ‘Blow winds of fruitfulness’, which would not look out of place in a collection by Tennyson or the young Keats.

But there was another Baxter who would engage me more closely, the poet in touch with the natural world, losing self in that awareness, and reflecting it vividly and yet simply. This is ‘The River’:

My brother started the boat engine
Tugging on a cord, and I steered

Upriver with the tide behind us
Close to the outlet of the gorge:

No problem, except when somebody’s
Plastic leggings, floating under water,

Twisted round the propellor. That same afternoon
Lying down flat after lunch, I heard

The river water slapping, and thought about
Three buried selves: child, adolescent,

The young unhappy married man
Who would have hated this place – ah well

Space is what I love!  The three selves dance
In the great eddy below the Taieri bridge,

And I am glad to leave them, sprinkling water
Over the embers that heated the Thermette,

Having at last interpreted the speech
Of the river – ‘Does it matter?  Does it matter?’ –

And carrying like salt and fresh inside me
The opposing currents of my life and death.

There are qualities here found much later in his ‘Jerusalem Sonnets’; but there is also a feeling of escape from moral righteousness and its burdens. Baxter often said that he felt as if he had been beaten all over with sticks; and he was forever trying to rid himself of this pain by ‘doing the right thing’, advocating the right way of life, speaking for fellow sufferers, and teaching them (to quote the Matthew Arnold phrase) ‘how to live’. At his worst in this he was a know-all and show-off, not unlike Diogenes who preferred to display his contempt for convention by wearing rags, living in a barrel and defecating in public.

When, during the last decade of his life, Baxter was going about shaggy, barefoot and in clothes acquired from Saint Vincent de Paul charity outlets, Jacquie Sturm (his wife) asked publicly why he did this when he had some perfectly good suits and shoes in the closet at home. When he visited me in my office at the university in those years, he would embrace me and ask for ‘Bread, man.’  We were both of a generation of males who did not hug outside the family, so although I didn’t mind at all giving him money, I winced at the not always sweet-smelling embrace, which I knew was itself a kind of reproach, and at the hippie affectation of the language.

What the river gave him in the poem above (‘Does it matter? Does it matter’) was the wisdom of Epictetus who taught that one needed to be freed, not from physical slavery (Epictetus had himself been a slave) but from the ‘emotional disturbance of false belief’.  Baxter records in one of the Jerusalem Sonnets flagellating himself – 20 strokes with a leather belt and buckle of ‘two brass rings’.  What Father Weir thought of this kind of thing he doesn’t say – and I think flagellation has been a tradition in some branches of the Catholic church.  Quite properly as editor, he just represents Baxter as he was and leaves him to speak for himself. Epictetus, I’m sure, would have deplored it.

When I reviewed Baxter’s 1958 collection, In Fires of No Return, I was inclined to frown on its tendency to slide into verbosity, religiosity and melodrama:

Now as the serpent stabs
Of grief in my guts, among the wounds and swabs
Of love’s rough hospital to your proud flesh I come
And the soul sweating in its iron lung.
(‘Letter to the World’)

But the thirty-nine Jerusalem Sonnets seemed to me so good when they appeared as a booklet in 1970, so weirdly excellent, I felt they could only be accepted on their own terms, without complaint. All the past claptrap of torment and moralising, the demonising of police (‘the fuzz’), the romanticising of junkies and drugs and of the lice in his beard, the sexual boasting, the salutes to Māori protocol (the whole sequence was signed off to his friend Colin ‘From Hiruharama from Hemi te tutua’)  – it was all there; and yet the chats with God were jokey and self-mocking, and the whole Baxter paradox, or paradigm, was absorbed in a confessional  tone that did not bully or cajole, as he’d been inclined to do in the past, but said, in effect, ‘This is myself, how I behave, what I do, how I think and what I believe’; and it did not exclude, but kept in clear redeeming sight, the natural world he saw himself as part of – the hiving bees, the birds, the beans-rows, the cabbage plants, the river.

The sequence flowed so naturally, was so readable, with that ease which had characterised his work at its best.  They were written in an open sonnet form Baxter had borrowed from Lawrence Durrell, seven couplets with no rhyme nor anything to interrupt the flow, so the effect of the form was only to slow the pace of the reading and to deter the eye from racing ahead down the page.  It was a form I in turn would borrow and use, and have gone on using.

There had been another thing in my Baxter experience which was more important for me because it set me off on an entirely new track. In February 1967 I had three poems in the London Magazine, and in the same issue Baxter had seven – his ‘Seven Masks for Pyrrha’, later expanded to fourteen and included in the posthumous collection, Runes, with the title ‘Words to Lay a Strong Ghost’.  They were free and approximate versions of poems by Catullus, and renewed my interest in the great Roman love poet, so I was soon writing versions of my own. Like Baxter’s, mine were each in one way or another set off by the Latin originals, but took their own wayward colloquial path, giving me a new persona and a useful ambiguity. In Baxter’s he was still unmistakably himself. In mine, was the ‘Catullus’ who spoke the Roman or the Kiwi poet, or neither? It gave a new freedom to use or evade, or to alter, the personal/autobiographical; and I used in them a double margin form quite unlike Baxter’s which were more traditional.

His were rather grim (Catullan style) recollections of ‘Pyrrha’, as Catullus’s are of ‘Lesbia’ (and mine of ‘Clodia’), Pyrrha being based on Baxter’s first lover Jane Aylmer, the ‘strong ghost’ whose presence he was never able to forget or shake off, so the word ‘lay’ in the title is wittily ambiguous. The translation aspect in the Baxter tends to banality. Catullus’s famous ‘odi et amo’ becomes ‘I hate / And love; I love and hate’; and the equally famous farewell to his dead soldier brother, ‘frater ave atque vale’ becomes ‘Good luck, mate; goodbye.’

Weir uses none of the sequence in this new Selected Poems, perhaps because, though autobiographical and remote from their originals, they can still be seen as translations; but he does use another Pyrrha poem, addressed to the woman Baxter describes as his ‘first/ mentor of love’ –

You cried once, ‘I am drifting, drifting.’
Self-pitying, too often drunk,
I did not see your need of comforting.
Pestle and mortar pounded us
Early to a dry volcanic dust.

What makes so much of Baxter’s poetry so compelling, so closely present, at once off the cuff and in your face, is that natural talent which, if it could be analysed, I’m sure would prove to be something in the grammar and the syntax – a linguistic compression and momentum which is not something that can be taught or learned, but goes on in the brain that is constantly talking to, and making sense of, itself – economical, but capable of a secret and random eloquence.  ‘He makes it look so easy’, readers say, and perhaps even wonder whether it deserves the respect it gets.  Baxter is probably out of fashion just now; but if Martin Amis (recently deceased, alas) is right that Judge Time will sort these matters out, Baxter has surely written himself permanently into our literary history.

James K. Baxter: The Selected Poems

ed. John Weir

Te Herenga Waka University Press

ISBN: 9781776920754

Published: June 2023

Format: Paperback, 332 pages

C.K. Stead

C.K. Stead is a poet, novelist, scholar and critic. His most recent book is Say I Do This: Poems 2018–22 and and the memoir What You Made of It.