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Otherwise than I had supposed it

When some cheese-headed ladder-climber reads
     A poem of mine from the rostrum,
Don’t listen. That girl in her jersey and beads,
     Second row from the front, has the original nostrum

I blundered through nine hundred parties and ninety-eight pubs
     In search of. The words are a totem
Erected long after for scholars and yobs
     Who’d make, if they could, a bicycle-seat of my scrotum.

(‘To Any Young Man who Hears my Verses Read in a Lecture Room’)

The person James Baxter has to thank for saving this gem from oblivion is a Wellington lecturer. Such a paradox would not have been lost on a poet who spent his life at war with the powers of this world and who made his own rough peace with them, when he could. Baxter wrote much scurrilous verse about universities while relying on their patronage. He bent Catholic dogma inside out while running a commune with church blessing. He attacked bourgeois mores in book after book, depending on that same bourgeoisie for sales. Yeats was a distinct early influence and Baxter would have known that ‘we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’ Baxter’s wife, the poet Jacqueline Sturm, probably got closest in her poem ‘Coming Home’: ‘That tormented paradoxical man / Father of my children / Convinced me we belonged together / But then moved on.’

That the poet owns to being some one who blundered is just one of his irritating, seductive traits. Baxter was a man who made a public stance of his strengths and weaknesses. Bill Manhire’s early impression was of ‘an enchanter figure’ who ‘lived and played the part.’ This self-mythologisation is an inheritance that New Zealanders continue to wrestle with. Do we want it or don’t we? What does it say about us that this is our voice? Only this year yet another dramatic theatre piece about the man toured the country, an amalgam of readings and music, entitled simply Baxter. This certainty/uncertainty about his place in the national life may explain the silence that has surrounded him over the past twenty years and may be good reason for having an essential text for teaching purposes to help new readers find ready access. If nothing else, this New Selected (James K. Baxter. New Selected Poems Edited by Paul Millar OUP, A$36.95 NZ$42.95, 294 pp, 0 19 558429 5) satisfies that need, one not so well-served by the mammoth Collected Poems of 1980.

Arranged in two sections that might loosely be headed canonical and extra-canonical, this selection delineates maturity and mastery. Early indebtedness to MacNeice and Dylan Thomas (‘To wave and bird I open wide / The bible of my rimrock days, / To salt-grey ngaio boughs that cross / The forehead of the west’) is superseded by a linguistic richness and strength drawing on English sources from all periods. More important still is the felicitous detail (often enough, happily infelicitous) that can only be explained as pure Baxter. Take ‘Wellington’, for example, from 1962:

Otherwise than I had supposed it - ‘A grey town’, they said;

But I found instead a grid of coffee bars
On which the young, my friends, bake bread
Out of invisible stones. The hills too are young,
Bush triangles in their groins. But the old notice a black noose hung
Between monotonous pavements and the inexplicable stars.

Like others caught up in the confession mania of the Sixties, much of Baxter’s meaning depends on biography. For those who came in late the editor supplies a useful plot outline, but after that it gets hairy. The poetry expresses the progress: mother nature’s son, heroic boozer, womanising Jeremiah, barefoot holy man. By the time of the great journal cycles, e.g. ‘Pig Island Letters’ and ‘Jerusalem Sonnets’, Baxter has not only perfected the forms till they are seamless, he has moved beyond their strictures. Not imitation but transformation. The fire in the belly takes precedence over style wars. This is the acid test for readers of Baxter, this mass of original cycles, by turns profound and controlled, indulgent and sloppy. The one weakness with the selection is the break-up of the cycles, leaving the novice with insufficient clue to their direction or true magnitude. The republication of ‘Autumn Testament’ (OUP, 1997) is a good sign that could be repeated with other of his long poems.

A problem for Baxter is that he is surrounded by the egregious language of superlatives: ‘foremost’, ‘major’, ‘unparalleled’. Superlatives do not help us to explain the amazing amount of overindulgence, as well as rambling flatness, in his work. Hearing the voice is one of our best aids to picking emphases and in some Baxter one feels that only the man and the occasion made these words cohere. The poetry is infamously various in style and standard, though even the bad has the allure that comes from an original position expressed fairly and passionately.

Neither do superlatives assist someone to reach a poet whose credal statements include, ‘...I was a New Zealander / And therefore Man Alone.’ Especially at the end of his short life, Baxter’s central subjects of poverty and humility are compromised by such big talk, especially considering his evident belief that the virtues could be exemplified through the poetry. Baxter’s expectations were very different from his eulogists; he constantly twists away from any received idea about his role. Also, this established image of the non-conformist actually distracts us from much important questions about how New Zealand produced such a literary figure. What do we make of Baxter’s identification with the prophetic tradition of Te Whiti? And with the pacifism of his own parents? What kind of Catholicism did he preach? And was it more than identification with yet another minority culture within New Zealand? How much calculation was there in his different martyr positions? How many audiences was he addressing? Baxter is anything but ‘Man Alone’ and his motivations for the sake of his people carry more weight than critical boosts. His poetry continues to open up these and other questions.

A final, very good, reason for having some Baxter at home becomes apparent when reading the recent spate of New Zealand anthologies. Baxter is obviously responsible for many of the changes in New Zealand poetry since his death in 1972. The charmed New Zealand confidence with the conversational mode, for example, is deeply indebted to Baxter’s experiments with cadence and natural voice. His adventures with Maori-Pakeha macaronics, not all equally successful mind you, are a sound basis for much bicultural literature that has followed. And more than any other poet, it is Baxter who showed the next generation how to let it all hang out. His social and political ballads, of which there are a preponderance here, are the undoubted forerunner of today’s performance poetry. Very entertaining, packed with the bizarre and indecent. Both as an introduction and as a set text for students, this selection brings us close up to a mercurial poetry written by a tribal fringe dweller who, nevertheless, symbolises awkward, if not at times plain nasty, truths about New Zealand and our own consumer culture.

This review first appeared in the Australian Book Review in 2005


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