Sport 11: Spring 1993
‘Almost October and the sky is jammed
with radio stations and biographies of Baxter . . .’
(G. O’Brien, ‘Along the verge’, NZ Listener, Dec. 1983)
‘The Collected Poems of James K. Baxter descended, in 1980, as if from a great height, and its initial impact and weight left me dazed for a few years. (A useful volume to dispel career-mindedness and worldly aspiration in the young. But what answers it offers aren’t necessarily the right ones.)’
(G. O’Brien, ‘This book changes lives’, NZ Listener, June 1988)
Perhaps Baxter is still widely read for his ‘wisdom’, for the intense world-view his poetry reflects, which remains, twenty years down the track, still as intriguing and accessible as ever. Riddled with interesting and relatable paradoxes (the ongoing love/hate relationship between the poet and his world), his poems enact various personal dramas, inner and outer conflicts. The species of ‘wisdom’ they purvey is also appealing, not because the poet necessarily was ‘wise’, but because he comes on so wise yet his life was, well, such a self-induced muddle. There’s something imminently human and relatable in that.
If not acknowledged as a formative influence on the present generation, Baxter pre-empted them in a number of formal and imaginative ways. This might be recognised more except that Baxter, the person, still leaves most writers embarrassed or uncomfortable—an undesirable, or at least questionable, page 153 member of the family tree. It’s still hard to embrace the poetry without bear-hugging the Great Man himself. So he’s still being skirted around, people cross to the far footpath (with a few notable exceptions, including the youthful Graham Lindsay).
‘. . . . . James K. Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . the Baxter of the Jerusalem Sonnets . . . . . Baxter . . . . . the late Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . the "dour ghost" . . . . . Baxter . . . . . a series of tacks across the wake of James K. Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . recontextualising Baxter within these deconstructive . . . . . James K. Baxter . . . . . James K. Baxter . . . . .’
(Mark Williams, introduction to The Caxton Anthology, NZ Poetry 1972ï¿½1986, Caxton 1987)
From time to time James K. Baxter comes back into sight. His physiognomy and assorted lines still pop up in the paintings and prints of Nigel Brown. Peter Olds published a poem last year entitled ‘Oh, Baxter Is Everywhere’ (although the poet appears not to appear anywhere in the piece). Baxter features in Michael O’Leary’s 1987 novel Out Of It as the twelfth man in an imaginary cricket squad, alongside such team-mates as Janis Joplin, James Joyce, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. And on New Zealand Geographic magazine’s pictorial map of the Whanganui River, there he is, head and shoulders nudged in between the river and the beaming countenance of Mother Mary Joseph Aubert. **
He gets a mention in even more surprising contexts. Some of his poetry titles are included in a bibliography of hundreds of books by anyone called page 154 Baxter at the back of the English artist Glen Baxter’s hilarious tome Glen Baxter, His Life (Thames & Hudson, 1983). Closer to home and to the topic: in AND 1, Alan Loney, being interviewed by Leigh Davis, stressed what a fine and overlooked critic Baxter was and, at the launching of AND 4 in 1985, one of the magazine’s contributors said to me that he imagined if Baxter was still alive he would be working in the Weld of ethnopoetics à la Jerome Rothenberg!
On the other hand, it’s possible he might have moved the other way and gone on to write an even more populist line of poetry, perhaps parallelling the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal (Minister of Culture under the Sandinista Government), whose recent work relinquishes the complexity and depth of books such as Zero Hour to work short, mass-market, ‘meaningful‘ turf. In a recent essay, Alan Riach points out that Cardenal, like Baxter, is suffering critical neglect proportionate to the amount of mass-appeal he achieves. And Pablo Neruda has suffered a similar fate for years.
As Tina Barton says of Colin McCahon (in her exhibition catalogue, After McCahon), so Baxter has also ‘played a vital role in complicating and extending our notions of the local, but as well, he has become part of the texture of the place’.
Like the After McCahon exhibition, these informal investigations also reflect a similar disrespect tempered by a veneration—a shifting, unstable and evolving series of positions around a central pivot whose position, like the Whanganui River beacon, is as permanent as it is elusive.
** While making these notes, I revisited Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. While I was there, to my surprise, Mother Aubert, foundress of the Home of Compassion Order, seemed a far more apparent ghost than Baxter. The poet seemed relegated to a few newspaper clippings pinned to a wall in the old convent and a stern, framed photograph inside the church. I didn’t visit the gravesite above the settlement this time—it didn’t seem worth bothering the family again—and my aunt Rita, who is a Sister in the Jerusalem convent, was eager to take me on a tour of the old church buildings. She spoke fondly of various visitors to the settlement in recent months, including Iain Sharp, Jenny Bornholdt, Alan Brunton, Sally Rodwell, Joanna Paul (whose colour photocopy montages grace the old convent walls) and the painter Pauline Thompson. ‘The middle of nowhere’ must be on the way to or from somewhere to attract such traffic!