Baxter, James K.
Baxter, James K. 1926–1972
A New Zealand poet, playwright, and critic, Baxter is generally ranked among the finest authors that country has produced. His work is strongly regional, drawing inspiration from the New Zealand wilderness, its tribal history, and natural cycles. Baxter's rejection of conventional social standards is evidenced by the unorthodoxy of much of his verse. A devout Christian, he has shaped his poetic philosophy to include elements of both religious and classical mythology, creating a viewpoint that is as highly moral as it is individualistic. To Baxter, a poem must be "a cell of good living in a corrupt society." Stylistically, his work is lyrical and metaphorical, and often shows the influence of Lawrence Durrell and Robert Lowell. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
E. H. McCORMICK
[James K. Baxter] is, indeed, the central figure in the contemporary scene, mediator among writers of different ages and outlooks, focus of highest hopes for the future. Not that he belongs in the category of the 'promising'; while still in his early thirties, his past as poet and critic is already substantial…. Familiar themes—nature's menace, the spiritual strength of the Polynesians, the precariousness of European occupation—reappeared [in Beyond the Palisade (1944)], acquiring fresh force through Baxter's matchless gift of phrase and lyric. This indigenous vein, with others exposed by the youthful virtuoso, might have occupied a lesser poet for the rest of his career. But Baxter has repeatedly been compelled to disappoint expectations, to follow not the predictable and approved course but the stonier path dictated by his own daimon. His next work, Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness (1948), was superficially less attractive than its predecessor, though it contained profounder poetry. It seemed to proceed from a state of spiritual depression, reflected in the images of winter pervading the collection and in the studied avoidance of rhetoric…. Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry (1951) was remarkable not merely for the maturity of its judgments but for its strong ethical bias. Poetry, Baxter affirmed, 'should contain moral truth,' every poet 'should be a prophet according to his lights.'… The garments of teacher and...
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When James K. Baxter, who died far too young in New Zealand last year, began his last book [Runes] with a section entitled 'after Catullus', it was anything but an academic exercise. One of the sources of Baxter's power was that when he drew on myth or literature, whether classical or Biblical, it no longer seemed an outside allusion, but became a natural source of reference, immediate and intimate…. What he shared with Catullus, and with Rimbaud, whom he translated brilliantly, was a primary intensity of feeling, an apprehension in which the passing detail retained its depth of sensuous texture, yet acquired an almost elemental force. It brings him equally close to the Jacobeans, who experienced afresh, in the tropes of classical rhetoric, the shock of mortality—'I thought, shoving my muscle through black hair, / "What is a man, this glittering dung-fed fly / Who burrows in foul earth?"' ('Henley Pub', from Selected Poems)—and gave him an affinity with his Calvinist forebears that was perhaps more formative than his own Roman Catholic belief…. [His] urgency and directness are not qualities he has learned from Catullus: they are constant throughout his work.
What he does gain from Catullus is an extra impudence, a greater colloquial freedom, which enables him to bring off the Catullan jokes perfectly…. When this freedom is added to his own world-weariness, it produces a voice that is nearly hysterical in its...
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More clearly than with many artists, Baxter's life and work are interdependent. From the first a controversial and complex figure, he apparently contained within himself profound contradictions. Deeply moral, he flaunted the conventions of his society over and over again….
Finding much in New Zealand life to attack, he yet realized that his true personal center was inseparable from his own country. (p. 19)
His four books of poetry … were widely recognized as the work of a major talent. Presumably, had he been a British or American poet his name would now be much better known. Yet, although one of the finest poets of his generation writing in English, he made virtually no effort to establish a reputation outside the confines of his own small country. This circumstance derives from one of his great strengths, his rootedness in the land and community in which he lived. (p. 20)
Indications throughout Baxter's writings, at every stage, suggest that he was naturally disposed to a belief in God, and that for him the Christian religion was a matter of serious concern. (pp. 30-1)
Pervaded by spirituality as they are, his last writings continue to manifest such apparent contradictions [as Baxter's lifestyle itself did, combining the spiritual with the crude]. But they may be more apparent than real. Baxter had always been this kind of mixture, and at the end, many would say, his life was...
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