James K. Baxter Essay - Critical Essays

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.)


[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 exemplar are not easily assumed in our times; and in his next collection, The Fallen House (1953), Baxter himself could supply no simple message to a distracted world. Instead, like Hart Crane, he mined 'the black gold / Of prophecy' from an experience that was often bitter and sometimes sordid; he praised and in his own person illustrated a 'passionate integrity.'… (pp. 141-42)

A critical study, The Fire and the Anvil (1955), and the parodies of The Iron Breadboard (1957) may be cited as further expressions of an intelligence which has flowed, with vitalizing results, into almost every branch of contemporary letters. Baxter's presence, in fact, goes far to explain why in recent years Wellington has become the most vigorous centre of New Zealand verse. (p. 142)

E. H. McCormick, "The Middle Decades," in his New Zealand Literature: A Survey (© copyright Oxford University Press, 1959; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press), Oxford University Press, London, 1959, pp. 136-61.∗

Roger Garfitt

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...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Charles Doyle

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 an integrated whole, the meeting of yin and yang. (p. 35)

Many key poems of Baxter's first volume, Beyond the Palisade, were written by the time he was seventeen…. Work contained in [the notebooks from which Baxter drew this volume] has a greater range both in substance and technique, than is revealed in Beyond the Palisade. Available to him was a considerably larger collection, looser and more colloquial in texture; the making of the book was a considerable act of self-criticism and self-shaping.

As it is, Beyond the Palisade displays versatility in polished use of short-lined quatrains and longer, more ruminative forms. Its themes include the force of nature ("Eagle"); nature's cruelty and menace …; man's cruelty within nature;… the difference between Maori and pakeha (white settler) in terms of belonging to the land, the poverty of pakeha existence in relation to it, and the consequent poverty of pakeha history. Dominating the whole book is a sense of isolated man in the clutch of mortality and cruel, indifferent nature…. (pp. 38-9)

[Baxter essentially] chose to continue his selection for his first published book so that it centered on New Zealand. From the notebooks he could have taken work concerned with war in Europe, or containing references to Van Gogh, El Greco, Napoleon, etc.—poems which (leaving aside the question of merit) would have given the book a different aura, a larger and more outward-looking perspective. Absent from Beyond the Palisade but present here and there in the notebooks is a certain lack of reverence, an attitude which was to prove so fruitful in Baxter's maturity. In 1944 he might not, perhaps, have made a better book, but he could have produced one equally competent and yet not so pervasively solemn as the one we have. Yet, reading both sets of material, one is convinced that right instinct led to his limiting of focus, refusing the easy light, attaching himself instead to a small group of symbols which grasp, intuitively, a New Zealand still empty of man…. To the end of his life and with ever-deepening commitment, Baxter believed in the need for the tribe, attributing the desperate state of society to the destruction of "the stubborn clans" and man's failure to rebuild them. In this respect he anticipated the work and attitudes of Gary Snyder and others…. From an early stage his work shows signs of his longing for a positive human community.

Two books, Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness (1948) and its successor The Fallen House (1953), established Baxter's reputation as a poet…. Within a very few years Baxter was to astonish with the lyric elegance and grace of much of his work, so that in later years critics coping with the jagged, spiky poems of the 1960s showed at first a tendency to hark back to the mellifluous sweetness of the early work. (pp. 40-1)

Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness, pervaded by a youthful romanticism, is preoccupied for three-quarters of its length with the idea of death and with man's Promethean struggle amid life's solitariness…. Almost every poem deals with death and the grave…. From the charnel-house tone a casual reader might gather that here is another poet more than "half in love with easeful death"; but Death is "no barren cycle," rather "A truth as eternal as life is eternal". Sometimes the two attitudes, wallowing in death or incorporating it into the meaning of one's life, seem fused…. (pp. 42-3)

"Earth does at length her own sweet brood devour": recognition of this, the struggle to accept and assimilate it, is the chief ground of Baxter's early work. (p. 43)

Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness is, at its center, the locating and clarifying of a personal quest of the soul and, equally, it continues Baxter's discovery of his own voice as poet…. As [Allen] Curnow saw it, the older poets [of the country] had turned away from "assertions about New Zealand" in favor of more personal and universal themes. He concludes: "The way in which certain conceptions of his country haunt the background of Mr. Baxter's poetry, having receded from the positive foreground of older poets, encourages the belief that something of continuing effect was achieved by them." For a "tradition" of good poetry not more than a quarter of a century old, this was an important consideration! Baxter more than bore out the implied hope that he would continue to build and strengthen the national poetry. In later years he was to take an antichauvinist position in literary quarrels about New Zealand, but ultimately he was to prove much ampler, as a poet and individual, than both parties to the argument. (pp. 50-1)

The Night Shift (1957) [is] a joint work containing "poems on aspects of love" by Baxter, Charles Doyle, Louis Johnson, and Kendrick Smithyman…. Baxter's section, "Songs of the Desert," was described not unfairly by Erik Schwimmer as "a series of loudly intoned approximations," and it does exhibit Baxter's dangerous facility in employing the stock responses of decadent romanticism. Yet, inevitably, even these poems (and it has been said that Baxter's are the weakest in the book) have their moments of powerful perception…. (p. 51)

The first phase of Baxter's career may be seen as culminating in the publication of Poems Unpleasant (1952), another joint book, this time with Louis Johnson and Anton Vogt….

What Baxter shares with Johnson, here and elsewhere, is a faculty for seeing experience in mythological terms, for perceiving the archetype behind the commonplace….

Baxter's poems, still, are haunted by literary echoes …, and he is much preoccupied by, and skillful with, traditional literary forms. More clearly now he perceives the terrifying split between deadening habit and the forgotten "language of the heart."… Here again is the lament for the creative energy of the lost, whole, animistic vision. (p. 52)

Baxter was not an intellectually complex poet, but his vision of human experience goes far beyond the merely intellectual, and this is apparent even in his early work. His vision encompasses the child born to darkness, whose fall from innocence is his awakening to death. Without this awareness the child would dwell in the earthly paradise, but it is in his death-discovery that he becomes a man. By definition, man is his own destroyer. In life he can attain a temporary contact with Eden through following his sexual instinct. Through it he creates, but he does so in the knowledge that whatever is created by man must die. However, any one human death is not final and life itself is, in some sense, eternal. With this sense of the eternal, Baxter set out on his later journey, toward eventual fruitfulness. (p. 54)

Throughout The Fallen House poem after poem suggests fear of the outside world. For the protagonist entering the world (and the world entering him) becomes more deeply alone. (p. 58)

Poem after poem in The Fallen House shows advance on his earlier work, chiefly by increase of what Baxter himself later referred to as "experiential knowledge" which he thought the very basis of poetry. With a few lapses, they are based on detailed recording of concrete experiences. Since Baxter is primarily a maker of parables and perceiver of myths this adherence to the concrete is vitally necessary. He is not a poet of ideas, but of mythologized events…. His parable-making and mythologizing methods imply teaching and imply archetypes behind incidents. Concreteness, therefore, is of the essence. Strange and disappointing then that his next work, Traveller's Litany (1955), should fall into the twin snares of pastiche and generalization; all the more strange because he had, in the interim, spoken cogently on modern poetry in his MacMillan Brown lectures, published that same year as The Fire and the Anvil. (p. 62)

Traveller's Litany expresses Baxter's Marian devotion…. In what might well have been a major statement he contrasts Eros … and Mary, Mother …; but the sequence rises to no necessary order and, redolent of literary echoes as it is, makes uncomfortable reading as a devotional act. What it does is to bring into somewhat muzzy focus Baxter's sense of the split nature of woman. At the same time he was becoming progressively more conscious of man's split nature. In "Notes Towards an Aesthetic" he sees the split as between Orpheus and Promethus, figure of song and figure of power…. "Freedom to do good and evil" worked in Baxter's psyche in those years to make both him and his work appear extremely erratic; but beneath this had begun, it now seems, the slow awakening of an interior harmony. (pp. 62-3)

In Fires of No Return provides a quite coherent and full account of the talents of the young Baxter. Three poems in section 2 collected for the first time are particularly interesting: "Seraphion," "Elegy at the Year's End" and "Lament for Barney Flanagan." Never a proponent of art for its own sake (nor, I believe, of the New Critical dogma that art should be considered without reference to its creator), it is nonetheless possible that as late as 1954 Baxter saw art as the supreme human activity, the artist therefore as privileged. From different angles, in each of the three poems mentioned above is a convergence of life and art…. Baxter was much interested in the interconnections between artists' lives and their work. Speaking of Wilde and Villon, he makes the important observation that "their work was a creative recognition of precisely those situations which their vices had helped to create." (p. 66)

For all its brilliant moments, however, the last section of In Fires of No Return (the new poems) offers no clear development from earlier work, although a change is astir. Still the engagement with Christianity is not wholly unequivocal; concern for humanity is there, but somehow blurred, and often marginal; also present is continued lament for the lost simplicities of the past. New development is confined largely to the technical level. A new tone is beginning to emerge, which, heard in retrospect, is harsher, stonier, sparser. The rhetorical fullness and richness on display in earlier poems such as "Rocket Show," "The Bay," and even "Elegy at the Year's End" are giving way to a textural spareness evident in the book's title poem, in "Auckland" …, and in "At Akitio." Here are the first signs of change which resulted, within a few years, in the gristly directness of Pig Island Letters, a directness achieved with no loss of richness. Alongside these signs of what is to come, and making them harder to recognize, are moments of what [J. E.] Weir justly calls baroque rhetoric. The two combined gave some commentators the feeling that Baxter had lost genuine contact with his Muse, but the matter was before too long to become clearer. From this time on, there gradually comes into the foreground Baxter's engagement with … his society, which ultimately was to absorb his full attention. (p. 71)

[By the early 1960s] Baxter has arrived at "the middle years" for which are kept the knowledge of man's difficult struggle to find the fragments of his soul and piece them together. Becoming a Catholic convert did not, as he knew it would not, solve that problem but merely brought it more clearly into focus. (pp. 72-3)

Evidence of change begins with the "current" poems of In Fires of No Return. If one looks for marked change in the Asian poems of Howrah Bridge … one will find little obviously new. At first reading, despite their density of local color, they may seem somewhat disappointing, without new preoccupations or particular insights. Baxter's experiences of gruesome poverty in India led him to condemn social systems based on economic values, but for him this is not especially new, as witness such New Zealand pieces as "A Rope for Harry Fat."… What is new in the poems is a tone of voice, a sinewy quality which signals the banishment from then on of displays of rhetoric merely for its own sake.

Baxter has been much discussed as a consummate imitator of models…. More or less beneficent influences in earlier stages had included Auden and MacNeice, Yeats and Hardy. Even a cursory look at the early work shows that Yeats was on the whole a bad influence, Hardy a good one…. All the influences mentioned were formative, but [Lawrence Durrell] a different kind of poet from any of these (and indeed from Baxter himself) now helped him to make a quantum leap in finding his own true voice. (pp. 73-4)

Since Baxter matched a mellifluous and resonant voice with a mental tendency to mellifluence and resonance, [the] astringency learned from Durrell was a great boon and is a likely source of the change, a shift of consciousness toward a sparser, tauter attitude. The better new poems in Howrah Bridge … manifest the change…. (pp. 74-5)

What Baxter felt imprisoned by was man's schizoid condition in our society, that condition which he felt as "Pig Island."… [He] speaks of "the great white heart of Pig Island, that wild interior island of the mind," presumably … the precious animistic core of experience, which, for him, had ultimate value…. Baxter has two "starting-points". One is the remembered childhood paradise, the other that "man is a walking grave."… "Pig Island," then, inward and wild, is itself a schizoid conception. First, it is what the pakeha has done to Ao-tea-Roa; second, it is both the "tough" life to which man is condemned and the wrestling ground whereon he must fight for salvation, for the transformation of his mirage-laden desert into the green, well-watered garden. (pp. 75-6)

[With Pig Island Letters, Baxter] seems to reach an entirely new level of achievement, especially in the title poem. Old faults, shopworn rhetoric and stock response, still linger, but not importantly. Newly evident is a remarkable conjunction of tautness and freedom.

Dominant is the thirteen-part "Pig Island Letters". It must have occurred to Baxter, since he adopted and developed the form, that the sequence is suited to his particular bent of mind, his tendency to return to, and meditate upon, the same few concerns. Technically influenced both by Lawrence Durrell and Robert Lowell, Pig Island Letters is distinctively Baxter's and is, besides, free of the formal stiffness and artificiality of his youthful "Cressida" and the pastiche mauve dolors of Traveller's Litany. Most eloquently, it is a weighing and judging born of "experiential knowledge." (p. 76)

By the end of his life Baxter clearly felt that there was some special grace (I mean the term, if I may, somewhere...

(The entire section is 6692 words.)