James K. Baxter E. H. McCORMICK - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗