James K. Baxter Roger Garfitt - Essay

Roger Garfitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)