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te whiori o te kuri: james k. baxter redux

By Stephen Burt

When you read much of the poetry that comes out now— when you try hard to read as much as you can, to figure out fast what’s going to seem original, what’s going to stick in people’s heads years down the road– when you do this and, at the same time, remember and reread and think about the poetry of the past– the so-called canonical writers, the cult figures, and the people who would be influential were there much more justice in this world–
When you do all those things, and when you get to know the good, hardworking people who decide what to publish, you can get very happy at how some good poets are treated, but very frustrated, too, by the way in which other good poets, especially dead ones (who can’t tour the globe giving readings from their work), don’t get noticed at all.
With a dead poet whose only claim on us is the quality of her or his verse, it’s sad but understandable if it takes a while– and takes several critics and poets, shouting together– before the poet’s work comes back into print, or shows up at all very far from where that poet lived.
But what about a dead poet who was not only one of the century’s great language-users, one of its great inventors of new lines and forms, a reinventor (e.g.) of such traditional forms as couplets and sonnets, but also a man who changed the culture of his country, a great (if also extreme and disturbing) example to future countercultures, an activist on behalf of indigenous people– more committed to such issues than any white artist of equal talent in the United States has ever been? What if the dead poet in question became, more or less, his nation’s answer to Whitman, to Allen Ginsberg, and to Robert Lowell, all at once? What if the story of his life would have made a superb feature film, even were he not (as in fact he was) a major poet judged simply on the invention in the verse?
What– to put it simply– has to happen, how many stars have to fall from the sky, before some American publisher– either Oxford or somebody else– decides to give a serious boost in the United States to the amazing work of James K. Baxter (1926-1972), who in his mid-twenties got hailed (rightly) as the best new talent in New Zealand, and who, after his early death from exhaustion (and periodic drinking), was mourned by banner headlines in national newspapers, identifying him simply as “HEMI,” the Maori version of his first name?


Baxter never visited the US, never made the connections here that could have put his name into circulation in US trade publishing circles. Instead, when he left NZ as an adult in the 1950s, he visited Japan and India, and his experiences there fed back into the social awareness in his late verse. So did his long, fitful involvement left-wing Catholic belief. If you’re looking for social engagement in poetry, for attention to people (both pale and dark-skinned) who have had rough lives, and who now have clear needs, the late work of Baxter will rarely let you down. And if you’re looking for the kind of grappling with first and last things, with divinity and animal nature, that characterized the US poetry that got the most attention in the 1960s– Kinnell, Bly, some of Lowell, some of Ginsberg, even Levertov– you’ll find it in Baxter, along with a sense of line and syntax that puts all those poets except Lowell deep, deep in the shade.
But that’s not why I like him. As I’ve said before, I like him for the power and the thought and the music in the way that his poems sound– for the strong personality and the way that personality turns into language– not for particular attraction to his themes… though his religious self-discipline and self-accusation, the war in him (as in Donne) between earthly passion and religious commitment, and the practical difficulties of his commune, are inseparable from what he could do in his verse.
If you want to read about his eventful life– his days as a literary wunderkind, his years as a letter carrier, his heroic attempts to found a commune, called Hiruharama (“Jerusalem”) with mostly Maori residents– you can start with what New Zealand expects schoolchildren to know, or take a whack at the wikipedia entry. If you go searching for random Baxter poems to see whether my admiration seems credible to you, discount almost anything from before about 1955, and remember that anthologies often crib from one another– the first poem in Jerusalem Sonnets, “The small gray cloudy louse that nests in my beard,” is just fine, but it’s everywhere because too many anthologists in the Northern Hemisphere have no clue about the true scope of Baxter’s work.
Here instead– to get you started, and to light a fire under any potential publisher for Baxter’s work who might happen to read this blog– are three poems, selected almost but not quite at random from the second of Baxter’s long sets of unrhymed sonnets about his life at Hiruharama (Jerusalem), Autumn Testament (1972). In the first one, “Wahi Ngaro” is translated into English by the rest of the line; “nga mokai” means “the fatherless ones,” and was Baxter’s term for the young people in his commune; “wharepuni” means “meeting-house” or common house, the center of a traditional Maori settlement as of Baxter’s Jerusalem.
Autumn Testament, 2
Wahi Ngaro, the voice from which all life comes,
Has given us these woven spider-cages
That tie together the high heads of grass,
A civilization in each. A stick can rip the white silk,
But that is not what I will do, having learned
With manhood mercy, if no other good,
Two thousand perhaps in the tribe of nga mokai
Scattered like seeds now in the bins and the jails
Or occupied at their various occasions
Inside the spider-cage of a comon dream,
Drugs, work, money. Sian, Kat,
Don and Francie, here with me at home
In the wharepuni– One great white flower
Shakes in the wind, turning a blind head towards our veranda.
Autumn Testament, 12
The wish to climb a ladder to the loft
Of God dies hard in us. The angels Jacob saw
Were not himself. Bramble is what grows best
Out of this man-scarred earth, and I don’t chop it back
Till the fruit have ripened. Yesterday I picked one
And it was bitter in my mouth,
And all the ladder-climbing game is rubbish
Like semen tugged away for no good purpose
Between the blanket and the bed. I heard once
A priest rehearse the cause of his vocation,
‘To love God, to serve man.’ The ladder-rungs did not lessen
An ounce of his damnation by loneliness,
And Satan whistles to me, ‘You! You again,
Old dog! Have you come to drop more dung at Jerusalem?’
Autumn Testament, 39
The centre of our dreaming is the cave
That the world translates as brothel. Margaret told me once
A dream she had, about a house
In a meadow by the sea, old and full of passages,
Upstair and downstair room where the tribe were sleeping
And three great waves came out of the sea
And washed around the house and left it standing,
Though for a while they had hidden the sun and the moon.
There has to be, I think, some shelter,
A home, an all-but-God, an all-but-mother
In time and place, not just the abstract void
Of I looking for me. Around these walls
They dipped their hands in paint and left their handprints
As on the walls of caves the Magdalenian hunters.
It looks as if Americans can still purchase a selected Baxter (miscalled a collected) brought out here by Oxford (who publish him in New Zealand, Australia and Britain) four years ago. Perhaps Oxford USA– who generally know what they’re doing with academic books, but who don’t publish contemporary poets as a rule– can do something to promote that edition (and to spur the bringing into print, here, and the proper promotion, of a true Collected Baxter). Or perhaps some other institution here will, at last, fall in love with his verse– it’s not hard, once you’ve figured out who he is.

Comments (6)

  • On February 9, 2008 at 8:50 am daisy wrote:

    Steve–
    Thanks for this; I know only Baxter’s “Wild Bees” poem (is that even the title?) from the Norton Anthology, but have always thought it a stunner. I hope someone heeds this call…
    Daisy

  • On February 9, 2008 at 10:31 pm Tim Upperton wrote:

    There’s a lot to admire about Baxter’s late work, but one notices, too, a poet who has come to believe in the myth that has grown around him. The robust, biting social satire of his earlier work all but disappears. An example of such satire (from about 1960, I think) is quoted in full below. I am, by the way, a New Zealander, and I would agree that Baxter’s influence here was enormous – far greater than that of his contemporary, Allen Curnow, whose influence was confined to literary culture.
    - Tim Upperton
    Ballad of Calvary Street
    On Calvary Street are trellises
    Where bright as blood the rose bloom,
    And gnomes like pagan fetishes
    Hang their hats on an empty tomb;
    Where two old souls go slowly mad,
    National Mum and Labour Dad.
    Each Saturday when full of smiles
    The children come to pay their due,
    Mum takes down the family files
    And cover to cover she thumbs them through,
    Poor Len before he went away
    And Mabel on her wedding day.
    The meal-brown scones display her knack,
    Her polished oven spits with rage,
    While in Grunt Grotto at the back
    Dad sits and reads the Sporting Page,
    Then ambles out in boots of lead
    To weed around the parsnip bed.
    A giant parsnip sparks his eye,
    Majestic as the Tree of Life;
    He washes it and rubs it dry
    And takes it in to his old wife -
    ‘Look, Laura, would that be a fit?
    The bastard has a flange on it!’
    When both were young, she would have laughed
    A goddess in her tartan skirt,
    But wisdom, age and mothercraft
    Have rubbed it home that men like dirt:
    Five children and a fallen womb,
    A golden crown beyond the tomb.
    Nearer the bone, sin is sin,
    And women bear the cross of woe,
    And that affair with Mrs Flynn
    (It happened thirty years ago)
    Though never mentioned, means that he
    Will get no sugar in his tea.
    The afternoon goes by, goes by,
    The angels harp above a cloud;
    A son-in-law with spotted tie
    And daughter Alice fat and loud
    Discuss the virtues of insurance
    And stuff their tripes with trained endurance.
    Flood-waters hurl upoin the dyke
    And Dad himself can go to town,
    For little Charlie on his trike
    Has ploughed another iris down.
    His parents rise to chain the beast,
    Brush off the last crumbs of their lovefeast.
    And so these two old fools are left,
    A rosy pair in the evening light,
    To question Heaven’s dubious gift,
    To hag and grumble, growl and fight:
    The love they kill won’t let them rest,
    Two birds that peck in one fouled nest.
    Why hammer nails? Why give no change?
    Habit, habit clogs them dumb.
    The Sacred Heart above the range
    Will bleed and burn till Kingdom Come,
    But Yin and Yang won’t ever meet
    In Calvary Street, in Calvary Street.

  • On February 10, 2008 at 12:50 am emily dickinson wrote:

    Apparently Galway Kinnell is a big Baxter fan. Also, the NZ poets in the next generation are pretty amazing, Wedde and Brunton and co – but none of them get exported, not to my knowledge anyway.

  • On March 2, 2008 at 10:30 pm Cathy wrote:

    My favourite is:
    The Ikons
    Hard, heavy, slow, dark
    Or so I find them, the hands of Te Whaea
    Teaching me to die. Some lightness will come later
    When the heart has lost its unjust hope
    For special treatment. Today I go with a bucket
    Over the paddocks of young grass
    So delicate like the fronds of maidenhair,
    Looking for mushrooms. I find twelve of them,
    Most of them little, and some eaten by maggots,
    But they’ll do to add to the soup. It’s a long time now
    Since the great ikons fell down,
    God, Mary, home, sex, poetry,
    Whatever one uses as a bridge
    To cross the river that only has one beach,
    And even one’s name is a way of saying –
    ‘This gap inside a coat’ – the darkness I call God,
    The darkness I call Te Whaea, how can they translate
    The blue calm evening sky that a plane tunnels through
    Like a wasp, or the bucket in my hand,
    Into something else? I go on looking
    For mushrooms in the field, and the fist of longing
    Punches my heart, until it is too dark to see.
    James K. Baxter, 1971

  • On April 15, 2008 at 3:59 pm graywyvern wrote:

    i think his ballads are best–authentic sounding but truly weird–someone should set them to music!
    m.

  • On April 16, 2008 at 9:43 pm Tim Upperton wrote:

    Actually a dozen of Baxter’s poems have been set to music, in a compilation produced by the New Zealand musician Charlotte Yates. Yates has produced a similar compilation of the recently deceased Hone Tuwhare’s poems.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, February 8th, 2008 by Stephen Burt.