James K Baxter : selected poems
Wall, fence, enclosure, stockade, barrier, curtain, screen, bulwark, Bastille, moat, railing, rampart, trench, ditch, barricade. What are walls for? To keep things in and keep things out. (Kathy Steinsberger, in her blog, Paper Buttons)
It had begun with disgruntlement –
a half-defeated hunt for some good New Zealand poetry.
And then a book of Baxter’s met my eye;
I hadn’t looked at him in many years …
The book – James K Baxter : New Selected Poems, edited by Paul Millar – was in the Reference Section of the Wellington City Library, so I was obliged to return to it on several consecutive days.
And how avidly I gorged myself on these poems, until the sound of the poet’s voice rang in my ears. Until I felt I was at last beginning to know them – and, with the help of Paul Millar’s Introduction, to know more about the man.
Millar quotes Baxter: “I know only a little about the world; and most of it is somewhere in the poems I have written” [p xiv].
The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature characterises this as Baxter’s “tendency to mythologise his life in verse”.
“Baxter … once described each of his poems as ‘part of a large subconscious corpus of personal myth, like an island above the sea, but joined underwater to other islands’, and elsewhere commented that what ‘happens is either meaningless to me, or else it is mythology’.” (Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature – see Note 6 below)
Millar elucidates the source of Baxter’s poetry: “The ‘family man, teetotal, moderately pious, not offensive to sight or smell, able to say the right thing in a drawing room’, was ever at odds with the clannish, anarchic other self, ‘my collaborator, my schizophrenic twin, who has always provided me with poems’ ” [p xv].
Again (Millar citing Baxter): “Wahi Ngaro: the void out of which all things come. That is my point of beginning. That is where I find my peace” [p xvi].
1/ Compare my quote with Kathy Steinsberger’s original on Paper Buttons and you will find a couple of ’emendations’.
2/ Baxter’s remarkable debut volume, Beyond the Palisade (originally published in 1944 by Caxton Press, when he was 18), immediately attracted critical acclaim. A selection of thirty-four poems, from some 500 written by him between the ages of 15 and 18, these early poems display a variety of poetic forms and feature the sharp, bold imagery so indicative of his later works. They introduce the recurring themes of regret and loneliness, which were to become the hallmark of Baxter’s later work. (Adapted from text by annie_kiwi – TradeMe, July 2012 – with additions from Oxford Reference.)
3/ The photograph used here is my own. The shot of the young Baxter on the cover of New Selected Poems came from the Hocken Library, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.
4/ Baxter, James Keir; Millar, Paul (editor). 2001. James K Baxter : New Selected Poems. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press.
5/ About the author (from Google Books): Considered New Zealand’s most significant poet, James K. Baxter has also been called one of the most remarkable English-language poets of the mid-twentieth century. Born into an educated family in New Zealand, he spent most of his life there and became a much-loved and respected figure in his homeland. Starting out as something of a boy prodigy in the field of poetry, Baxter went on to face alcoholism, then to convert to Catholicism. In his last years, some considered him a saint as he wandered around New Zealand “barefoot, long-bearded, patched and baggy.” Baxter published his first poetry in 1944. He also wrote about 20 plays – many of them produced successfully – four books of literary commentary and criticism, numerous religious essays, and fiction. His Collected Poems is still available, but most of his work in other genres is out of print. Believing strongly in the poet’s vocation, in the poet as a prophet, Baxter was also a skilled artist. His work, which is characterized by a technical conservatism and an adherence to formality, reflects his familiarity with a wide range of poets, including the English romantics, Greek and Latin poets, and modernists, such as Yeats, Hopkins, and Hardy.
6/ The New Zealand Book Council’s website includes a useful biographical summary from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature.