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James K. Baxter (1926-1972)


Poet, playwright, critic, a Christian guru, one of the central figures in New Zealand's literature after World War II. Baxter published more than 30 books of poetry before his death at the age of 46. Baxter opposed Western materialism, and advocated social change and the spiritual values of Catholic faith and Maori culture. Outside his own country, he has remained relatively unknown.  

To be deceived is human; but till deception end
What hope of a bright inn, Love's oil and wine?
One greasy cloth of comfort I bring, friend
Nailed at the crossroad – I, thief, have seen
The same dawn break in blood and negative fire;
Your night I too could not endure.

(from 'Thief and Samaritan')

James Keir Baxter was born in Dunedin. His father, Archibald Baxter, was a Scots farmer, who gave an account of his pacifist convictions, persecution, and torture at the hands of his own countrymen during World War I in We Will Not Cease (1939). Millicent Baxter, James's mother, was the daughter of the eminent Canterbury College professor J. Macmillan Brown. His early years Baxter lived at Kuri Bush, south of Brighton. He was educated in Quaker schools in New Zealand and in England, where he spent nearly two years in the 1930s. At school he was isolated and bullied, and consequetly, developed a profound hostility toward herd mentality.

Baxter began writing poetry at the age of seven. As a poet Baxter established his reputation with Beyond the Palisade (1944) at the age of eighteen. His second book, Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness, came out two years later. These early collections showed Baxter's sensitive approach to the rural landscapes of New Zealand. Allen Curnow, New Zealand's most influential critic, described Baxter's writing in A Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923-45 (1945) as "strong in impulse and confident in invention, with qualities of youth in verse which we have lacked. . . ." Baxter himself was  sceptical about New Zealand poetry, and felt himself more connected with the English tradition, Blake, Hopkins and the so-called "Pylon poets" of the 1930s (W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and others).

In the mid-1940s Baxter worked in odd jobs. During this period he became interested in Jungian psychology. The Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas especially influenced Baxter's work, which is seen in his second play, Jack Winter's Dream (1959). The script was filmed in 1979.

Baxter studied in 1944 at Otango University, Dunedin. Following the failure of his love affair with a young medical student, he wrote the poem sequence 'Songs of the Desert.' In 1948 he married Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm, a Maori writer, converted to Anglicanism, and moved with his family to Wellington where he worked in a slaughterhouse and as a postman before entering Teacher's College. Among his friends were the poet Louis Johnson with whom he published Poems Unpleasant (1952). Other members of the Wellington Group of writers included W.H. Oliver and Alistair Campbell.

In 1956 Baxter received his B.A. from Victoria University. He worked for the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education and from 1954 to 1960 he edited the Wellington magazine Numbers.

A moral and social critic of society, Baxter once described himself as the "sore thumb of the tribe." He had suffered years from drinking problems and in the late 1954 he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1958 Baxter became a Roman Catholic and was re-baptized  a decision reflected in his collection In Fires No Return (1958). Howrah Bridge (1961) collected together Baxter's earlier pieces, but also charted his reactions from the short period in the late 1950s when he was in India on a UNESCO Fellowship and witnessed the reality of poverty.

Prayer of priest or nun I cannot use,
The songs of His house He has taken away from me;
As blind men meet and touch each other's faces
So He is kind to my infirmity;
As the cross is lifted and the day goes dark
Rule over myself He has taken away from me.

(from 'Sonnet 37')

In 1966 Baxter was awarded the Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. This ended his relatively uneven period. In his later work Baxter examined with ascetic style his religious conviction. Poetry was a link between confession and small observations of the world created by God: "The small grey cloudy louse that nests in my beard / Is not, as some have called it, "a pearl of God"  / No, it is a fiery tormentor / Waking me at two a.m." (from Jerusalem Sonnets: Poems for Colin Durning, 1970) In Pig Island Letters (1966)  the title referring to the South Island of New Zealand  Baxter used Christian and classical mythology to examine the human condition and the landscape of his native islands. When the fragility and shortness of human life comes into focus, material values have no importance: "In great dryness of mind I heard the voice of the sea / Reverberating, and thought: As a man / Grows older he does not want beer, bread, or the prancing flesh, / But the arms of the eater of life, Hine-nui-te-po." (from 'East Coast Journey', 1966)

In the autumn of 1968 (it was the year of student riots in Paris, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Czech Spring, and 3 days of peace & music in Woodstock), God came to Baxter in a dream and called him to go to Jerusalem without money or books, there learn Maori, "and then proceed quietly and slowly to build the nucleus of a community where the people, both Maori and pakeha, would try to live without money or books, worship God and work on the land."  Baxter subsequently founded in the late 1960s a religious commune at Hiruharama (the Maori translitteration of "Jerusalem") on the Wanganui River and renamed himself "Hemi," the Maori form of his first name. The place provided temporary refuge for refuge for hippies, alcoholics, young drug addicts, and society's rejects. 

The first community, where Baxter had spent some time, was No. 7 Boyle Crescent in Auckland. In 'Elegy for Boyle Crescent' he tells that the house was trashed by the police and eventyally the site was bulldozed. In Baxter's memories, it was a place where "the junkies loved on another'. Jerusalem, which had been the first mission station of Mother Mary Joseph Aubert (1835-1926), existed in two phases, from 1969 to 1971, when it was closed down, and again in 1972. The Maoris owned most of the land and buildings and allowed the community to use them rent-free. The nuns allowed Baxter to use a cottage that belonged to the church.

Many of Baxter's poems were written in the form of verse letters to himself. In Jerusalem Sonnets (1970) and Jerusalem Daybook (1971) he gave an account of his hard work in the community, material deprivation, and problems with the local farmers. "My belly is content enough / With two cups of tea and two bits of cake / Wehe gave me today as I sat on her doorstep, / But the night comes like a hammer cracking on an anvil" (from Jerusalem Sonnets) . Though Baxter was the figure that held the community together, he left frequently, and was not at Jerusalem when he died, but was buried there.

Baxter had started to write plays in the late 1950s, but it was not until the late 1960s, when he received recognition. Among his plays performed in Dunedin were The Band Rotunda (1967), The Sore-Footed Man (1967), The Devil and Mr Mulcahy (1967), and The Temptation of Oedipus (1970). Baxter died of a coronary thrombosis in Auckland on October 22, 1972. His funeral included both a requiem mass and a Maori tangi. Baxter's grave became a site of pilgrimage.

Baxter's work has inspired among others the poet Stephen Oliver, whose Letter To James K. Baxter appeared in 1980. Its narrator realizes that he is married and has "given over the itch / For travel, for the foreign scenery." In a mist, thick as a hallucination, is a boat, river, crew, and dog. He sees Baxter, an old hippe and his Virgil, starting his last journey down the River Styx. "As distance diminishes Charon's boat / And the pilot light burns red on the mast, / And the bollard trails on the waters a rope... / Once, twice, the chant for somebody missed: / Heart-dead in Auckland: you answered." 

For further reading: James K. Baxter by Vincent O'Sullivan (1976); James K. Baxter by Charles Doyle (1976); The Two Baxters: Diary Notes: with an Essay by Vincent O'Sullivan by P. Lawlor (1979); Letter to James K. Baxter by Stephen Oliver (1980); James K. Baxter: A Portrait by W.H. Oliver (1983); Introducing James K. Baxter by C. Parr (1983); The Life of James K. Baxter by F. McKay (1990); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); O Jerusalem: James K. Baxter: An Intimate Memoir by Mike Minehan (2002); Living in Utopia: New Zealand's Intentional Communities by Lucy Sargisson and Lyman Tower Sargent (2004); The Double Rainbow: James K Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune by John Newton (2009); The Snake-Haired Muse: James K. Baxter and Classical Myth by Geoffrey Miles, John Davidson and Paul Millar (2012)

Selected works:

  • Beyond the Palisade, 1944 (edited by Paul Millar, 1998)
  • Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness, 1948
  • Hart Crane; a poem, 1948
  • Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry, 1951
  • Poems Unpleasant, 1952 (with Louis Johnson and Anton Vogt)
  • Rapunzel: a Fantasia for Six Voices, 1953
  • The Fallen House: Poems, 1953
  • The Fire and the Anvil: Notes on Modern Poetry, 1955
  • Traveller’s Litany, 1955
  • The Iron Breadboard: Studies in New Zealand Writing, 1957
  • The Night Shift: Poems on Aspects of Love, 1957 (with Charles Doyle, Louis Johnson and Kendrick Smithyman)
  • In Fires of No Return: Poems, 1958
  • Chosen Poems, 1958
  • Two Plays: The Wide Open Cage and Jack Winter's Dream, 1959
  • Howrah Bridge and Other Poems, 1961
  • New Zealand in Colour, 1961-62 (2 vols., photographs by Kenneth and Jean Bigwood, text by James K. Baxter)
  • Three Women and the Sea, 1961
  • The Spots of the Leopard, 1962
  • The Ballad of the Soap Powder Lock-Out, 1963
  • A Selection of Poetry, 1964
  • Pig Island Letters, 1966
  • A Death Song for M. Mouldybroke, 1967
  • Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand, 1967
  • The Lion Skin: Poems, 1967
  • New Zealand in Colour, 1967 (photographs by Kenneth and Jean Bigwood, text by James K. Baxter)
  • The Man on the Horse, 1967
  • The Globe Theatre, 1968
  • The Bureaucrat, 1968 (prod.)
  • The Rock Woman: Selected Poems, 1969
  • Jerusalem Sonnets: Poems for Colin Durning, 1970
  • The Flowering Cross, 1970
  • The Devil and Mr Mulcahy, and The Band Rotunda, 1971 (plays)
  • Jerusalem Daybook, 1971
  • The Sore-Footed Man, and The Temptations of Oedipus, 1971 (plays)
  • Letter to Peter Olds: Poem, 1972
  • Six Faces of Love, 1972
  • Stonegut Sugar Works, Junkies & The Fuzz, Ode to Auckland & Other Poems, 1972
  • Ode to Auckland and Other Poems, 1972
  • Autumn Testament, 1972 (edited by Paul Millar, 1997)
  • Four God Songs, 1972
  • Runes, 1973
  • Two Obscene Poems, 1974 (an introduction by Max Harris)
  • Barney Flanagan and Other Poems, read by James K. Baxter, 1973 (record)
  • The Labyrinth: Some Uncollected Poems 1944-72, 1974.
  • The Tree House and Other Poems for Children, 1974
  • The Bone Chanter: Unpublished Poems 1945-72, 1976 (ed. and introd. by J.E. Weir)
  • The Holy Life and Death of Concrete Grady: Various Uncollected and Unpublished Poems, 1976 (ed. and introd. by J.E. Weir)
  • James K. Baxter as Critic, 1978 (a selection from his literary criticism, by Frank McKay).
  • Baxter Basics, 1979
  • Collected Poems, 1979 (edited by John Weir, reissued in 1995)
  • Collected Plays, 1982 (edited by Howard McNaughton)
  • Selected Poems, 1982
  • Horse: A Novel, 1985
  • The Essential Baxter, 1993 (selected and introduced by John Weir)
  • Cold Spring: Baxter's Unpublished Early Collection, 1996 (edited by Paul Millar)
  • New Selected Poems, 2001 (edited by Paul Millar)
  • Spark to a Waiting Fuse: James K. Baxter’s Correspondence with Noel Ginn, 1942-46, 2001 (edited and introduced by Paul Millar)
  • Selections from The Tree House: James K. Baxter’s Poems for Children, 2002 (compiled and illustrated by Eleanor Fearn)
  • Collected Poems of James K. Baxter, 2004 (edited by John Weir) 
  • James K. Baxter: Poems, 2009 (selected & introduced by Sam Hunt)
  • Selected Poems of James K. Baxter, 2009 (edited by Paul Millar)

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