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By James K. Baxter, Paul Millar
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2012 The James K. Baxter Trust
All rights reserved.
James Keir Baxter was born in Dunedin in 1926; the second son of Archibald Baxter, an Otago farmer and notorious pacifist, and Millicent Baxter (née Brown). His middle name – after the Scottish socialist and pacifist, the first British Labour MP, Keir Hardie – signified his parents' left-leaning politics. Because of Baxter's stated tendency to mythologise his life in verse, biography is important in any study. His parents' socialist and pacifist beliefs profoundly influenced him, as did their strikingly contrasting backgrounds: Archie was a quiet, self-educated man, whose ancestors had been small farmers in the Scottish Highlands; and Millicent was the strong-minded eldest daughter of a noted Christchurch professor of English and Classics, John Macmillan Brown.
Apart from brief periods in Wanganui, England and Europe, Baxter grew up in Brighton, a small settlement on the Otago Coast south of Dunedin. A lifelong suspicion of education systems developed as he first attended Brighton Primary School and later Quaker schools in Wanganui and the English Cotswolds, and Dunedin's King's High School.
The early 1940s were not a good period for pacifists: the family was suspected of spying, James was bullied, and his older brother Terence sent into detention as a military defaulter. Adolescence was therefore a solitary time, but Baxter felt that his experiences 'created a gap in which the poems were able to grow'. Indeed, between 1942 and 1946 he would draft some 600 poems.
An able, although unmotivated, student, Baxter matriculated a year early, with unspectacular results, applying himself meanwhile to reading and emulating almost the entire English poetic canon. The moderns, particularly Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day Lewis, inspired him with the voice they were giving to the social battles of the time. By his late teens he was developing a discernible voice out of adolescent imitation.
In 1944, Baxter began a 'long, unsuccessful love affair with the Higher Learning' when he enrolled at Otago University. 'Incipient alcoholism' soon became a problem, but in 1944 he also won the Macmillan Brown literary prize (for 'Convoys') and Caxton Press published his first collection, Beyond the Palisade, to critical acclaim.
This remarkable debut volume is a selection of thirty-four poems from some 500 written between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. Allen Curnow selected six poems from it for his groundbreaking anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923–45, describing Baxter's poems as 'a new occurrence in New Zealand: strong in impulse and confident in invention, with qualities of youth in verse which we have lacked'. His endorsement established Baxter's reputation before many New Zealanders had read his work.
Critics commented on Baxter's style and tone, with its mix of imitation and assimilation of numerous major poets of the English canon – Yeats, Auden, MacNeice, Keats, Blake and Shelley, to name a few. No one, however, disagreed with Curnow's observation that Baxter had also written 'some poems which could only be his and only a New Zealander's'. Despite this, Baxter privately acknowledged a certain unevenness in the volume and described it as 'a sort of poet's progress'. A second collection, Cold Spring, considered by Baxter to be somewhat better than the first, remained unpublished.
Abandoning university study, from 1945 to 1947 Baxter worked in factories and on farms. Part of this period is fictionalised in his novel Horse (1985). His struggle with alcoholism was both cause and consequence of the failure of his first significant love affair, with a young medical student. Her enduring effect, however, is evident in three poem sequences: 'Songs of the Desert', 'Cressida' and 'Words to Lay a Strong Ghost'. An even more important relationship began in 1947 when he met Jacqueline (Jacquie) Sturm.
In late 1947 Baxter moved to Christchurch, ostensibly to renew his university studies, but actually to visit a Jungian psychologist. He began incorporating Jungian symbolism into his poetic theory and practice. His behaviour, thanks to the 'irrigating river of alcohol', could be erratic as he sporadically attended lectures and took jobs as a sanatorium porter, copy editor for the Christchurch Press, and in an abattoir. He began associating with the poets Curnow and Glover, and his reading remained copious.
Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness (1948) confirmed Baxter as the preeminent poet of his generation. Where Beyond the Palisade is occasionally uneven and too obviously imitative, and the unpublished Cold Spring dense with personal symbolism, the poems of Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness have more control and assurance. Curnow was moved to describe Baxter as 'the most original of New Zealand poets now living'. He argued that if 'these poems are full of echoes, they are not the echoes of mimicry but the true, if altered, accents of other voices, inherited by right of a natural eloquence'.
The New Zealand landscape plays an important role in the poems of Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness, as it did in Beyond the Palisade. Its spaces are again sparsely peopled and consequently a tone of solitude and alienation recurs. What is new is what Curnow called a 'welcome gain in irony and detachment'. The pompous and laboured 'University Song', for example, is delightfully subverted in an 'Envoi' in which the final lines encapsulate Baxter's reservations about 'the higher learning': 'Lost one original heart and mind/ Between the pub and the lecture room.'
Baxter's interest in religion led to baptism as an Anglican, and, despite considerable parental concern, he and Jacquie were married in St John's Cathedral, Napier, in 1948. That same year they moved to Wellington, where their daughter Hilary was born in 1949.
Beyond the Palisade
My soul as censer clear
In a translucent breast
Shall burn, while dawn-clouds lower,
With inner rest.
Beyond the palisade
Shall I communion hold
Nor turn my steps aside
For malice manifold.
The veil that sways unseen
Above a frozen sea
Breaks to the spirit sane
No law shall be obeyed
No compass-guide save one
'Seek out thine own abode
By solitary sun.'
Dim figures that I frame
And on the night behold
Shall be writ large in flame
Ere anarchy is old.
The full self-confidence
May fall bereft from me
While in soul-mocking dance
The splendid visions flee.
Yet shall I hold in all
The faith that none may see –
The inmost citadel
Of strong integrity.
In this scarred country, this cold threshold land,
The mountains crouch like tigers. By the sea
Folk talk of them hid vaguely out of sight.
But here they stand in massed solidity
To seize upon the day and night horizon.
Men shut within a whelming bowl of hills
Grow strange, say little when they leave their high
Yet buried homesteads. Return there silently
When thunder of night-rivers fills the sky
And giant wings brood over loftily and near.
The mountains crouch like tigers. Or they wait
As women wait. The mountains have no age.
But O the heart leaps to behold them loom!
A sense as of vast fate rings in the blood. No refuge,
No refuge is there from the flame that reaches
Among familiar things and makes them seem
Trivial, vain. O spirit walks on the peaks!
Eye glances across a gorge to further crags.
There is no desire. But the stream, but the avalanche speaks,
And their word is louder than freedom, the mountain embrace
Were a death dearer than freedom or freedom's flags.
I will go to the coastline and mingle with men.
These mountain buttresses build beyond the horizon.
They call. But he whom they lay their spell upon
Leaves home, leaves kindred. The range of the telescope's eye
Is well, if the brain follows not to the outermost fields of vision.
I shall drown myself in humanity. Better to lie
Dumb in the city than under the mountainous wavering sky.
The mountains crouch like tigers.
They are but stone yet the seeking eyes grow blind.
The calm of summer burns, a steady flame.
And a wolf-spider near me
prowls, his smooth
back like wood-splinters; on the sleek paint
of the verandah he
sways and pirouettes. I blow on
him, and he is still a moment.
Flies flicker. A circular saw
droning, ringing, clanging
gashes the air with blades of sound:
and sensual the
awareness of new-cut saplings bitten
by bitter blades bitten.
a butterfly crosses the
jostle beneath him
and seeded flowers ripen.
The smoke-green wattle patterns
light and shade.
The air like water murmurs
shaking small birch leaves:
the earth like fire responding;
and the sun moves over my hair
with sweaty fingers.
A farm of corrugated iron roof
cuts the curve of grass dunes;
metallic foliage against
the new-wrought ploughland.
Avalanche on avalanche
over it at
the scrub-hill horizon
baroque clouds billow
snow-crystal on the blue
snow-crystal on the blue
(the Venusberg to young Tannhäuser calling).
The wolf-spider moves beside me
prey in his fangs.
6 March 1944 1944
Letter to Noel Ginn
They can admire the empty lion-skin
The heart skewered by print, who will admire:
But from you, Noel, I wish more –
The friend's stance, confessor for my sin
Which is pride alone: yet pride alone will win
Niche of immortal marble despised and hungered for.
As a child I was childish ... an intuitional ease;
Had missed the vice of sensitivity;
Waded the flood-race of a century;
But felt capacity for pain increase
Till each day no longer a wood of peace
Held larks of Shelleyan song, tigers of poetry.
& When I saw Europe ... a kaleidoscope
Fluttered, flashed elusive in place of the grave
Time-wading fortitude: – oil-weighted wave
Feathering bows forever; blind seascape;
Nights of storm, screw thudding; Gibraltar cape –
Peered through field-glasses, played chess till nausea claimed her slave.
Or earlier: in Australia the hot days;
Mast-cracking Sydney bridge; golden Colombo
With fishing-fleets on estuaries to show
A bird's plumage, a bird's surf-shadowing ways;
A camel scrubbed upon the banks near Suez;
Crete's iron citadel; and Plymouth bitter with snow.
London claimed me: she was heavy and huge;
Her barges, and her dank wharves flecked with soot;
Placarded Tubes; and fog at Christmas; mute
Paling and palace. The Cotswolds were a refuge:
Leaf-mould ... stone ... thatched roofs ... blackberry hedge;
Lanes, willows ... snow-slush; bells; homesickness; running the gauntlet.
Europe claimed me: then she did not bleed.
Flat Danish fields, yellow sky spun by the rocking
Express; and at Copenhagen seabirds flocking
Along quays. The rock Rhine towered and treed;
Clean Berlin; at Eisenach sycamore seed;
Rothenberg ... dungeons; friendly Storm Trooper ... the wind is mocking.
France: where the Rhône ran under concrete;
Sewer at bridge-base. Out of the violent sun
I wrote poems, scrapped poems half-begun
On clouds and comets. A tower seen from the street:
Skeletons found there. Bats. Snake at my feet.
The castle ... Terry's arm broken; when set, he sweated with pain.
And Scotland was my spiritual home,
Or so it seemed. The tide ancestral swung
Over rock-weed. I plucked the bells of ling;
Saw bald Glencoe ... and watched the red-coats come.
Old Edinburgh ... were the cobbles dumb?
England again: Boscastle ... crags and a blowhole spouting.
– Here once more I walk in the troubled water.
Our hills call: but what shall I learn from them?
Pride bids me stare upon the broken time
Of lies and high explosive; prompts this letter.
With pride for armour men in their abattoir laughter.
Pride holds me from like hells: pride makes me what I am.
What land shall receive me save as a stranger?
Sea-blown Ulysses said: and Ithaca
More alien was than Troy. Nor could Minerva
Content him long: aged he craved for danger
For withered fame. So Time was Troy's avenger.
Slight parallel ... yet seek I res habita.
The same inhuman cataclysm that set
You weeding flax upon a worthless ground
Both truth and talent to a treadmill bound
Leaves me upon a waiting Ararat:
(The flood may not subside): no marionette
Jerked by the city string, nor in her rubble drowned.
Both clouds and houses are a frozen tide
Till poetry inhabit them with fire.
Men only stay, their masque and their desire;
Thus among men I move my tap-roots wide
The roots of verse, the roots of life beside;
Leave empty lion-skin for dullards to admire.
Women as flowers: they are embodiment
Of the gross earth and the rhetorical cloud;
But shaped as bird, as flower to strange and loud.
... A span of threescore and the heart is spent:
This word invades, but I have armament –
The gift of ancestry, the armour of the proud.
The backward groping of a tree of blood
Coils in the dark: but from its mountain springs
Brings mountain pride, and brings
Each impulse of the evil and the good,
With something of a Celtic hardihood:
The pain and poetry ... I did not dream these things.
Those who grew old: those who were shrewd and hardy;
As children wondered and as men grew sure:
They are but painted figures insecure
Upon a tattered backcloth tamed and tardy.
And we their unreflecting progeny
Forget, inherit: thus their deeds, their deaths endure.
My son, at first a knocking in the womb
Can speak beyond the thundering gates of war,
Symplegades: it is his voice I hear;
And my son's son; braving the storms of time
The storms and sultry shallows – vortex, storm,
They beat on us, they break: pride is the saviour.
The First Forgotten
O fons Bandusiae!
The green hill-orchard where
My great-granduncle lived
Is overgrown. No cache and no reprieve
The chilly air holds. They came from the
Old lands, for hunger, or fearing the young
Would shoot from thicket a keeper,
Be transported or hung.
So beholding the strange reeds,
Arrogant flax and fen,
They saw release, eventual and ancestral peace,
Building the stubborn clans again:
Beehives along an elderberry fence ...
The land is drained. Gorse
Only will grow. To the towns now
Their sons' sons gone, expanding universe:
A light and brittle birth.
I would glorify
Innumerable men in whose breasts my heart once beat,
Is beating. They were slow to die.
One who drove a bullock team
In the gold-rush on an upland track.
One smiling and whistling softly
With a horseshoe behind his back.
Steel mutilates: more, the hollow
Facade, the gaudy mask
On a twisted face. Clay-shut, forgetful, shall
They answer? we ask?
Only the rough and paper bark peeling
From young bluegums, while undergrowth
Among stunted apple-trees coiling
Trips the foot. Sods grass-buried like antique faith.
Among these hills our fathers came.
By strength of eye and hand alone
They built: and murmur loud as flame
Their voices from the living stone.
Forget not those whom Scotland bred
Above whose bones our cities stand.
Forget not them! nor the unknown dead
Whose broken veins flow through our land.
As streams in wildernesses rise
And green the desolate shingle plain:
So under windy southern skies
Peace flowered and Wisdom shall remain.
The generations rouse and pass
Like falling birds to well of night,
Or like the windsown summer grass
Now tall, now withered in our sight.
But our sons' sons alike shall find
Perpetual, though nations cease,
Within these walls the quiet mind
The storm-unshaken rose of Peace.
Envoi [to 'University Song']
And blackened by the early frost
Leaves beat upon the window pane
Like paper mouths – an image lost
Between the eyeball and the brain.
Above, about, on either hand
Their multitudinous seven wings
The uncreated winds expand
In sufferance of created things.
Where evening darkening in dejection
Can hear, monotonous, profound
The too long dead for resurrection
In suspiration from the ground –
Attenuate ghosts expound their lean
Philosophies of When and If;
And oft on that enchanted green
Chimera mates with hippogriff.
The classics student feels an urge
To emulate Empedocles
But rides upon the lava surge –
Oh forest of the bloody trees –
Per ardua ad astra: blind
Inscription from a catacomb.
Lost, one original heart and mind
Between the pub and lecture-room.
High Country Weather
Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.
Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.
4 October 1945 1948
Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness
Blow, wind of fruitfulness
Blow from the buried sun:
Blow from the buried kingdom
Where heart and mind are one.
Blow, wind of fruitfulness,
The murmuring leaves remember;
For deep in doorless rock
Awaits their green September.
Excerpted from Selected Poems by James K. Baxter, Paul Millar. Copyright © 2012 The James K. Baxter Trust. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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