Selected Poems: James K. Baxter

Selected Poems: James K. Baxter

by James K. Baxter, Paul Millar

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Divided into four stages to reflect the development of James K. Baxter’s work from the 1940s to 1972, this innovative assortment combines the poet’s widely known poems with more unusual and previously unpublished works. Placing these works in the context of global poetic developments during the mid-20th century, the collection showcases Baxter’s


Divided into four stages to reflect the development of James K. Baxter’s work from the 1940s to 1972, this innovative assortment combines the poet’s widely known poems with more unusual and previously unpublished works. Placing these works in the context of global poetic developments during the mid-20th century, the collection showcases Baxter’s preferred position as a principled outsider—covering everything from mythology and religion, memory and death, Maori culture and the New Zealand landscape to travels to India and Japan and protesting the Vietnam War. Indicating the full breadth of Baxter’s writing, the selection pleases and surprises both new readers and those familiar with his poetry.

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Selected Poems

By James K. Baxter, Paul Millar

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2012 The James K. Baxter Trust
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-901-4


THE 1940S

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
        In multiplicity.

    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.

    1942 1944

    The Mountains

    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.

    1942 1944

    Love-Lyric III

    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.
        Gliding and
    a butterfly crosses the
    oval flower-plot;
    iceland poppies
    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.

    1944 1944


    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.

            1944 1944


    University Song

    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.

            1945 1948


    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.

            1946 1948


    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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James K. Baxter was a dramatist, a literary critic, a social commentator, and the preeminent New Zealand poet of his generation. He published several poetry collections, including Beyond the Palisade; Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness; and In Fires of No Return. Paul Millar is a lecturer in English at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He wrote a television documentary on James K. Baxter.

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