new zealand electronic poetry centre



After bathing at Baxter’s

Gregory O’Brien

Originally published in Sport 11, Spring 1993


Liner notes for an album

‘You were a bird and you lived very high
rode on the wind when a breeze blew by
said to the wind as it blew you away
that’s where I wanted to go today . . .
and I didn’t know that I need to have you around . . .’
(‘The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil’, Jefferson Airplane,
After Bathing at Baxter’s , RCA, 1967)

In the photograph I am seventeen and have recently moved north to Dargaville. I am riding the Railways bus from Auckland on a hot Sunday afternoon after two days’ reprieve from the small town. Falling asleep, face pressed up against the warm glass of the window, the pink Price Milburn edition of Jerusalem Sonnets rests in my lap. I have just read ‘Poem for Colin 22’, we are nearing Wellsford and I am thinking how Baxter has left no room for anyone else to write poetry in this country.


A few years later I am on a bus from Sydney to Melbourne, passing through Goulburn. It is 1982 and the Collected Poems, Baxter’s, follows me around. A travelling doorstop. Just outside the town of Goulburn, I notice a dilapidated billboard with the following slogan writ large:

S T A M P   O U T   B A R E   F E E T
B A X T E R ’ S   S H O E S

Whenever making the Sydney/Melbourne road journey during the early 1980s, I always found this sign an occasion to reflect on the writer who certainly put bare feet on the map of New Zealand literature. When visiting Australia in 1987, I discovered the billboard had disappeared—as, I suspect, had the small-town shoe factory.


In the early 1980s, the painters Nigel Brown and Philip Clairmont wrote an irate letter to the New Zealand Listener complaining about the imposition of an admission fee by the family on whose front lawn Baxter is buried. The walk up to Baxter’s grave at Jerusalem will still cost you a couple of dollars if you’re not Catholic and well connected. If you happen to be a member of the Catholic clergy you’ll get to
visit the grave for nothing and probably be invited in for dinner as well—a pot full of boiled sausages, a plate of glowing white bread (like the glowing white gravestone, inscribed HEMI, beyond the dusty green lawn which is regularly mown by a fastidious electric weed-eater).

      Baxter, in the afterlife, continues the same paradoxical, com-promised existence he suffered, bemoaned and celebrated up until his death in 1972. Baxter’s Romanticism, in all its permutations, is probably one of the reasons he isn’t such a useful cog in the wheel of current literary discourse and as a result has fallen from critical favour—just as that aspect in e.e. cummings’s work led to years of neglect. (On the subject of Romanticism, it’s worth noting that Thomas Merton, in a 1936 essay, recorded 11,394 definitions of the term ‘Romantic’.)


‘Turning brown and torn in two’[1]

Something that strikes me, reading Baxter, is a curious lack of any real mysticism. Oddly, for someone who wrote and talked extensively about the reflective life, Baxter never achieved anything like the meditative or monastic state. Stillness, detachment, profound silence are all qualities hard to associate with any phase of Baxter’s life. Interestingly, of the Nine Permanent Emotions of Indian mystical thought—

the heroic
the mirthful
the wondrous
the erotic


the odious

—tranquillity is the only one Baxter never quite embodied. While the poems hanker after a coherent and convincing spirituality, they seldom attain it. Perhaps because Baxter was too immersed in this world, or else obsessively opposed to it. Militancy and monasticism are tricky weights to balance.

      He was also obsessed with the externalisation of his beliefs and perceptions—he couldn’t internalise them—and, as a result, the process they enacted tended to be a public rather than a private one. Critic Alan Riach points to ‘Baxter’s erratic but easily identifiable procedure as a “ maximalist” poet: the social vision he implies in his poetry is one he wished to extend in material terms to the organisation and functioning of society itself’.

      In hindsight, the poet’s legendary barefoot walks up the River Road to Jerusalem appear more like masochism or showmanship than a convincing display of self-control and transcendence. You could easily think it was a kind of vanity that kept Baxter so bedraggled and ill-kempt. In removing himself from the bounds of society’s expectations and propriety, he was—unconsciously perhaps—raising himself above that society. And, from there, he could sit in judgement on it.


Following in the great New Zealand tradition of the jack-of-all-trades, Baxter set himself up as an amateur theologian. His ‘religious’ books—The Flowering Cross, Thoughts about the Holy Spirit, The Six Faces of Love—have energy and conviction, but suffer on account of their erratic learning and hurried composition. Neither entirely works of theology nor of mysticism, his writings don’t ascribe to either of the two strands or modes of religious thought. Without a deep understanding of theology as a system and without the truly revelatory insights of a mystic, Baxter’s religious writings are marooned somewhere in the middle, on their own peculiar ground. They remain most interesting for what they reveal of their author and the fruity 1960s. They also throw a curious albeit sometimes unflattering light on the poetry, emphasising, as they do, the weaknesses instead of the strengths.


The right substance

As a child—c.1970—the Woodstock music festival and Baxter’s Jerusalem commune were indistinguishable in my mind. I recall seeing in the Listener and daily newspapers the identical muddy rivers, the pale, distantly naked bodies. And, in hindsight, I recall the same soundtrack—it is Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s.


While Baxter embraced the counterculture, its values and vocabulary, with a wholehearted commitment and sincerity, from the 1990s the epoch appears a brief, self-defeating cultural moment, no longer particularly relevant or illuminating. It was an excessive and, in all sorts of ways, a makeshift era. Baxter’s poems occasionally suffer the same muddle and self-delusion that befell Jefferson Airplane’s epoch-defining album After Bathing at Baxter’s (released in December 1967). Perhaps it was the breadth of Baxter’s genius that he could incorporate the language, world view, mannerisms and even clichés of an era within poems like ‘Autumn Testament’, yet the poetry is undiminished—at best, it is given a new life, the ‘poetic’ and the ‘non-poetic’ entering into a counterpoint, the end result of which is integrated and wholly poetic.

      Jerusalem-period Baxter does ask you to swallow quite a lot of the author’s personal beliefs and views. The reader has to grapple with a kind of hippie Catholicism, an extreme anti-materialism (but one that’s not entirely convincing—Baxter went on about giving up, as well as physical possessions, ‘mental possessions’ including poems. But, if anything, his writing only accelerated right up until the time of his death).

      By the late 1960s, Baxter had filtered out of his poetry much that was baroque or dressed up, ornamental or purely ‘literary’. [2] His poetry had shed a great many skins by the time he began his last poems: the late sonnets, a few religious songs and some diatribes against the police, the state, the folks at home. While the late poetry constantly risks being heavy-handed and overblown, for Baxter that was a far lesser sin than being effete or ineffectual. Baxter was, after all, a man with a mission.


Far out

While late Baxter could often be accused of grandstanding and sermonising, at least he hardly ever indulged in that other great 60s pursuit, weirdness (the out-of-it instrumentation, the exoticism [3] ). Elements in Baxter’s late vocabulary have dated rather badly (the alternative lifestyle terminology where police are ‘fuzz’, women ‘chicks’, drug addicts ‘junkies’, and people are addressed as ‘Man’), but compared with the members of Jefferson Airplane he now appears a very conservative, responsible hippie indeed. Perhaps the drugs weren’t as good down here.

      How Baxter would align himself, twenty years after his death, now that the so-called counterculture and the dominant culture are so thoroughly interwoven, is anybody’s guess.


An era, an institution

‘It’s a wild tyme . . .’
(‘Wild Tyme (h)’, Jefferson Airplane, After Bathing at Baxter’s)

Essentially, Baxter wasn’t trying to kick-start a ground-breaking new experiment at Jerusalem, he was trying to reactivate and reinterpret a form of tribal life that was there before—on the Whanganui River in the form of Maori life. He was also invoking the spirit of Eric Gill’s Ditchling or Capel Y Ffin (like Gill, Baxter retreated further and further from the ‘corrupt’ city but, paradoxically, was always drawn back there). His communal ideals fell somewhere between the Utopian socialists and the spirit of late 1960s communes in North America.

      It was an era of simplifications and wishful thoughts—of imaginative flying machines winging their way above the corrupt and unbeautiful cities. [4] Like Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, Baxter at Jerusalem believed that filling an old house with down-at-heel people could be a kind of restoration of what was meaningful and responsible in human society. Unfortunately, while the Utopian, idealistic establishment can exist happily as a high-flying idea, it has a tendency, whenever it touches ground, to undo itself—just like Gill’s Ditchling. Baxter’s community of people would never be able to match his community of words.


For the love of

‘You’ve got the whole world in your hands . . .’

( Mastercard Visa ad campaign, 1993)

Ezra Pound muttered across a dinner table or in print that the two great topics of poetry are God and Money—two items seldom lacking from the Baxterian agenda, but two topics (one he believed in, one he heaped scorn upon) not really given much space in current discussion of poetry.


A man with a mission

‘It is not the worldly eclecticism of multiple knowledge that enriches but perseverance in a favourable furrow and the loving silent effort of a whole life.’ (Georges Rouault)

For the twelfth anniversary of Baxter’s death, Father Eugene O’Sullivan, of the Catholic chaplaincy at Auckland University, organised a memorial poetry reading and exhibition. The reading itself was a memorable, slightly incongruous affair involving perhaps sixty people—nuns, elderly flower children, academics, potters, poets and painters. I recall the American writer Bill Millett arriving with poet/critic Iain Sharp, both wearing white shirts, black trousers, jackets and shoes, looking every bit like the Blues Brothers. [5] At one point during the Newman Hall reading, Bill Millett stood up and recounted how Baxter, in his last days, had worked at Millett’s Psychedelic Poster Shop in Mt Eden Road. Millett remembered Baxter as ‘a hopeless worker with useless hands . . . he couldn’t do anything with them’. As the story goes, the job didn’t last long and the poet’s life only a little longer.


Like the Newman Hall reading, these notes might themselves be a kind of ‘wake’, an attempt to see who, twenty years after Baxter’s death, would turn up for such a function.

      Millett’s offsider at the Newman Hall function, Iain Sharp, published three books of verse in the early to mid-1980s. Sharp’s poems, like those of Bill Manhire, provide an interesting, off-key counterpoint to Baxter’s, a mischievous gloss. Both Sharp and Manhire usually incorporate a central talking/feeling/seeing poet-persona within the work—only theirs is a Pierrot-like clown mutation of the Poet with a capital P. They set out to sabotage the reader’s expectations instead of confronting them head on. They play the Disappearing or Invisible Man to Baxter’s Omnipresent Man. Of all the conversations with Baxter’s shade at this imaginary wake, Manhire’s and Sharp’s are the most oblique and the most amusing.

How to relax in this world,
that’s the real question . . .
(‘The Real Question’, Iain Sharp, 1985)


‘James K. Baxter memorial paperweight’

Bill Manhire comes back from a South Island holiday with a car boot containing selected stones from the Matukituki Valley. These he bestows on various friends, mentioning their origin and the origin of Baxter’s ‘Poem in the Matukituki Valley’. ‘E, Brother,’ he says, hinting at one factor curiously absent in James K. Baxter—a sense of self-irony.

      The stone is smooth and always cold: a fragment of riverbed lost to its river. It occurs to me that self-irony can coexist with the deepest meaning and sincerity.


Suburban maze

An image recurs of the young, reluctant schoolteacher Baxter at Epuni Primary School in Lower Hutt. He is horizontal atop the school’s jungle gym. The sky above is turbulent, the skyline interrupted only by trees and the roofs of surrounding houses. Scarves of smoke flap from the chimneys. Baxter is wrestling with the jungle gym as if it were a diabolical monster—a mechanical mutation of something invented by Fuseli. Baxter is riding the back of the beast. The air above the surrounding field shifts ever so slightly. The grass twitches. But he is going nowhere.


It’s worth noting that the suburban/family life so slagged off in Baxter’s poems—the suburban malaise, as he thought of it—has reappeared in recent poetry in quite a different guise. Jenny Bornholdt, Andrew Johnston and Damien Wilkins are three youngish poets brought up in Lower Hutt who feel that their origins are worth a serious, affectionate yet often ironic look. This supposed battle zone between Calvinism or Capitalism and the Individual can be glimpsed in the work of these poets as a curious, paradoxical place bathed in golden evening light—hardly a Celtic twilight, more like a Robin Morrison photograph—acknowledging the possibility that people growing up and living in such settings can have rich inner lives. And the suburban ground can, after all, yield meaningful images and symbols. It’s a site as valid as Hiruharama or the Matukituki Valley (but without the inbuilt, auto-pilot Romanticism of the wilderness).

      In the current batch of poets, there’s a glee, a Dadaist indulgence in word and image—a mobility or levity—reflecting the fact that, for much of post-Baby Boom New Zealand, the most important formative reading experience wasn’t necessarily the Bible (or, for that matter, the New Zealand Tablet), but was just as likely to have been The Reader’s Digest, Best Bets and quite possibly the surf magazine Tracks.

      The newer generation is more accepting of the surface chaos of life, without resorting to radical political or spiritual remedies. Their poems imply that the view from a speeding bicycle is at least as valid as the view from an ivory tower or pulpit.

Pedal at first, then let the road take you down
into the dark as black as underground
broken by circles of yellow lowered by the street lights . . .
(‘Instructions for how to get ahead of yourself while the light
still shines’, from Moving House, Jenny Bornholdt, Victoria University Press, 1989)

You can also track a general movement away from symbolism, towards imagism in poetry like that quoted above. Here light and darkness don’t rely on theological connotations to attain many layers of meaning—the world is multilayered and profound enough just as it is. And, as life is experienced as a series of disorderly, often inexplicable fragments, a viable method of ‘writing it’ is as a series of poetic fragments. Particularly in the work of Bornholdt and Johnston, there is no searching for blueprints or master plans, just an acceptance that life is, essentially, as it is experienced—i.e. all over the place (reflecting an authorial stance and ‘momentary’ focus you could indeed source to The Reader’s Digest’s ‘Life’s Like That’ column).


Muddy river

It looks almost beautiful from a distance, especially with the sky reflected in it. But would you get in it?

      Only occasionally blue, the Whanganui River is Baxter’s ‘slow, brown god’; repository of history and spirituality, but also courier for the sewage and waste of the town of Taumarunui and for all the chemicals and slop from thousands of acres of farmland.

      Like the Whanganui River, New Zealand poetry is an impure stream, with numerous tributaries, offshoots, and debris floating downriver. The larger-than-life, yet somehow elusive, figure of James K. Baxter, instead of helping to clarify or define this river, has served only to muddy it further. Baxter could be thought of, conveniently, as a marker buoy or beacon—run-down, largely ignored, obscured by Time and its various tides, but still standing and issuing noisy instructions.


It’s difficult to gauge the extent of Baxter’s influence over younger New Zealand poets because different people have taken different things—no school or convenient grouping has been forthcoming. However, while there are no obvious angles, there are vistas of refracted light and echoes or resonances.

      Because Baxter was such a singular prophet-like figure, towering in his brilliance, his idiosyncrasy, his rightness and his wrongness, no one was going to directly inherit the role or step into his shoes. He served to atomise New Zealand poetry, leaving a chaos or variousness in his wake. I suspect few younger poets would be comfortable with having the label BAXTER or BAXTERIAN stamped on any of their luggage, let alone on their person. But I’m left with a curious image after reading poetry by the younger writers of the 1980s.

      I imagine a formation of young poets walking into the distance. Unbeknown to them, there are mirrors on their backs. And in these mirrors Baxter is reflected, sometimes distorted and dishevelled, at other times appearing transcendental, saintly. The poets themselves are confidently walking into the future, instead of dwelling on this or any other past. But they still bear the image of Baxter on their backs.


By the time he reached Jerusalem, Baxter was advocating ‘free expression’ in both art and life. The fact that he was able to be himself and be brilliant at the same time sets him apart from the majority of writers who have followed. Even when discarding ‘art’s cloak’, his work is still permeated with a sense of that ‘art’, its tradition. What weaknesses and excesses the poet allows emerge as—to use Clement Greenberg’s phrase—‘the necessary awkwardness and faux pas of original creation’. When Baxter is ‘bad’ he is choosing to be, unlike some of his contemporaries or successors.

      On the other hand, few poets in the 1990s could be accused of the excesses Baxter manifested in both art and life—perhaps now that the staple crop of the counterculture is the bean sprout, not the marijuana plant, everyone has become less self- centred and ultimately more responsible.


Since the 70s there has been a widespread—but little discussed—tendency for the poem to be treated less as a crafted or ‘made’ artwork and more as the direct and urgent vehicle through which the poet vents his or her spleen.

      That was the note Baxter went out on—witness his last dated poem, ‘Ode to Auckland’. The conviction and overtly stated political intent in Baxter’s ode aren’t very far removed from the ‘protest’ poetry of recent years, usually penned by women or Maori poets—Roma Potiki, Janet Charman, Heather McPherson, Apirana Taylor, to name a few. [6] These poets have a far greater allegiance to Baxter than, say, to Curnow. Like the later Baxter, theirs is a poetry with a purpose—it is a stick with which to beat the narrow-minded and the power-wielders. It can be a cry from the heart, a primal scream even. Such ‘message’ poetry is aimed at a broader audience than the usual poetry crowd. Its relationship to its constituency is usually simple and direct—a broadcast on behalf of, as well as to, those of like heart and mind.

      Baxter also anticipated the ‘ paua shell goddess’ alternative spirituality embraced by many artists and writers since the 1970s. His Catholicism often wandered off in the direction of pantheism, his work incorporating this, as well as a poetically useful animism and a few errant strains of Zen Buddhism. For a lighter-hearted manifest- ation of these now widespread spiritual fixations, you could turn to the anarchic, cranky poetry of Iain Sharp:

In their most religious moments
the zen masters look like bandits . . .
Oh I love them. I love them.
I want to be one of their number.
I want to throw off my cardigan,
my socks, my shirt, my trousers,
don a tattered old kimono,
pick up my swag in a handkerchief
on the end of a bamboo pole,
and go where the reeds sway softly,
and the heron slices bare sky.
(‘Zen Art for Meditation’, Iain Sharp, She is trying to kidnap the blind person, Hard Echo Press, 1985)

Keri Hulme’s poems manifest a localised spirituality, not exactly inherited from Baxter, but similarly sourced in an awareness of Maoritanga, a mystification of place, and a belief in the prophetic and oracular role of the poet. Hulme also indulges in a certain self- mythologisation which is very much in the Baxter mould—the poet as sounding board for the cosmos, as the stage on which various theological and ideological battles are fought.


Baxter’s integration of poetry and prose in books like Jerusalem Daybook foreshadows the emergence of the prose-poem as a viable form in local writing. His ‘Elegy for Boyle Crescent’ consisted of a series of prose fragments and appeared in Islands 1 (Spring, 1972), where it was listed in the journal’s contents as ‘Verse’, a radical redefinition for its time. Since then, the prose-poem has been a minor but noteworthy stream in New Zealand poetry. Writers including Murray Edmond, Jenny Bornholdt, Michael Harlow, Dinah Hawken, Michael Morrissey and Miro Bilbrough, to name a few, have pursued it.

      Another late-Baxter form, the journal or diary shuffling between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’—ultimately avoiding any distinction—has been developed by writers including Hulme, Bornholdt, Anne Kennedy and Cilla McQueen. Rob Allan has also picked up the extended poem sequence in his Karitane Postcards (1991). Here Baxter’s series of ‘letters’ is given a more contemporary permutation by way of a series of ‘postcards’. And, as is the case with postcards, the writing can be as cryptic and fragmented as it chooses to be. The communication can be as impressionistic or relaxed as the postcard format suggests.


A sequence of sonnets

‘I’d really like to see if he thinks in sonnets . . . ’
(Michael O’Leary, Out of It, Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, 1987)

Since the Jerusalem Sonnets, the locally produced sonnet sequence has been constantly revived and reinvented. A history of the post-1972 New Zealand sonnet sequence would have to include—for a start—C. K. Stead, Ian Wedde, Dinah Hawken, Leigh Davis, Robert Sullivan and Michele Leggott.

      Ian Wedde was one of the first to pick up the long-winded sonnet sequence. He made it even hipper and smarter than Baxter managed, dropping the Catholic mysticism and replacing it with a humanism and animism derived from Pablo Neruda, among others. In Earthly, Wedde’s sonnets are faster moving than Baxter’s, more convoluted and riddled with literary allusions and echoes. They play an inter-nationalist tune against Baxter’s predominantly nationalist one and reflect to some degree modernism’s replacement with a local version of postmodernism which has swayed, if not dominated, New Zealand poetry in recent years.

      Wedde also drops the poet-persona fair and square in the centre of the poem, which is where Baxter liked him to be. Although Wedde, like Graham Lindsay, clouds that persona in irony and complexity—we read ‘him’ as a literary construct as well as a version of the poet himself. Poet and poem undercut each other. There’s a slippage which Baxter would never have allowed, content as he was to play Jeremiah, to secure himself a seat and to sit on it.


River with eels

Graham Lindsay, particularly in his first book, Thousand Eyed Eel, picked up and processed a lot of Baxter—the barefoot on the ground realist, the commingling of the commonplace and the spiritual, of life in the suburbs and life breaking out of those suburbs.

     Lindsay is still walking the same floor as Baxter, only more self-consciously so. Whereas Baxter used the Self as an anchor or poetic cornerstone, seeing and experiencing everything in relation to it, Lindsay acknowledges language itself as an unstable and unpredictable force within the poem, capable of relegating the ‘poetic self’ to the back seat. In contrast, Baxter always handled language as though
it was the surest, truest thing the poet had at his disposal (an unfashionable view in these postmodern times). Lindsay’s approach weakens or fragments the authorial voice, giving the work a more objective and ambiguous quality. The poem becomes a craggy and idiosyncratic mechanism but—and this is much to Lindsay’s credit—remains grounded in a common, or shared, reality. The reader is rarely left behind or lost in the slipstream.

      Graham Lindsay comes closer to being the ‘the postmodern Baxter’ than anyone. His allegiance with Baxter has decreased over the years, but back in 1980 he was even prepared to send a few lines down into the ground where Baxter lies buried:

Can you hear me down there
There’re no lights on in the tophouse
now you know that the windows got broken?
Nga tamariki have grown up & left you old man
alone in that hole.
Oh I cd get you out
with a spade & a jemmy. I’d make that special trip.
Tho I guess yr hair is grey
and the flesh has dropt away
after four years what would be left
but bone & sack.
Still I would embrace you . . .
(from ‘The Embrace’,   Public, Ridge Pole, 1980)


A path up the river

Jacques Maritain’s definition of poetry as a ‘divination of the spiritual in the realm of the senses, to be expressed in the same realm’ is useful here.

      Contemporary writers walking a loosely related ‘spiritual’ floor to Baxter include poets like Bernadette Hall, Joanna Margaret Paul and, in a veiled and private way, Elizabeth Smither. They share a reflective Catholicism, Zen-like in its concentration on using the ‘concrete’ to reveal the ‘spiritual’—a catholic, in the sense of universal, notion of accepting the world, contradictions and all, yet still managing to see beyond the limitations of contemporary society, its politics and ugliness. A more accommodating approach, then, than that of Baxter, who often got no further than staring down the barrel of his poetry at the society he so tirelessly rejected.

      The sensitivity and pared-down language of Hall and Paul is a long way from the badgering tone and prolific noise of Baxter. Their delicacy of touch, their cultivation of stillness, is ultimately more akin to both Eastern and Western meditative traditions.

for ming

All the best things
start in small rooms
where a few gather
& talk & eat & laugh
& kindle & spill like
candles in paper cups.
(Bernadette Hall, Of Elephants Etc, Untold Books, 1990)

Although her recent writing has become denser and more elaborate, Bernadette Hall’s poetry—and the spirituality it encapsulates which is by no means a conventional Catholicism—is a poetry in which:

                  All the windows
are open. Ivory tides wash out, wash in
& you sing the mysteries: that love
is a gift; that nothing is ever lost;
that death is the centre of a long life.
(Bernadette Hall, ‘ Amica’, Heartwood, Caxton, 1989)


A note on reduction

Language, in Joanna Margaret Paul’s poetry, is frequently drawn back to monosyllables, the plain words of common prayer. In her writing and visual art work, she culls all superficial or superfluous elements, removing everything that is not intrinsic.

though grass may die
its roots remain
and shoot again
at the year’s prime,
not so my pain
its root is green
its shooting time
needs no spring rain
(from ‘2 Versions of a Chinese Poem’, Joanna Paul, A Chronology, Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui , 1989)

Joanna Paul is concerned more with the cultivation of space than with the using up or domination of that space. The poems have an objective feel—a sense of pictorial space, the careful placement of object/image within the poem, and a sense of composition (the harmonic blending of sounds and materials into a coherent, yet strangely ‘open’, picture).

      There’s a receptiveness to the unordered natural world which contrasts with Baxter’s constant need to read natural phenomena as part of his autobiography or inner journey.

      Baxter was after a kind of reduction to essentials, if not always in his poetry (which sometimes tended towards the verbose) then at least on a personal level, as he sought to enact a ‘primitive’ Catholicism which shunned materialism, the cluttering of one’s life with money, possessions, worldly aspirations. In a social sense, Baxter’s Jerusalem community was striving for this kind of reductionism, renouncing the trappings and trivialities which not only dominate but define modern life.

      Poets like Joanna Paul and Bernadette Hall succeed in attaining a purity of intention and form in their work. What is possible within their private worlds proved impossible for Baxter as he continually grappled with the world at large, characteristically overstepping the mark of what was humanly, individually achievable to embrace Utopian, communal ideals.

      The tragedy of Baxter is that, while he was aware of the individual’s need for spiritual and mental ‘ realisation’ (and acknowledged this as a prerequisite for social life), only his poetry proved capable of such realisation—in both his public and private lives it eluded him.

      Like Hall and Paul, Michele Leggott manifests a minimalism or elementalism—her poems are mindscapes across which images and forms (of language, of speech) drift. But for all their floatingness they present a worked-over, intellectualised universe. The poems offer a secular take on territory similar to that of Joanna Paul, invoking, as they go, the lineage of Objectivism, from William Carlos Williams to Louis Zukofsky to Lorine Niedecker. In having a secular base as opposed to a transcendental one, Leggott’s relationship to poets like Paul and Hall can be seen as a refreshing, warm-spirited variation on—or revision of—the Baxter/C. K. Stead stand-off of the 1960s.


New Zealand in black and white

The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates. (Goethe)

Though Mr Baxter’s works cover a wide field, he writes always and primarily as a New Zealander; and for this reason his comments on the photographic sequence New Zealand in Colourare of special value. (Flyleaf, New Zealand in Colour, Reed,1961)

Baxter’s world had clearly defined borders—it was enclosed within a world view, a personalised frame through which he looked. It is not a floating world like, say, that of Bernadette Hall or Joanna Paul. Whereas they are inclined towards a broader and less morally assertive position, Baxter always wanted to manipulate his material to attain a pre-determined end. He was concerned with creating a coherent universe—one ordered by humankind and the Deity, one with a specific meaning and morality.

      It’s ironic that Baxter, the moralist whose universe was divided into black and white, in 1961 wrote the text for a picture book calledNew Zealand in Colour.

      Not surprisingly, in this as in other instances, Baxter isn’t content to do as the book’s introduction states and ‘let the photographs tell their own story’. On the first page he’s already coming on like an antipodean William Blake: ‘A City of a kind has been made. The hydro-electric dams at Roxburgh or Mangakino, the productive farms in place of endless tussock or bush, the tidy townships, the suburbs that climb hill-slopes towards the sun, and the honeycomb of factory and office buildings where each man has his appointed job under the eye of the clock—these are the works of the City, finite, exact and reasonable, designed for the fulfilment of limited aims . . .’

      The moralist and social critic in Baxter never rest. Even when describing the rustic world of the farmer, he hastens to add that ‘the farmer may own a new Zephyr and his wife may attend adult education classes in the nearest town’.

      Of ‘the recurring colours of sky and water’, he chips in, ‘they stand perhaps for what can only be known through silence and patience—a lucidity which man stands outside, an order greater than the human one’. In fact, Baxter usurps the benign intention of the scenic picture book by saying: ‘In a sense our sequence [of photographs] is made to direct your attention to this world in which we live but to which we so rarely belong.’ The harshness of the poet’s inner landscape might have been able to coexist with the tourist vistas of the scenic wonderland, but only temporarily and in a somewhat strained fashion.


Stories leading to more stories

The contemporary poet with a comparable social programme to Baxter’s is Dinah Hawken, whose poems, without losing any of their focus on individual experience, do comment on and question existing power structures. In Small Stories of Devotion she transcends the private/public demarcation by use of dream-like narrative and some Jungian excavation of selves within the self.

      Hawken, who is a feminist, is also (and this is something she shares with Baxter) a moralist, although the moral content in her work is to be found deep within the swim of things that is the poem. As well as being a progression forward from Baxter’s poetic method and purpose, Hawken’s poetry demands also to be seen as a reaction against Baxter’s. Many of the things Baxter was prepared to accept Hawken takes to task, particularly concerning sexual politics and the Catholic belief system. Hawken offers a very thorough and thought-provoking revision of the Baxterian agenda and method.

      Her first book, It has no sound and is blue, includes a sonnet sequence in which fifteen of the sixteen poems use the same schema as Baxter’s late sonnets. In their spoken/written quality, they echo the Jerusalem Sonnets, although in their mood and voice they come across as more sophisticated—less earthy but every bit as heartfelt. Like Baxter, Hawken has a few ideas about how the world could be improved:

If we could all get together—just once—like a sea
of winter trees flicking into leaf, then choosing
the right swami, the right economic theory, the right diet
wouldn’t matter, since any particular one
would be wedged against the nature of things
and it’s the nature of things I’m opting for . . .
(from ‘Traces of Hope’, It has no sound and is blue, Victoria University   Press, 1987)


One conversation, many monologues

There’s a story a one-time bureaucrat tells of how, as a young civil servant, he had to accompany a visiting Japanese diplomat around the South Island. The visitor was interested in English literature and the bureaucrat had been advised by the programme organiser in Wellington that Baxter had invited them to dinner on the night of their Dunedin visit—it was 1967 or 68, while the poet was Burns Fellow.

      He and his guest arrived and sat drinking for a while. Janet Frame turned up. And the evening wore on. Dinner was not served. Eventually the nervous twenty-five-year-old started worrying that perhaps there had been a misunderstanding and there might not be any dinner. At an opportune moment, he ducked into the kitchen to discover nothing, in fact, was in the oven.

      He then contrived to manoeuvre the Baxters, Janet Frame and the Japanese guest out the door, into the waiting Government car, and off to a Turkish restaurant. Drinking under-the-counter red wine, the civil servant spent the rest of the evening talking to the two women while Baxter, at the other end of the table, soliloquised to the Japanese visitor. It sounded like one of his New Zealand Tablet sermons—only longer, and punctuated every few minutes by an ‘Ah so’ from the attentive audience.


Two young poets grappling with the Baxterian mode are John Newton and Robert Sullivan. Newton picks up on the rural, moralistic, death-obsessed, early Baxter (but permeating it with layers of irony and an almost postmodern detachment). Sullivan’s ‘Tai Tokerau poems’ manage a reconciliation between the urban and rural environments (something Baxter’s could never facilitate). Like David Eggleton, Sullivan embodies the Poet come down from the Holy Mountain, his ethics and ideals somehow still intact. There’s a youthful optimism in Sullivan, contrasting with Baxter’s bleakness, his sense of a man winding down to his own death—and seeing society, at large, mirroring this personal decline.


Central margins

It is April 1986. A surprisingly large crowd has gathered in a church at the top of Ponsonby Road. Fr Eugene O’Sullivan is to read Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets. The church interior is virtually blacked out, except for a reading lamp on a small table at the front. Eugene is sitting in a wheelchair beside the table, his nervous hands holding a first edition of the Sonnets.

      Eugene starts reading to the invisible audience, his voice
breathy and straining, his frail legs twisted uncomfortably beneath him. He reads the sonnets. And as the reading progresses, his wheel-chair begins to move slowly towards the audience—Eugene is slipping away from the light of the lamp and into the blackness. As he moves forward, he is reduced to a silhouette—but the poems continue unabated, despite the fact the book has vanished into the shadow of his torso. And the pages, in darkness, continue to turn—every two sonnets. By the time the sequence is brought to a close, Eugene’s knees are almost touching the knees of someone in the front row of the audience.


If, in recent years, Baxter’s poetry has been seen as irrelevant or marginal, it’s also worth noting that the progress of New Zealand society in the 1970s and, more dramatically, the 1980s has undermined (and, for that matter, mocked) much of what the poet argued for: the socialist state, the truly catholic church, the need to acknowledge, as Pakeha, that the Maori is ‘our spiritual elder brother’.

      Within the poems themselves, much now appears outmoded—Despair, the Void, the Soul, all the Gods and Goddesses have become clichéd and largely discredited (although poets including Hulme, Hawken, Roma Potiki and Heather McPherson still tread this Christian/post-Christian turf, albeit in a self-confident revisionist manner).

      Lines of influence, other than those mentioned here, could be traced back to Baxter. One equally valid line would include Hone Tuwhare, Peter Olds, Sam Hunt, David Mitchell, David Eggleton, Apirana Taylor, Roma Potiki . . . And that’s without introducing such complicated and relevant figures as C. K. Stead and Leigh Davis into the picture.


Baxter’s idea of the poet as the conscience of the people doesn’t hold much water these days. It’s a naïve notion anyway—Ian Wedde’s belief in the poet as ‘ sceptic’, located just outside the mainstream of society, is a better and more humble model for the 1990s. The poet no longer has to manifest the ‘illness of the tribe’ like the measel or leper in the early church. He or she no longer has to suffer on everyone’s behalf.

      The Poet, as embodied by Baxter, was responsible to his Ideals, but—in his case—was also paradoxically irresponsible. He behaved badly, was capable of the extraordinary inconsistencies and contra-dictions which were to prove creatively fertile but personally disastrous. At the same time as he espoused the poet as a ‘cell of good living’, he was a great misbehaver, like Dylan Thomas ‘a lover of the human race, especially of women’.

      Yet, somehow, James K. Baxter’s poetry maintains its gravity, its conviction and its profundity. During Eugene O’Sullivan’s reading of the Jerusalem Sonnets, these qualities were staggering and undeniable. It also struck me how the poems could maintain their grip on a theologian like Eugene who, during Baxter’s life, constantly questioned and challenged him, who never accepted for a moment Baxter’s personal, artistic and ideological excesses. But Eugene would have been the first to acknowledge the power of the poetry. Arising, as it did, so deeply out of the experience of one person it was capable of becoming the experience of many.


Two houses

There’s certainly a book sitting around waiting to be written about New Zealand poetry in the 1970s, the atomisation that took place—a frenetic movement between and beyond the imposing figures of James K. Baxter and Allen Curnow.

      The noisy collision between the writer and his universe as enacted by Baxter is in marked contrast to Allen Curnow, whose work centres on an orderly relationship between the personal and the public worlds—something he achieved (and is still achieving) through a poetic distancing, filtration of experience, a high-mindedness or good taste, an impeccable order. A far cry from Baxter’s unruly house! The breakneck energy that drove Baxter’s poetry was what Curnow, arguably, sought to remove from his writing. Relying on an intellectual and temperamental equilibrium, Curnow was engaging a different sort of motor—in the end a longer-running, more maintainable mode of poetic travel. One that wouldn’t derail him by the age of forty-six.


After bathing at Baxter’s

‘No man is an island, he’s a
(Jefferson Airplane)

It’s possible the psychedelic, late-60s Baxter has come back into fashion, if the cover of the 1992 paperback edition of Frank McKay’s biography of Baxter is anything to go by. The OUP cover design features two Warhol-like multiple images of the young Baxter bathed in fluorescent light, with unnatural greens and yellows. It’s strongly reminiscent of the film of the 1967 Monterey Rock Festival. It looks as though James K. Baxter has accidentally found his way on stage during Jefferson Airplane’s set, his face bathed in hallucinogenic, saturated colour. The dry ice has just parted, like a Red Sea, and the light show is about to start.


Jim afloat


‘ . . . . . James K. Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . the Baxter of the Jerusalem Sonnets . . . . .   Baxter . . . . . the late Baxter . . . . . Baxter
. . . . . the “dour ghost” . . . . . Baxter . . . . . a series of tacks across the wake of James K. Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . Baxter . . . . . recontextualising Baxter within these deconstructive . . . . . James K. Baxter . . . . . James K. Baxter . . . . .’
(Mark Williams, introduction to The Caxton Anthology of New Zealand Poetry 1972–1986, Caxton, 1987)

Perhaps Baxter is still widely read for his ‘wisdom’, for the intense world view his poetry reflects, which remains, twenty years down the track, still as intriguing and accessible as ever. Riddled with interesting and relatable paradoxes (the ongoing love/hate relationship between the poet and his world), his poems enact various personal dramas, inner and outer conflicts. The species of ‘wisdom’ they purvey is also appealing, not because the poet necessarily was ‘wise’, but because he comes on so wise yet his life was, well, such a self-induced muddle. There’s something inherently human and relatable in that.

      If not acknowledged as a formative influence on the present generation, Baxter pre-empted them in a number of formal and imaginative ways. This might be recognised more except that Baxter, the person, still leaves most writers embarrassed or uncomfortable—an undesirable, or at least questionable, member of the family tree. It’s still hard to embrace the poetry without bear-hugging the Great Man himself. So he’s still being skirted around; people cross to the far footpath.

      It’s ironic that the ‘personality cult’/guru aspect which made Baxter such a public presence during his life now provides a barrier that needs to be negotiated to get at the work itself.


From time to time James K. Baxter comes back into sight. His physiognomy and assorted lines still pop up in the paintings and prints of Nigel Brown. Peter Olds published a poem in 1992 entitled ‘Oh, Baxter Is Everywhere’ (although the poet appears not to appear anywhere in the piece). Baxter features in Michael O’Leary’s 1987 novel Out Of It as the twelfth man in an imaginary cricket squad, alongside such teammates as Janis Joplin and a veritable squad of Jimmies: James Joyce, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. On New Zealand Geographic magazine’s pictorial map of the Whanganui River, there he is, head and shoulders nudged in between the river and the beaming countenance of Mother Mary Joseph Aubert. [7]

      He gets a mention in even more surprising contexts. Some of his poetry titles are included in a bibliography of hundreds of books by anyone called Baxter at the back of the English artist Glen Baxter’s hilarious tome Glen Baxter, His Life (Thames & Hudson, 1983). Closer to home and to the topic: in AND 1, Alan Loney, being interviewed by Leigh Davis, stressed what a fine and overlooked critic Baxter was and, at the launching of AND 4 in 1985, one of the magazine’s contributors said that he imagined if Baxter was still alive he would be working in the field of ethnopoeticsà la Jerome Rothenberg.


There have been more profound thinkers, social critics, theologians—but when the dust has settled, Baxter will stand the test of time, his poems remaining uncommonly certain of themselves, yet still swaggering with the weight of the Great Man upon them.

      If there is one quality the poems embody more than anything else it is what the Chinese refer to as genius—‘the rhythmical vitality of life’. That’s exactly what can be found throughout Baxter’s work, his collected poems reading like an enormously alive and alert auto-biography.

      Thinking of Baxter, the view from 1993, I’m left with two impressions. The first is of Baxter as the central motif in Elizabeth Nannestad’s poem ‘stone figure’:

Some medieval
simple soul in stone
holds the church roof . . .
the blackbirds of panic seize upon you
year after year
and build their rickety
shit-streaked nests in your hair.
You’re gripped by their scrag.
You stay there.
(from Jump, Auckland University Press, 1986)

When embarking on this account, I decided not to refer to—or reread—any of Baxter’s writings (with the exception of two books I happened upon in second-hand bookshops while engaged on the project—the tiny tract ‘A walking stick for an old man’ and the picture book New Zealand in Colour). I wanted to excavate the residue of ‘Baxter’ inside myself, to find out exactly what was still there and how persuasive it was.

      Without defining Baxter or his influence, these notes might at least have registered some traces, certain avenues down which more systematic and rigorous investigations could proceed.

      Again I recall the bus approaching Wellsford and my wondering at the time—nearly a decade after the poet’s death—how anyone in New Zealand could write poetry without first dislodging the great weight of Baxter’s achievement from them—what then seemed to me an impossible task. My memory continues back another decade to an encounter which is the final impression I am left with: that Baxter hangs around New Zealand poetry today much the same way he used to hang around Auckland’s Vulcan Lane—cross-legged on the footpath, a girl not far off. Which was how I first saw him, c.1971, as a young boy heading for Whitcombe and Tombs to buy a magazine called something like The World At War.



This essay first appeared in Sport 11, Spring 1993, at a time when Baxter’s reputation seemed to be in a trough. With the Collected Poems out of print and Baxter twenty years dead, no one was saying much. Since then, Baxter has re-emerged in an extraordinary variety of ways—in print, on stage, television and CD and he was even the subject of a modern dance epic, Michael Parmenter’sJerusalem.


1.       Heading from the title of a song by Chris Knox.

2.      An interesting correlative to this shift is the evolution of the poet’s books from the exquisitely printed hardbound Caxton publications of the 1940s, by way of some plain Oxford editions, to the ascetic design of the first edition of Jerusalem Sonnets and the dayglo Price Milburn covers of the late ‘Jerusalem’ books. From the late 1960s until his death, Baxter resorted to all manner of mimeographed publication—‘A walking stick for an old man’ is little more than a few scraps of paper. These late ‘publications’ came thick and fast on stapled foolscap (little-known works like his Handbook for the Christian Militant), reflecting a disaffection with the book as object and the channels through which it had to move.

3.       After Bathing at Baxter’s included such memorably weird song titles as ‘A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly’, ‘The Last Wall of the Castle’, ‘ Shizoforest Love Suite’, ‘Two Heads’ and ‘Won’t You Try Saturday Afternoon’. Jefferson Airplane released a record earlier in 1967, Surrealistic Pillow, and two equally ‘far out’ albums the following year: Crown of Creation and Bless Its Pointed Little Head.

4.       Perhaps the 1960s aren’t that easily dismissed. The British jazz journal The Wire devoted its May 1993 issue to ‘May 1968’. And, coincidentally, in that issue, music critic Biba Kopf wrote: ‘Of the music bonding the age’s broken pieces, Jefferson Airplane’s binds best . . . After Bathing at Baxter’s is JA’s most musically, if not politically, ambitious record. Awry raga rhythms funnel a concussive polyphony of voices, ringing guitar distortions, feedbacking and spliced tape/song chatter . . .’

5.      Since then Iain Sharp has gone on to become the Blues Brother—singular—of New Zealand literature—smarter and harder-hitting than everyone else, and, arguably, better dressed. (Baxter was certainly the worst-dressed person in the history of New Zealand letters, apart from his brief, fashionable forays into wrong-way-round coat wearing during his Otago University days. While he dressed badly, he certainly dressed the part—particularly in his counterculture, sagelike later years. The clothing became part of that myth. Baxter’s sheer audacity and extremism, in this instance and elsewhere, bring us around to Aristotle’s assertion that ‘poetry implies a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness’.)

6.      The interesting post-Baxter anthology, from this vantage point, is The New Poets (ed. Murray Edmond and Mary Paul, Allen & Unwin, 1987).

7.           While making these notes, I revisited Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. While I was there, to my surprise, Mother Aubert, foundress of the Home of Compassion order, seemed a far more apparent ghost than Baxter. The poet seemed relegated to a few newspaper clippings pinned to a wall in the old convent and a stern, framed photograph inside the church. I didn’t visit the gravesite above the settlement this time—it didn’t seem worth bothering the family again—and my aunt Rita, who is a Sister in the Jerusalem convent, was eager to take me on a tour of the old church buildings. She spoke fondly of various visitors to the settlement in recent months, including Iain Sharp, Jenny Bornholdt, Alan Brunton, Sally Rodwell, Joanna Paul (whose colour photocopy montages grace the old convent walls) and the painter Pauline Thompson. ‘The middle of nowhere’ must be on the way to or from somewhere to attract such traffic.



Last updated 08 June, 2002