Friday, April 16, 2010

Iain Sharp on James K Baxter

The 10th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is an August 1994 article by Iain Sharp on his antipathy towards the poetry and person of the revered sage of Jerusalem. Money quote: “sanctimonious bastard”.

I don’t recall where we got the photo from: if using it here breaches anyone’s copyright, please let me know.

A couple of months ago the Listener published a guide to the best of everything in the country – books, beer, movies, restaurants, recipes, racehorses, buildings, gardens and so forth. I was asked to contribute a list of the 10 best New Zealand poems. The assignment struck me as simultaneously impossible and irresistible. Since notions of what constitutes a good poem vary so widely, I decided to be blatantly subjective and just pick a few of my personal favourites.
All the same, I was prey to two warring impulses. On the one hand, I wanted my list to be unhackneyed, challenging, even a bit eccentric. On the other, I didn’t want to be dismissed with a snort by literary types as an out-and-out loony. It seemed wise to make some concessions to popular opinion. Thus I found myself thinking, “Mmm, I’d better toss in something by Baxter.”
All my life, people have been telling me that James Keir Baxter’s poetry is the best so far produced by a New Zealander. In fact, the psalms of praise started before I was born (1953) because Baxter had the rare fortune to be extolled by powerful critics almost as soon as he began to publish.
The first issue of Landfall, which appeared in March 1947, contained no fiction and just seven poems – four by Allen Curnow and three by Baxter, who was only 20 at the time. Landfall’s fastidious editor, Charles Brasch, clearly believed that these were the two creative talents which mattered most. Some folk (including, I suspect, Allen Curnow) still share Brasch’s conviction.
Reviewing Baxter’s second volume, Blow Wind Of Fruitfulness, for the Press back in July 1948, Curnow, who’s not normally given to superlatives, proclaimed the youthful James K “without doubt the most original poet writing in this country and its sheerest poet by nature”. I think that review helped set up a polarity which has persisted to this day. Curnow is seen as a top-notch artificer – a brainy fellow who arrives at excellence through impeccable craft and tireless revision. Baxter, however, is regarded as a “natural” – a bard with the gift of the gab from whom eloquence flowed as naturally as honey from a hive.
When he was a young man in the 1950s, CK Stead was very much a Curnow supporter, but towards the end of the 60s he swung around and became, at least for a few years, one of Baxter’s leading trumpeters. “The beauty of these poems is subtle; even, for all the rough candour of the voice, delicate,” he wrote of The Jerusalem Sonnets in the Autumn 1973 issue of Islands. Stead was the first of many New Zealand poets to compose sonnets of his own in the form pioneered by Baxter (seven unrhymed couplets, with a very loose rhythm, although usually there are five stressed syllables in each line).
“When James K Baxter died suddenly at the age of 46 in October 1972, New Zealand lost its best known and most significant poet,” Charles Doyle announced at the beginning of his book-length study of Baxter’s work, published four years after the poet’s demise. Baxter’s notoriety is a historical fact; his haggard, bewhiskered and generally miserable face was much filmed and photographed during his Jerusalem years and his doleful pulpit voice was much broadcast. It’s the very high valuation placed on his poetry that I question.

Intent on locating something for my list, I browsed through the Baxter offerings in the Penguin, Oxford and Caxton anthologies and blew the cobwebs off the individual volumes which had sat unread on my bookshelves since I was a university student 20-odd years ago. I rediscovered some grand lines, but these were greatly outnumbered by grandiose lines. I was drawn more to the supposedly minor poems, like “A Dentist’s Window”, “The Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works” and the children’s poems in The Tree House (the Inessential Baxter, one might say) than to the acknowledged “masterpieces”, such as “The Bay”, “Elegy For An Unknown Soldier”, “Wild Bees”, “Poem in the Matukituki Valley” and The Jerusalem Sonnets.
Baxter started penning verse when he was seven and published his first book, Beyond The Palisade, when he was 18. Already by that time he had read the major English poets and learned to mimic their general timbre. Even as a teenager, he could hold a hi-faluting tone without stammering. But in his early work, instead of observing with fresh eyes, he seems always to be striving to recall what his bardic ancestors would have said in a similar situation.
What’s more, everything is cranked up to a melodramatic pitch. Right from the start, Baxter never missed a chance to present himself as a suffering man of sorrows. And, like other antipodean writers of the period, he was determined to prove to the literary world at large that he was not just a hick from the sticks, by parading his classical learning at every opportunity. Thus, it’s entirely typical of the early Baxter to exclaim while smoking out wild bees from a rotten cabbage tree:
O it was Carthage under the Roman torches,
Or loud with flames and falling timber, Troy!
To which I can only retort, “Aw, for Gawd’s sake, get off your high horse, Jimmy! “ To be fair, unlike many poets, he later recognised his youthful defects. “The problem for me in the 40s and 50s was to get rid of the mere echo language in my poems, the twists of phrase (and so of thought also) that belonged by right to Hardy or Yeats or Dylan Thomas or Louis MacNeice,” he said in 1965 in the autobiographical blurb that accompanied his contribution to the anthology, Recent Poetry In New Zealand.
Although Baxter’s language eventually became loose enough to incorporate 60s slang, he never lost his fondness for melodrama, self-promotion and oracular utterances. What bothers me most about the poems from Baxter’s later period, however, is their Us and Them quality. On one side of a great chasm are Baxter and his disciples. Creative hipsters with the chutzpah to have sinned on a colossal scale, they are now saved and on intimate terms with God. Meanwhile, on the other side, benighted materialists pursue their narrow, soul-destroying routines. “Love is not valued much in Pig Island,” declares Baxter, but there’s not much love shown in any of his writings for ordinary New Zealand citizens.
The Baxter poem I finally settled on for my Listener compilation was “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.
It was short and famous and I quite liked the Oriental favour. Those gilt-edged clouds reminded me uneasily of the kitsch manifestations of God’s presence in Cecil B DeMille’s biblical epics. Nor did I care for the eye-rhyme in the second stanza. I kept wanting to turn stranger into something like banger – or anger, perhaps, into danger. I thought the insistence on the isolated nature of the human spirit was exaggerated. “But the angst is always overdone in Baxter,” I reasoned. “At least he’s wishing everyone an easier journey, although it’s uphill all the way.”
When I was discussing my choices with my friend Joy MacKenzie, however, she said there were other Baxter poems she liked better. Joy has three sons. She pointed out, quite rightly, that we’re not born alone. Our mothers are present at the time. In most cases, so are doctors and midwives. And while some people have the misfortune to die alone and putrefy undetected, Baxter wasn’t one of them. Feeling queasy after a visit to the doctor in Birkdale, Auckland, he staggered into the house of kindly strangers and got them to phone his friend Jean Tuwhare, who arrived before Baxter succumbed.
“Ah, the hell with it,” I suddenly thought. “I’m sick of Baxter’s histrionic presentation of himself as a sacred pariah. Since he was so determined to be an outcast, why don’t I cast him out? Yeah, I’m going to kick him off my list altogether.”

As soon as I made this decision, I was suffused with a delicious feeling of revenge, because the truth is I’ve been nursing a grudge against Baxter for decades. It goes back to the way he looked at me, or the way I imagined he looked at me, when I was still in my teens. Let me explain.
When the first newspaper accounts of Baxter’s Jerusalem commune appeared in 1969, I was 16 and in the sixth form. I was the envy of my classmates because I had a little motorbike, a Honda 90. My friend Eugene had a Suzuki 120. We would sometimes go on expeditions together in the weekends. In particular, we liked to visit a shaggy old character who lived in a hut in the Karangahake Gorge. We always referred to him as a hermit, but, God knows, he was sociable enough, making cups of billy tea for anyone who called on him and boring them with a long discourse on his sole treasure, a small lump of gold ore. We imagined that Baxter would be pretty much like the “hermit”, only a more entertaining talker. “Let’s ride down to Jerusalem and check out James K,” we kept telling each other throughout our sixth-form year. I think Eugene was also lured by the promise of nude frolics with hippie girls in the Wanganui River.
Jerusalem is a long way from Auckland, particularly on a Honda 90, so the proposed trip never happened. Eugene left school, went to Sydney, got into some strange company and had his head blown off one night by a shotgun at point-blank range while he slept. I went on to university. Baxter hung around the campus all the time in the early 70s. He would come to make converts, bludge money off staff members he knew and castigate the more serious-minded students for being budding bourgeoisie.
The first time I saw him, my jaw hit the ground. After all my eager talk with Eugene, the reality was such a disappointment. I was expecting warmth, wit, spontaneity, aroha. Instead I was confronted with a cagey, self-conscious, manipulative ham actor. At the end of his glum tirade against Mammon, the government of the day, universities, squares, puritans and so forth, I was unlucky enough to be subjected to the Baxter hug, as were all the other young folk within easy grabbing range. It was a hard, cold embrace, and there was an element of one-upmanship in it. Baxter made you feel as if he was Saint Francis and you were a leper. Unless you were prepared to accept him as your personal saviour, he didn’t really want to know you.
Baxter died on October 22, 1972. Consequently this year’s big Baxter conference in Dunedin puzzles me. If it’s intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his birth, it’s two years too early. If it’s supposed to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, it’s two years too late.
About a week before he died, I encountered him as I was coming out of a particularly tough maths exam. He was walking barefoot up Symonds Street, holding a Moses-like wooden staff in one hand and ostentatiously counting the beads on his rosary with the other. He was a very slow counter. Mathematics was clearly even less his subject than it was mine. He paused to glower balefully at my too-short haircut and the shirt that had been ironed nicely for me by my mother. These were enough in his eyes to identify me as a bourgeois. Repressed. A pharisee, a philistine, an unreformed Pig Islander. In short, the enemy.
He gave me a look that was full of pity, contempt and reproach. I glared right back at the sanctimonious bastard. I wanted to snatch his staff away from him and beat the bejasus out of him with it. I still reproach myself for failing to do so. If I had dispatched Baxter to meet his Maker a week early, we would all have been spared “Ode to Auckland”, his last and worst poem:
Auckland even when I am well stoned
On a tab of LSD or on Indian grass
You still look to me like an elephant’s arsehole
Surrounded with blue-black haemorrhoids.
etc, etc.


Keri H said...

While I enjoy some of JKBaxter's work. a lot of it seems pompous & pretentious, just as it did when I first read it. When my favourite cousin quoted his favourite Baxter - o yes, it was "Matukuituki-" I stopped him after the first line: "Where's Mum? Or is this a neglected moa egg somewhere out there?"

Yessss. I am a horrible cousin

Sarah said...

Thanks for posting this, I've always enjoyed Iain Sharp's work. I once saw him on a panel discussion about NZ reviewing and he told this story about a poet (who I can't remember the name of) and how the reviews of his poetry always missed for some reason and why he felt bad about it. It was so funny that I was in tears.

Stephanie said...

"Instead I was confronted with a cagey, self-conscious, manipulative ham actor" - I must concur.

But then I speak as a female who Baxter saw only as food server/supplier or bedwarmer (a kinder way of expressing his cold ego drive for dominance in a sexual situation). particularly manupulative in my experience. He was old, dirty, unattractive, sour voiced, and very smelly. his expectation of any female was she would fall at his feet and wash them then dry them with her hair. If she did not, then she was not a woman, couldn't be.

He haunted many a Ponsonby party in the late 60s, early 70s. I know whereof I speak.

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of James K Baxter's company for a few weeks shortly before his death.
I found him to be a very kind,gentle person and a total gentleman.
I am pretty sure the "Baxter hug" was something he learned from his Maori family, as Polynesians will often give you this type of "mega-hug".
Jim was looking very ill for some time before his death, and it would probably have half-killed him walking up Symonds Street.
That could be the real reason he appeared to be unfriendly. He was probably gasping for breath.
As for being "smelly", the only thing he smelt of was cigarettes.
The thing I remember most about talking with him was that he said people were constantly coming up to him criticizing his poetry.
His answer was to suggest they try writing something themselves.
I thought it was quite sad that shortly before his death, one of our most famous poets was so hurt about being continually knocked.

Anonymous said...

Yes, he was a reprehensible human; but he wrote damn fine poetry - all the criticisms accepted. Try writing a sestina some time! His Small Ode on Mixed Flatting showed that the pen can be mightier than the sword, and his poems still have New Zealanders talking and thinking, learning and loving, writing poetry and writing about poetry. His contribution to NZ literature has lasted (and, in the end, time is the only effective judge of quality) the forty years since his death. He certainly inspired me with his glassy stare to get writing even though I do not have his craftsmanship.

Anonymous said...

Actually, that was a pretty awful last poem.
I've had the pleasure of meeting Ian a number of times, as well as JKB, and found them both to be lovely, kind, very special people as well as incredibly talented writers.
What a pity Ian wasn't born a bit earlier, or Jim a bit later.
Im sure they would have gotten on great, once they got to know each other.

Richcatt said...

January 12, 2013. Did I write that? It says all I want to say about Baxter. As a secondary school student I studied his Sestina of the Dark Welcome, before it was published; and later learnt his Small Ode on Mixed Flatting as my "party piece". And when I saw him, shortly before he died, he did fix me (and all the others) with his glassy stare.