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Monday, August 8, 2016
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“COMPLETE PROSE” by JAMES K. BAXTER, edited by JOHN WEIR (Victoria University Press, $200)
I sometimes preface reviews on this blog with an elaborate apologia. When it comes to John Weir’s edition of the Complete Prose of James K. Baxter, I am obliged to give a particularly elaborate apologia. The Complete Prose was published late last year, and I am only now getting to deal with it.
There are a number of reasons for this.
First, given the scale and expense of this publication, I was diffident about requesting a review copy from Victoria University Press. I am extremely grateful to VUP that, when I at last plucked up courage to request one, they generously provided it. But it took me some months to work up the nerve.
Second, this is a formidably long publication, and as you should know by now, I do not review things without actually reading them. To read my way through the Complete Prose has taken me – on and off – a number of months. John Weir’s edition consists of four large hardback volumes, presented as a boxed set. The cover of the box is illustrated with a triptych of original paintings, by Nigel Brown, of Baxter in his later bearded phase. Each volume has a handy ribbon-bookmark. The first three volumes are Baxter’s prose (i.e. articles, reviews, sermons, letters-to-the-editor, prose stories – but not personal letters), presented chronologically. The last volume (all 592 pages of it) is John Weir’s apparatus criticus. A publisher’s flyer tells me that the whole set amounts to 2662 pages. John Weir, poet, critic, academic and Catholic priest, was a close friend of Baxter’s for the last decade of so of Baxter’s life. He has frequently written about Baxter, has edited other posthumous collections of Baxter’s work and collaborated in a complete bibliography of all Baxter’s writings. It is highly unlikely that, having spent years on this project, he has omitted anything of significance.
But where does a reader begin?
I was tempted to follow my usual practice by beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. But in this case, noting that Weir’s Introduction was in Volume 4, I began with Volume 4 – and I think this is where the wise reader should begin. To break it down like a conscientious bibliographer, Volume 4 consists of the whole table of contents for all four volumes; a 151-page Introduction by John Weir which is, in effect, a biography of Baxter and a critical overview of his work; Acknowledgements; a “Note” in the form of an elegy Weir wrote in 1972 at the time of Baxter’s death; an 11-page Chronology of Baxter’s life; and then the bulk of Volume 4 – 250 pages of Notes and References, essentially the endnotes to the first three volumes. Weir suggests that readers should have this volume open at the relevant pages when reading anything in the first three volumes. Wise advice. They illuminate much (especially in the way of topical references and events in Baxter’s relationships) that would be obscure in reading Baxter’s prose. If I have a minor criticism, it is that occasionally Weir seems intent on explaining things that probably don’t needs explaining – for example the notes telling us in detail who each of the following people were – Emily Dickinson (p.217); Billy Graham (p.271); Graham Greene (pp.282-283); Pope John XXIII (p.311). Or am I assuming a “general knowledge” that does not really exist?
After the Notes and References comes a 9-page Glossary of Maori terms; 90 pages giving short biographies of writers and critics who were Baxter’s contemporaries; 25 pages of Select (!!!) Bibliography and 40 pages of small-type, double-columned Index.
In all this it was naturally Weir’s 151-page Introduction that I read with most interest. It begins as straight biography – the parentage and unhappy childhood and schooling of the young sin-obsessed, sex-obsessed James Keir Baxter. His father Archibald’s strong moral example as a pacifist. His more tense relationship with his mother. Then the marvellous boy who had his first collection of poems published when he was 18 and who immediately appeared in Allen Curnow’s Caxton anthology and was hailed by Curnow as the salvation of New Zealand poetry. (At this point in the story I always wonder – though Weir doesn’t – what a negative influence this premature recognition might have had on young Baxter’s future development.) There follow the bohemian years, the student years, the casual-labour years and the long, long hell of alcoholism, with endless boozing and much verbal abuse of others and much shagging. Baxter becomes an Anglican. More acclaimed volumes of poetry appear. Baxter lays off the booze when he joins Alcoholics Anonymous in the mid-1950s. But Baxter keeps shagging, despite the fact that when he was 22 he married the 21-year-old Jacquie Sturm. As with other accounts, this part of the story always leaves my sympathies with Jacquie. She, as a Maori, certainly raised Baxter’s consciousness about Maori culture. But he was at best a neglectful husband, often leaving her and their two children to fend for themselves while he was off on his bohemian rambles and (frequently enough to be worthy of note) seducing other women. In the late 1950s, despite the publication of what amounted to his first “collected poems”, he feared his poetic powers were waning. In 1958, aged 32, he became a Catholic.
And here I have to note something distinctive about Weir’s Introduction. Up to (approximately) Baxter’s conversion to Catholicism, Weir’s account of Baxter’s life is a third-person account culled from other sources. But the bohemian-poet and the priest-poet became friends in 1961. After this point Weir’s account is as much first-person memoir and reminiscence as it is biography of Baxter. There are long quotations from Baxter’s letters to Weir and from (unpublished) poems which Baxter sent Weir. As a conscientious priest, Weir takes Baxter’s Catholicism very seriously. He presents Baxter as a man on a profound spiritual quest – in his social criticism, in his years writing apologetic articles for the Catholic weekly The Tablet, and of course in his final Jerusalem years. By this stage Baxter had morphed into the bearded barefoot prophet, now one of the iconic images of New Zealand in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It all ends when Baxter dies of a heart attack in 1972, aged only 46.
Obviously not everybody interprets Baxter’s last years as benignly as Weir does. By the 1960s, former admirers like Allen Curnow and Denis Glover were (occasionally publicly, but more often privately) dismissing Baxter as a poseur, mountebank and religious hypocrite. Endless were the stories one heard of the rosary-reciting sexual exploiter, with Baxter cast as a kind of Kiwi Rasputin. Part of this at least arose from Baxter’s bad taste in becoming a Catholic – something very offensive to agnostic academe. Weir acknowledges (p.122) the type of sarcastic things that were said, by the likes of Frank Sargeson, at the time of Baxter’s death. Weir himself comes closer to accepting the “Saint Hemi” image.
Even so, Weir is an astute critic and an honest reporter, despite his personal interest. Committed to a full account of Baxter’s life and work, he can’t ignore the grubby and questionable stuff (Baxter’s sexual frustrations and bouts of shagging; Baxter’s, in his Jerusalem years, fathering a child on a young woman half his age) and he is not starry-eyed about everything Baxter wrote. For example, of the man’s third collection The Fallen House (1953), Weir remarks:
“There was a great deal of power and urgency in the poetry, sometime to its detriment, for it could sound like a rhetorical sermon delivered by a man who knew the answers rather than the musings of someone who understood that there might not be any.” (p.42)
When he comes to Baxter’s prose, the occasion of this publication, Weir notes:
“The quality of [Baxter’s] prose writing is uneven. It is strongest when he is emotionally involved with his topic and when his language sounds most like his speaking voice. He always needed an audience and wrote best when he had a particular person in mind.”(p.124)
Weir says that Baxter’s prose is essentially concerned with five topics: “himself; the nature of literature and art; spirituality and religion; social injustice; and, a thread of this, the plight of Maori.” (p.124) In explaining how he came to finalise the contents of these four volumes (pp.147-149), he notes that this collection does not include Baxter’s plays (which have already appeared in a collected edition). Weir also says that he hesitated to include the Catholic apologetic articles which Baxter wrote for The Tablet, given that Baxter later repudiated them for their bland tone and simplistic theology. (They were once gathered together in a volume called The Flowering Cross). In the end, however, Weir decided to include them.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thus far, I have done no more than to explain how these four volumes are presented to us, and what their scholarly editor has done. I have not got to the heart of the matter, which is Baxter’s prose itself. I am tempted to deal with this in great detail, but (with regret, discarding many notes I have made over the last few months) I will restrain myself, attempt to be brief and try to deal with the three volumes in a few concise paragraphs each.
The 771 pages of Volume 1 take us from 1943 to 1965 (Baxter between the ages of 17 and 39), being Baxter’s last years in Dunedin and Christchurch and then his 16-year sojourn in Wellington. Note that this volume covers fully 22 years, whereas the second and third volumes combined cover a mere six years. In this volume we first meet Baxter as the schoolboy trying his hand at lyrical prose description. He rapidly becomes the confident 20-year-old student methodically planning “Notes for ‘Poetry in New Zealand’ ” (pp.13-14) and reviewing Frank Sargeson and Henry Lawson in student magazines. He makes his first halting attempts at short stories. As the volume later proves, Baxter never became master of this form, but some of his experiments were interesting, even if in stories like “The Mathesons at Home” (pp.274-281) and the quasi-autobiographical “To Have and To Hold” (pp.287-292) he is rather too eager to reach a moralising punchline. His unfinished (and frankly botched) “novel” Horse, which was published posthumously, is given in its entirety (pp.529-589). I followed the editor’s advice throughout my reading by having the relevant “Notes and References” of Volume 4 open for each item in the earlier volumes. John Weir notes that Horse was clearly influenced by Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade. One thing that surprised me as I read Volume 1, was how much Baxter in the 1950s was besotted by Thomas. As Weir notes, Baxter’s play Jack Winter’s Dream stood in the shadow of Under Milk Wood, and there are frequent references to, and apologia for, Dylan Thomas in Baxter’s criticism. Another surprise was Baxter’s respect for Edith Sitwell, about whom he wrote a long, appreciative piece in 1965 (pp.693-701). Weir wonders shrewdly if Baxter’s positive view wasn’t in part influenced by the fact that Sitwell, like Baxter himself, was by then a Catholic convert. For me, another surprise was Baxter’s competence when it came to straight reportage, as in his “Akitio: A Country School and Its Community” (pp.330-343), written for an educational journal. Similar intelligent factual observation is also found in his diary jottings and brief pieces of journalism when he visited India and other points in Asia in the late 1950s.
Much of Baxter’s prose in the 1950s and early 1960s consists of routine, jobbing book-reviewing, with short notices written for the Listener and lengthier ones for the likes of Landfall. Much of this is undistinguished literary journalism, with Baxter often enough using a book under review as the pretext for discussing something that interests him.
Two trends, however, stand out.
First, there is Baxter’s emergence as social critic. In a Listener review of 1951, he suggests that M.K.Joseph’s iconoclastic “Secular Litany” “should be nailed on every schoolroom wall”. (p.64) He begins to discuss the Maori condition earnestly with the 1953 article “Is There a Colour Bar in New Zealand?” (pp.124-126). Of course he is always ready to take swings at “puritanism” and censorship, he frequently campaigns for tolerance for homosexuals, and he follows his father’s moral example in regular criticism of militarism and Cold War rhetoric. In all this, social criticism becomes wedded to his religious concerns as he accepts Catholicism and begins to discuss regularly theological matters (often – as the endnotes point out – with John Weir).
Second, there are his detailed examinations of New Zealand poetry, beginning with his Adult Education lectures and his “Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry” in 1951 and continuing through The Fire and the Anvil, the whole text of which is given here. (pp.145-198). His key statement on New Zealand poetry is made in his 1961 review of Allen Curnow’s Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. The review is presented here under the heading “The Kiwi and Mr Curnow” (pp.438-442) and shows Baxter striking out against Curnow’s “intense preoccupation with landscape poetry, time and the cult of isolation.” This is his definitive repudiation of Curnow’s melancholy version of “nationalism” which saw New Zealand Pakeha as aliens in an alien land.
One thing that often struck me while ploughing through Volume 1 was how different New Zealand then was, and how controversies were often raised over matters that would now not raise a comment. It is extraordinary, for example, that in 1960 Baxter felt obliged to write two letters to the press (pp.419 and 421) defending the (very mild) satirical songs of the American Tom Lehrer against the charges of obscenity and immorality.
I have one quibble about the editor’s decisions in this first volume. Clearly Baxter’s contributions to the publication New Zealand in Colour consisted of detailed captions to photographs. We are given 30 pages of these captions (pp.485-514), which may be appropriate if utter completeness was the editor’s aim but which is odd if they are presented without the images and hence shorn of much of their meaning.
All 712 pages of Volume 2 deal with the two years (1966-68) when Baxter returned to his native Dunedin as Burns Fellow, and then worked for the Catholic diocese and wrote his apologetic articles for the Catholic publications The Tablet and the Marist Messenger. Not to beat about the bush, I found this volume the most difficult to plough through and I suspect, given the heavy weight of Catholic apologetics, this will be the verdict of many other readers. The Tablet articles that became The Flowering Cross are usually from a “left” Catholic perspective. In them, Baxter raises such heavyweight issues as alcoholism; the church’s attitude towards trade unions, unemployment and workers’ rights; what is wrong with pietistic Catholic literature; compassion and support for homosexuals and so on. Frequently he crosses swords in letters columns with more conservative Catholic supporters of the Vietnam War, which Baxter vigorously opposes. Surprisingly, perhaps, in both the Catholic press and in letters to general newspapers and to the New Zealand Listener, Baxter supports the papal teaching against artificial contraception. In both the apologetic articles and the letters-to-the-editor on these issues there is much repetition, interesting though some individual observations are.
Far more engaging in these years are his articles and essays on poetry. Drafts of his talks on poetry (pp.43-95) are still among the sanest and clearest overviews of thematic development in New Zealand poetry from the 1920s to the 1960s, even if they are suffused with much autobiography. His analyses of both Curnow’s verse and the status of Landfall at that time are still spot-on. More uneven are the Burns Fellowship lectures on poetry that were gathered together and published in 1967 as The Man on the Horse (pp.129-243). There is much autobiography, much meandering away from his set topics and (dare I say it) much fruitless speculation on the place of Catholics in New Zealand literature. But the lengthy reading of “Tam O’Shanter”, which gives the collection its title, is robust, vigorous and shows Baxter really trying to connect poetic practice with a popular voice. The reflections continue in Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand (pp.325-353), which is dedicated to John Weir.
And yet truly, as Weir says in his (Volume 4) Introduction, “the quality of [Baxter’s] prose writing is uneven”. When we force ourselves to read all 24 pages (pp.20-43) of Baxter’s arts festival talk “Shots Around the Tiger” we are intermittently amused, but eventually bored, by Baxter’s scattershot of doggerel, deliberate provocation and grains of real social comment. His introductions to his plays, his support of a local theatre and his frequent praise for Patric Carey’s endeavours at the Globe are all admirable but – oh dear! – see how Baxter is at his very worst in his 1967 talk “Some Possibilities for New Zealand Drama” (pp.476-492), which mixes Utopian visionary hopes with windy rhetoric as he imagines a future New Zealand drama which will somehow feed off a sense of liturgy.
And then there is the sort of rhetoric, which automatically alienates many. Dramatically casting himself in the role of prophet, Baxter has a dream calling him to Jerusalem and writes a letter (pp.569-571) to the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand which begins “From Hemi the charismatic, the nobody, the dead man, who is also the Seed” and continues very much in the same self-dramatising vein.
Which brings us to the 584 pages of Volume 3 . This is the final phase, the “Jerusalem Years” (1969-72), with Baxter trying (and frankly failing) to separate himself from the literary life and run a commune for young dropouts at Jerusalem; and then returning (a little chastened and disillusioned) to Auckland and dying. Baxter’s social perspectives in these years are very much the same as they were in the mid-1960s, but – at least in small doses - this last volume is more readable than Volume 2 because it is more often angry and engaged. Baxter is still immersed in religion. He writes two long series of “Letters to a Priest”, all of them signed “Hemi” (pp.79-110 and pp.134-155). He does a form of social work among junkies in Grafton in Auckland and writes many articles of advocacy for them, including his long submission to a Committee on Drug Dependency and Drug Abuse (pp.73-78). Baxter is far more engaged with Maori, entering into dialogue with Nga Tamatoa and trying to reach deeper into the culture at Jerusalem on the Wanganui.
While he still contributes many book reviews to the New Zealand Listener, he himself now becomes the object of popular journalistic enquiry. John Weir chooses to include in this volume many articles, profiles and interviews written by journalists about Baxter. (Many are from the major dailies but a surprising number are from the Wanganui Chronicle, which would have been nearest to the Jerusalem commune.) We are given various drafts of Baxter’s Jerusalem Daybook about life on the commune, including the final published article (pp.294-341). There are still anti-war articles as the Vietnam War continues, and there are (sometimes in the Catholic press, sometimes not) Baxter’s rancorous arguments with his fellow Catholics. In a 1970 newspaper report “Poet Warns Against Seeking Possessions” (p.202), Baxter is quoted as saying “The Church is Catholic – universal – for all the people, yet it has given the Maori a European God. They will lose the Maori as they lost the working classes in France.” He is never slow to tell Catholics that they are Pharisaical, bourgeois and apparently lacking the spark, vision and lively spirituality that James K. Baxter himself possesses. Frequently Baxter curses New Zealand for having “a secular Trinity – the Dollar Note, Respectability, and the School Cert. exam.” (The phrase turns up in various articles – at pp.129-134; pp.181-182; and p.224). In other words, we are materialistic, class-bound and stifled by unimaginative formal education.
Baxter in these years was capable of the analytical lucidity that he had earlier brought to his long articles on New Zealand poetry. You can see this in a long interview he did with John Weir (pp.356-365) in which he calmly dissects his own public image, and answers pointed questions, as when Weir asks “[in using mythological references and imagery] are you not going against your stated position of reflecting the world as it is?”
But as I have said judiciously above, this third volume is bracing to read “in small doses”. The fact is, much of Baxter’s vigorous polemic in these years becomes oppressive and repetitive. Indeed, it becomes rant. As he curses and excoriates bourgeois and capitalist society, Baxter will every so often drop in a phrase telling us that he is no Marxist and that he is guided by Jesus. But there is a fearful naivete to much that he writes – a readiness to assume that people can be neatly categorised as humane or inhumane, truly Christian or sham Christian, middle-class or “authentic”. There is little nuance, little middle ground. He often enough condemns old puritanical theologies (Calvinist or Jansenist) that threatened people with hellfire, yet he clearly sees the world as divided into the saved and the damned.
If you wish to see him at his worst, look at his “Militancy in the Schools” (pp.558-562), supposedly about education, which begins “If you are happy at school, it may be a sign you are a volkwit [tee hee] who would be happy in Buchenwald.” It continues in much the same hysterical vein. There is little room for nuance in later Baxter’s prose and frankly there is little exercise of real charity, except to those whom Baxter has anointed as his comrades.
How do I sum up this boxed set of (nearly) all the prose that Baxter wrote, outside private letters? It is a titanic job of editing. It is a job that will not have to be done again. If anyone requires book-and-verse for Baxter’s views on literature and on a whole range of social issues, they will find it here. John Weir has produced a colossal piece of work. Not only are we reminded of the sheer volume of Baxter’s writing, but we are reminded of how good he was as a critic – especially of New Zealand poetry. His critical art was one of engagement – trying to connect poetry to the popular voice, not getting mired in academic technicalities, and showing a thorough insider knowledge of what he was talking about.
But, though I have read my way through these volumes, I would not advise other readers to do so. Baxter’s Complete Prose would be better approached as a work of reference. When read in toto, one finds that too many of the same themes are struck again and again. In his later stages, Baxter’s polemic becomes shrill. His simplifications grate. I would accept that, for all his posturing and self-dramatising, Baxter was set on a genuine spiritual journey (which is treated with reverence by Weir). His views on Maori were a couple of decades ahead of other Pakeha thinking. But too often he wrote as if he were the only person in the land enlightened enough to see the dangers of materialism and monoculturalism. Suburb-dwellers are repeatedly demonised. A Manichaean dichotomy rules in his thinking and one’s head is done in.
A Small and Possibly Presumptuous Footnote: In reading all the collected prose of James K. Baxter, and especially reading the notes in the 4th volume, I was surprised at the number of times literals render 20th century dates as 19th century ones. For example, in Volume 4, Note 465, p.348, we are told that T.S.Eliot lived with John Hayward from “1846” to “1857”, when obviously 1946 to 1957 is intended. There are other examples of this particular glitch.