Monday, August 8, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


Letter to my esteemed and much-valued friend Dr Iain Sharp

Dear Iain,

I know what you think of James K Baxter because you’ve told me a number of times. Besides, I’ve read that article you wrote 22 years ago for the old Quote – Unquote.  You excoriated Baxter for his verse excesses, his poetic melodrama, his insistent classical imagery and his pretensions to be an oracle. You also gave an anecdotal account (anecdotes are your strong suit, mate) about the dismissive glare he gave you when you were – as I was at that time – a well-dressed, well-presented middle-class student and he was the hippie sage who made it his business to despise all things bourgeois. You ended by saying you regretted not belting the “sanctimonious bastard” with the staff he was carrying.

As you know, your wide knowledge of NZ Lit sometimes intimidates me and makes me feel particularly ill-informed. So I am loath to disagree with you publicly on the matter of JKB. But I will beg to differ on some matters.

Let me give you a little context.

Being about your age, I was only 20 when Baxter died and I saw him only twice.

Once was when he delivered a guest lecture in the University of Auckland’s B28 lecture theatre. (Remember that? It was where all the visiting speakers did their lunch-break shows.) I can’t remember a thing of what he said. I only remember that he was well into his bedraggled, bearded, long-haired Jerusalem phase, and at the end of the lecture he looked around, noticed the “No Smoking” sign and said “Well, I don’t mean to burn the building down” and ostentatiously lit up. With the maturity of my 20 years I thought “What a wanker”.

The second time was a private poetry reading he did. Being a good Catholic boy, I went down to Newman Hall, the Catholic students’ centre, to an evening with Jim Baxter arranged by the genial and witty Father Eugene O’Sullivan. Baxter did not read any of his own poems, but he read some of his favourites by other poets, including an abridged version of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. I thought he read very well. I know you think he was a “cagey, manipulative ham actor” in his personal interactions, but he could be a very good platform performer, so this must have been one of his on-evenings.

Anyway, at the end of his reading there was a q.-and-a. Being a nerd I asked a spectacularly nerdy question. I can’t remember exactly how I phrased it, but it was just this side of the banality of “Where do you get your ideas?” At once Baxter snapped “No, I’m not here to discuss my own poems” and gave me what I imagine was the sort of dismissive glare of which you have complained. For all I know, I was wearing a tie. He wanted to discuss social problems and he wanted to orate. Cued by a couple of questions, he began to orate. It got personal. He began to tell us about his sins. He said “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh Jim, Jim, you should go back to your wife and fix the harms you’ve done.’ ” There was a lot more in the same vein. I found it embarrassing. The public confession of sins is not a Catholic tradition. (When we used to confess sins, we did it in the privacy of a dark, closed box, thanks.) Leave public confessions to foot-washing Baptists in the Ozarks. It always has that taste of inverted pride: “Look at me! I want you all to know that I’m a great sinner and I suffer more greatly than you do and therefore Dostoievsky and me are more saintly than you are.” In a review he wrote of the forgotten George Barker’s poetry in 1951, Baxter spoke with distaste of Barker’s “brass-band of self-accusation”. Now Baxter was the one blowing the tuba.

Anyway, there was one loud student sceptic in the audience, perhaps lubricated with drink, who had arrived with his girlfriend. As Baxter’s verbal self-flagellation continued, he began to say sarcastically “Oh Poor Jim! Oh Poor Fucking Jim!” As his voice got louder his girlfriend became agitated and finally hustled him up the stairs to the exit trying to shush him. But we could still hear one more “Poor Fucking Jim!” as they went out into the street. I thought it was apt commentary.

As you may have gathered from all this, I am as aware as you are of the self-dramatising, role-playing and (if you like) posing side of Baxter in his later phase. I thought as a student some of the things he said about society were spot-on, but I did already intuit that simplistic line of thought in him, which condemned anybody who wasn’t going to (literally) do the Saint Francis routine. “You’re all blinkered, materialistic and middle-class. I am the prophet come to redeem you, like Amos lashing the cows of Bashan!” It’s this line that leads him to such abominations as his final, execrable Ode to Auckland. (I remember old Ron Holloway shaking his head over this effusion and regretting that Baxter no longer wrote the type of poetry in which he praised Ron’s sometime printing partner Bob Lowry as a “stone volcanic god”).

Another anecdote. About 20 years later I was the resident film reviewer on a glossy magazine. One day I was having lunch with one of the staff-writers, and she asked me out of the blue “What do you Catholics think of James K. Baxter?” Wondering what the point of the question was, I said honestly that, as far as I knew, Catholic opinion about the man was as divided and various as the opinions about him of the rest of the population. There were those who thought he was “Saint Hemi” come to save the nation (I wasn’t one of them), those who thought he was a great poet, those who thought he was a pretty good poet who went off the rails, and those who thought he was a drop-out bum and a menace (usually the last group were those who had never read a word he wrote). She nodded and the conversation went on to other matters. In the next issue of the glossy, I saw she had written a feature article about (Shock! Horror!) Jim Baxter’s illegitimate kids. In retrospect, I believe she thought I was going to spin the “Saint Hemi” line and then she would have the pleasure of telling me what a charlatan, sexual adventurer and delinquent he was in his personal life. But I think I already knew that.

Another piece of context. You might recall that 1972, the year of Baxter’s death, was a miserable year for me. In fact, one of my worst. Only my first year of school-teaching could match it for misery. In late 1970, one of our lecturers (I can’t remember if it was Allen Curnow or Kendrick Smithyman) told us at the end of a lecture that old Archibald Baxter had died. He added: “He meant a lot to Jim.” Less than two years later, in 1972, JKB himself died, aged only 46. In 1972, bibulous old Professor Arthur Sewell, the father of my late good friend Bill Sewell, died. And then of course, in 1972 my father died, aged only 56. I remember Bill - who could give wicked impersonations of his father under the influence - saying in his very English way: “Well I expected my father to die, but I thought it was awfully unfair that your’s did too.” 1972 was a year of bereavements, and I always place Baxter in that tender context.

So far, I don’t think my impressions of Baxter-the-man are too far from your own. But when it comes to the poetry, we will have to differ politely. I can see just as well as you can the strains of Yeats and Hardy and Thomas that run through his earlier stuff. I know that he could overdo it and go inappropriately grandiloquent. I also know that he simply wrote too damned much and wasn’t his own best critic. Yes, like you I sometimes say: “Get off your high horse, Jimmy! ”  But please do give him the credit for moving on. Baxter’s late and more terse, colloquial Jerusalem poems are as far from his early romantic scene-scapes as Yeats’ Crazy Jane is from his early Celtic Twilight. I think there’s a big change of direction in Howrah Bridge and Other Poems. And on top of that, I have to say that I’m still impressed by some of the early romantic stuff. Remember, as I said once before on this blog, Baxter’s TheFallen House (from 1953) was the first grown-up poetry I read by choice as a teenager, and I loved it. Take one of the poems you particularly detest, “Wild Bees”. I liked the very lines you hate (“Oh it was Carthage under the Roman torches, / Or loud with flames and falling timber, Troy.”) because they appealed to my adolescent habit of seeing huge events in small things. I've always been one to watch ants and insects going about their brainless business and anthropomorphising them. It’s the same impulse as your countryman Robert Louis Stevenson imagining armies marching on his childhood bedspread; or Hans Christian Andersen making epics out of tin toy soldiers. I think if I were one of Baxter’s boyhood hive-raiders, I would have seen the little creatures being burnt out in just the same terms as he does in his poem. A city is falling. Maybe I have a childish imagination, but there it is.

I could go on tediously with praise for other of his poems (and due recognition of his many duds), but there is something else that amuses me about him, and puts me on his side. He wasn’t an academic. He spent ten years dawdling through a BA and never got further in formal higher education. But his best critiques of New Zealand poetry are better and more meaningful than what academe was producing on the same topic. And they are very readable, even when you disagree with them. Obviously Baxter himself sometimes crowed (or smirked) about this and in his later phase damned academe in the same extreme tones in which he damned all formal education. A comparison could be made with another non-academic writer of his era, the autodidact Frank Sargeson; but as Sargeson’s correspondence reveals [see post on Letters of Frank Sargeson], Sargeson was a lot more snotty and vindictive about (and, I suspect, jealous of) academics than Baxter was.

Perhaps you can infer from this that I am more on the side of the raucous, but informed, non-academic than the cautious, foot-noting academic when it comes to criticism.

At this point and on cue, I was about to launch into the inevitable comparison between non-academic poet James K. Baxter and academic-poet Allen Curnow, with all the silly arguments about who was the better poet. But I don’t have the heart to go there. Curnow would never have written something as vulgar, scatological, ill-mannered and vomitous as Baxter’s Ode to Auckland; but then Baxter would never have written something as lip-curling, smug, vindictive and plain nasty as Curnow’s Dichtung und Wahrheit. You see they could both hit the heights but both had feet of clay. Like the plodder that I am, I’ll simply judge them on individual poems and say they come out fairly even.

My final shot, dear Iain. We both know the posing, staff-carrying, play-acting of the later Baxter, and both of us being essentially well-behaved suburban boys, we react against it. But if somebody was going to create an iconic theatrical image for New Zealanders to heed, I think Baxter created a pretty good one. Even if the commune went bung and hopes for a kind of Christian Age of Aquarius were deluded, it's still good that there's this image of anti-materialism to set against the commercial grind that still dominates us. Damning Baxter for playing this theatrical role is a bit like damning an actor for not literally being Hamlet.
 Or take it from another angle. If you or I met Byron or Baudelaire or Ezra Pound in the flesh, wouldn’t we be as repulsed by their posing, theatricality and self-mythologisation as you were by smelly, barefoot, rosary-bead-rattling Jim Baxter?
Okay, let's now judge the man by the mixed bag of words he's left us.

Ars longa, vita brevis and all that. (Which in Baxter’s case means he had a long arse but a short life.)

Yours in friendly and fraternal disagreement



  1. My friend's mother (affectionately known as Ma Baker) was a very good friend of James Baxter. He died while looking for where she was living in bayview on Auckland's North shore. She always spoke very fondly of him.

  2. My resistance to Baxter, although notorious, is not absolute and implacable. Among the thousands of poems he wrote there are at least a few hundred I admire. Fifteen years ago, when I was invited to edit the first edition of the annual online Best New Zealand Poems, I bent the rules to the maximum to include a newly re-discovered little poem by Baxter. While it was not, to be honest, one of his strongest works, I felt at the time – and still feel – there needed to be something pointing towards Baxter's prodigious output on a site claiming to present the country's "best" verse.

    When I was young, I thought I had made a big important discovery when I could see the general disdain for other people and the hunger for self-beatification lurking behind Baxter's masquerade of compassion. Now that I am in my 60s, having encountered along the way plenty of people who would not trouble themselves with even a pretence of compassion, I'm inclined to judge hammy old Hemi less harshly.

  3. I was becoming worried by your initial paragraphs: the usual criticism of Baxter and all his foibles, misjudgment,silly posing and sins. All that well known stuff. I did enjoy your comments about Bill Sewell & his bibulous father- I hadn't heard that. I am older than yourself & Ian Sharp and as fan of Baxter in his Burns Fellowship days experienced a gentle and sensitive poet ready to listen to others. I was relieved when you looked more widely at Baxter as poet & the poetry. To dismiss the quality of the poetry- well, I couldn't imagine you'd do this as one of our soundest literary critics.