Sport 11: Spring 1993
The Right Substance
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 Listenerand 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.
The interesting and perturbing thing about the way Baxter embraced the counter-culture, its values and vocabulary, is that he did so with a whole-hearted commitment and sincerity—whereas, 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). As well as leaving their imprint on Baxter’s later poems, the intentionally abrasive, psychedelic ’60s, to a large extent, shaped those poems. Perhaps it was the breadth of the poet’s genius that enabled him to 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 his own personal beliefs and views or else the poetry can pose a problem. The reader has to grapple with a kind of hippy 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’.* His poetry had shed page 129 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. The late poetry constantly risks being heavy-handed and over-blown—but, for Baxter, that was a far lesser sin than being effete or ineffectual. Baxter was, after all, a man with a mission.
* 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 dayglow Price Milburn coffers of the late ‘Jerusalem’ books. From the late 1960s until his death, Baxter resorted to all manner of mimeographed publication—A walking stick for the blind 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.