Sport 11: Spring 1993
liner notes for an album
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 17 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
STAMP OUT BARE FEET
Whenever making the Sydney-Melbourne road journey during the early 1980s, I always found this sign an occasion for reflection. When visiting Australia in 1987, I discovered the billboard had disappeared as, I suspect, had the small-town shoe factory.
Les Murray: . . . sounds to me as if the deification of Baxter might be over.
Iain Sharp: I think it’s well and truly over. In the ’70s it would have been provocative to say Baxter was a bit of a phoney. Now it seems to be the majority opinion.
(Interview, Landfall166, 1988)
In the early 1980s, the painters Nigel Brown and Philip Clairmont wrote an irate letter to the NZ Listener complaining about the imposition of an admission fee by the family on whose front lawn Baxter is buried. The walk page 124 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 weedeater).
Baxter, in the afterlife, continues the same paradoxical, compromised existence he suffered, bemoaned and celebrated up until his death in 1972. Baxter’s present situation seems almost appropriate—a curious blend of ‘real life’ and ‘romanticism’: While the grave on the hill is as close to ‘the middle of nowhere’ as you’ll ever get, the ‘user pays’ principles of commerce extend even that far. There’s an earthy Baxterian justice about the situation, and an appropriate measure of humour. A similar note is struck by a typical late-Baxter ‘fable’ (from his 1972 tract A walking stick for an old man) in which a Maori farmer asks Baxter if he would like some potatoes for the winter. ‘Yes,’ Baxter replies. The farmer then leads the poet behind the houses and shows him a Weld of undug potatoes. ‘There you are,’ he says. ‘They’re yours if you like to dig them up.’
There’s a rugged wisdom in the potato anecdote—a ‘tribal’ rule-of-thumb which, for the late Jerusalem Baxter, always took precedence over ‘book-learning’ and intellectual inquiry. Baxter’s retreat into ‘peasant’ life has since been paralleled by the British writer/critic John Berger who has lived for the past fifteen years in a French peasant village. Both Berger and Baxter rejected urban, capitalist culture and found meaning and spiritual significance in a more ‘grounded’ existence. Both have eulogised everything from pondlife to farmlife to primitive sanitary arrangements. Berger, however, succeeded in entering an already existent communal situation, whereas Baxter took on the role of anchorite and attempted to build such a situation virtually from the ground up.
Baxter’s notion of the poet as oracular, earthy and heroic certainly places him in a long Romantic line, or at least waist-deep in that murky stream. He undoubtedly bathed, or basked, in the Romantic poet’s preoccupation with the expression of individual feeling. Like the British artist Henri Fuseli, he was (to quote Edward Lucie-Smith) ‘captivated by the idea of the exceptional man, to whom all things were permitted, and who would transform his own experiences and emotions into art through the power of his imagination’.
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’.)