Sport 11: Spring 1993
It looks almost beautiful from a distance, especially with the sky reflected in it. But would you get in it?
Only occasionally blue, the Whanganui River is Baxter’s ‘slow, brown god’; repository of history and spirituality, but also courier for the sewage and waste of the town of Taumarunui and for all the chemicals and slop from thousands of acres of farmland.
Like the Whanganui River, New Zealand poetry is an impure stream, with numerous tributaries, offshoots and debris floating downriver. The larger-than-life, yet somehow elusive, figure of James K. Baxter, instead of helping to clarify or define this river, has served only to muddy it further. Baxter could be thought of, conveniently, as a marker buoy or beacon—run-down, largely ignored, still standing although obscured by Time and its various tides.
There are a few other ways of looking at Baxter without looking at Baxter. Thinking about the younger poets New Zealand has produced since his death is one of them. It’s difficult to gauge the extent of Baxter’s influence over younger New Zealand poets because different people have taken different things—no school or convenient grouping has been forthcoming. However, while there are no obvious angles, there are vistas of refracted light and echoes or resonances.
Because Baxter was such a singular prophet-like figure, towering in his brilliance, his idiosyncrasy and even his stupidity, no one was going to directly inherit the role or step into his shoes. He served to atomise New Zealand poetry, leaving a chaos or variousness in his wake.
I suspect none of the poets mentioned in these notes would be comfortable with having the label BAXTER or BAXTERIAN stamped on any of their luggage, let alone on their person. But I’m left with a curious image after reading poetry by the younger writers of the 1980s.
In the image, a formation of young poets is walking into the distance, but—unbeknown to them, perhaps—there are mirrors on their backs. And in these mirrors Baxter is reflected, sometimes distorted and dishevelled, at page 136 other times appearing transcendental, saintly. The poets, themselves, are confidently walking into the future, instead of dwelling on this or any other past. But they still bear the image of Baxter on their backs.
The late Jerusalem Baxter advocated ‘free expression’ in both art and life. The fact that he was able to be himself and be brilliant at the same time sets him apart from the majority of writers who have followed. Even when discarding ‘art’s cloak’, his work is still permeated with a sense of that ‘art’, its tradition. What weaknesses and excesses the poet allows emerge as (to use Clement Greenberg’s phrase) ‘the necessary awkwardness and faux pas of original creation’. Despite his renunciations of style and ‘Literature’, Baxter did maintain command over the sound and sense of his material. When Baxter is ‘bad’ he is choosing to be, unlike some of his contemporaries or successors.
On the other hand, few poets in the 1990s could be accused of the excess Baxter manifested in both art and life—perhaps now that the staple crop of the counter-culture is the bean-sprout, not the marijuana plant, everyone’s less self-centred and ultimately more responsible.
‘The political potential of art lies only in its own aesthetic dimension. Its relation to praxis is inexorably indirect, mediated and frustrating. The more immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change.’ (Herbert Marcuse)
Since the ’70s there has been a widespread—but little discussed—tendency for the poem to be treated less as a crafted or ‘made’ artwork and more as the direct and urgent vehicle through which the poet vents his or her spleen.
That was the note Baxter went out on—witness his last dated poem, ‘Ode to Auckland’. The conviction and overtly stated political intent in Baxter’s ode aren’t very far removed from the ‘protest’ poetry of recent years, usually penned by women or Maori poets—Roma Potiki, Janet Charman, page 137 Heather MacPherson, Apirana Taylor, to name a few. * These poets have a far greater allegiance to Baxter than, say, to Curnow. Like the later Baxter, theirs is a poetry with a purpose—it is a stick with which to beat the narrow-minded and those in power: the politicians, the capitalists and the patriarchy. It can be a cry from the heart, a ‘primal scream’ even. Such ‘message’ poetry is aimed at a broader audience than the usual poetry crowd. Its relationship to its constituency is usually simple and direct—a broadcast on behalf of, as well as to, those of like heart and mind. The down-side of this manner of engagement is what worries Marcuse—sexual, racial and political agendas are a shaky ground for his ‘aesthetic dimension’ to stand convincingly on.
Baxter also anticipated the ‘paua shell goddess’ alternative spirituality embraced by many artists and writers since the 1970s—a kind of earth-religion orientation. His Catholicism often wandered off in the direction of pantheism, his work incorporating this, as well as a poetically-useful animism and a few errant strains of Zen Buddhism. For a lighter hearted manifestation of these now widespread spiritual fixations, you could turn to the anarchic, cranky poetry of Iain Sharp:
In their most religious moments
the zen masters look like bandits . . .
Oh I love them. I love them.
I want to be one of their number.
I want to throw off my cardigan,
my socks, my shirt, my trousers,
don a tattered old kimono,
pick up my swag in a handkerchief
on the end of a bamboo pole,
and go where the reeds sway softly,
and the heron slices bare sky.
(‘Zen Art for Meditation’, Iain Sharp, She is trying to kidnap the blind person, Hard Echo Press 1985)
Keri Hulme’s poems manifest a localised spirituality, not exactly inherited from Baxter, but similarly sourced in an awareness of Maoritanga, a mystification of place, and a belief in the prophetic and oracular role of the poet. Hulme also indulges in a certain self-mythologisation which is very much in the Baxter mould—the poet as sounding board for the cosmos, as the stage on which various theological and ideological battles are fought.
The ballads and drinking songs Baxter drew from also feature in Hulme’s lineage—although she isn’t so practised at the art. Because of their informality, or lack of interesting or original form, and their (intentional) naivety, Hulme’s ‘Wine Songs’ (collected in Strands, AUP 1992) read only as curious out-takes from the novelist’s consciousness.
Baxter’s integration of poetry and prose in books like Jerusalem Daybook foreshadows the emergence of the prose-poem as a viable form in local writing. His ‘Elegy for Boyle Crescent’ consisted of a series of prose fragments and appeared in Islands 1 (Spring, 1972), where it was listed in the journal’s contents as ‘Verse’, a radical redefinition for its time. Since then, the prose poem has been a minor but noteworthy stream in New Zealand poetry. Writers including Murray Edmond, Jenny Bornholdt, Michael Harlow, Dinah Hawken, Michael Morrissey and Miro Bilbrough, to name a few, have pursued it.
Another late Baxter form, the journal or diary shuffling between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’—ultimately avoiding any distinction—has been developed by writers including Hulme, Bornholdt, Anne Kennedy and Cilla McQueen.