Sport 11: Spring 1993
It is April 1986. A surprisingly large crowd has gathered in a church at the top of Ponsonby Road. Fr Eugene O’Sullivan is to read Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets. The church interior is virtually blacked out, except for a reading lamp on a small table at the front. Eugene is sitting in a wheelchair beside the table, his nervous hands holding a first edition of the Sonnets.
Eugene starts reading to the invisible audience, his faint voice breathy and straining, his frail legs twisted uncomfortably beneath him. He reads the sonnets. And as the reading progresses, his wheelchair begins to move slowly towards the audience—Eugene is slipping away from the light of the lamp and into the blackness. As he moves forward, he is reduced to a silhouette—but the poems continue unabated despite the fact the book has vanished into the shadow of his torso. And the pages, in darkness, continue to turn—every two sonnets. By the time the sequence is brought to a close, Eugene’s knees are almost touching the knees of someone in the front row of the audience.
If, in recent years, Baxter’s poetry has been seen as irrelevant or marginal, it’s also worth noting that the 1970s and, more dramatically, the 1980s have undermined (and, for that matter, mocked) much of what the poet argued for: the socialist state, the truly catholic church, the need to acknowledge, as Pakeha, that the Maori is ‘our spiritual elder brother’ in the profound and radical way Baxter prescribed.
Within the poems themselves, much now appears outmoded—Despair, the Void, the Soul, all the Gods and Goddesses—have become clichéd and largely discredited (although poets including Hulme, Hawken, Roma Potiki and Heather MacPherson still tread this Christian / post-Christian turf, albeit in a self-confident revisionist manner).
Other lines of influence leading back to Baxter could be traced than those mentioned here. An equally valid line could be drawn through poets like Lauris Edmond, Fleur Adcock, Vincent O’Sullivan, Kevin Ireland, Brian Turner and Anne French. Or how about Hone Tuwhare, Peter Olds, Sam Hunt, David Mitchell, David Eggleton, Apirana Taylor, Roma Potiki . . . And that’s without introducing such complicated and relevant figures as C. K. Stead and Leigh Davis into the picture.
Baxter’s idea of the poet as the conscience of the people doesn’t hold much water these days. It’s a naive notion anyway—Ian Wedde’s seeing the poet as a ‘sceptic’, located just outside the mainstream of society, is a better and more humble model for the 1990s. The poet no longer has to manifest the ‘illness of the tribe’ like the measel or leper in the early church. He or she no longer has to suffer on everyone’s behalf.
The Poet, as embodied in Baxter, was responsible to his Ideals, but—in his case—was also paradoxically irresponsible. He behaved badly, was capable of the extraordinary inconsistencies and contradictions which were to prove creatively fertile but personally disastrous. At the same time as he espoused the poet as ‘cell of good living’, he was a great misbehaver, like Dylan Thomas ‘a lover of the human race, especially of women’.
Yet, somehow, James K. Baxter’s poetry maintains its gravity, its conviction and its profundity. During Eugene O’Sullivan’s reading of the Jerusalem Sonnets, these qualities were staggering and undeniable. It also struck me, at the aforementioned occasion, how the poems could maintain their grip on a theologian like Eugene who, during Baxter’s life, constantly page 151 questioned and challenged him, who never accepted for a moment Baxter’s personal, artistic and ideological excesses. But Eugene would have been first to acknowledge the transcendental quality of the poetry. Arising, as it did, so deeply out of the experience of one person it was capable of becoming the experience of many.