Sport 11: Spring 1993
‘Turning Brown and Torn in Two’ *
‘Turning Brown and Torn in Two’
Something that strikes me, reading Baxter, is a curious lack of any real mysticism. It’s obvious that, for someone who wrote and talked extensively about the reflective life, Baxter never achieved anything like the meditative or monastic state. Stillness, detachment, profound silence are all qualities hard to associate with any phase of Baxter’s life. Interestingly, of the Ninepage 126
Permanent Emotions of Indian mystical thought . . .
. . . ‘tranquillity’ is the only one Baxter never quite embodied. While the poems hanker after a coherent and convincing spirituality, they seldom attain it. Baxter, arguably, never reached a state of mystical ‘simplicity’ and ‘acceptance’, probably because he was too immersed in this world, or else obsessively opposed to it. Militancy and monasticism are tricky weights to balance.
He was also obsessed with the externalisation of his beliefs and perceptions—he couldn’t internalise them—and, as a result, the process they enacted tended to be a public rather than a private one. Critic Alan Riach points to: ‘Baxter’s erratic but easily identifiable procedure as a "maximalist" poet: the social vision he implies in his poetry is one he wished to extend in material terms to the organisation and functioning of society itself’.
Apart from his astonishing ability at—and commitment to—‘making’ the poem, Baxter lacked any real discipline—another prerequisite for the meditative life. The poet’s legendary barefoot walks up the River Road to Jerusalem appear more like masochism or showmanship than any convincing display of self-control and transcendence. It almost seems a kind of vanity that kept Baxter so bedraggled and ill-kempt. In removing himself from the bounds of societal expectations and propriety, he was—unconsciously perhaps—raising himself above that society. And, from there, he could sit in judgement on it.
Following in the great New Zealand tradition of the jack-of-all-trades, Baxter set himself up as an amateur theologian. His ‘religious‘ books have energy and conviction, but suffer on account of their erratic learning and hurried composition. (At the time of writing, John Weir is compiling a volume of Baxter’s prose writings—that will be an interesting indicator of what aspects of his thought remain interesting or valid.)
Neither a theologian nor a mystic, his writings don’t ascribe to either of the two strands or modes of religious thought. Without a deep understanding of theology as a system and without the truly revelatory insights of a mystic, Baxter’s religious writings are marooned somewhere in the middle, on their own peculiar ground. They remain interesting only for what they reveal of their author and the fruity 1960s, not for their depth or insight into matters of the Church and State. They also throw a curious and less than flattering light on the poetry, emphasising, as they do, the weaknesses as opposed to the strengths. Quite often, in books like Six Faces of Love and Thoughts about the Holy Spirit, the writing slumps into apologetics for Baxter’s own shortcomings and far-from-hidden agendas.
* Heading from the title of a song by Chris Knox.