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Sport 11: Spring 1993

A Man with a Mission

A Man with a Mission

black and white drawing

‘It is not the worldly eclecticism of multiple knowledge that enriches but perseverance in a favourable furrow and the loving silent effort of a whole life.’

(Georges Rouault)

For the twelfth anniversary of Baxter’s death, Father Eugene O’Sullivan, of the Catholic chaplaincy at Auckland University, organised a memorial poetry reading and exhibition. The reading itself was a memorable, slightly incongruous affair involving perhaps 60 people—nuns, elderly flower children, academics, potters, poets and painters. I recall the American writer Bill Millett arriving with poet-critic Iain Sharp, both wearing white shirts, black trousers, jackets and shoes, looking every bit like the Blues Brothers.*

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At one point during the Newman Hall reading, Bill Millett stood up and recounted how Baxter, in his last days, had worked at Millett’s Psychedelic Poster Shop in Mt Eden Road. Millet remembered Baxter as ‘a hopeless worker with useless hands . . . he couldn’t do anything with them’. As the story goes, the job didn’t last long and the poet’s life only a little longer.


‘You don’t enter a Tradition the way you get on a bus waiting for your number to be called. It requires deeper and subtler affinities.’ (Georges Rouault)


Like the Newman Hall reading, theses notes might themselves be a kind of ‘wake’. It would be interesting to see who, 20 years after Baxter’s death, would turn up at such a function: a random assortment of poets (the young, the in-love and the defeated-in-love), depending on who’s available, who’s in town at the time.

Millet’s off-sider at the Newman Hall function, Iain Sharp, published three books of verse in the early to mid 1980s. Sharp’s poems, like those of Bill Manhire, provide an interesting, off-key counterpoint to Baxter’s tune, a mischievous gloss. Both Sharp and Manhire usually incorporate a central talking/feeling/seeing poet-persona within the work—only theirs is a Pierrot-like clown mutation of the Poet with a capital P. They set out to sabotage the reader’s expectations instead of confronting the reader head on. They play the Disappearing or Invisible Man to Baxter’s Omnipresent Man. Of all the conversations with Baxter’s shade at this imaginary wake, Manhire’s and Sharp’s are the most oblique and the most amusing.

How to relax in this world,
that’s the real question . . .

(‘The Real Question’, Iain Sharp, 1985)

* Since then Iain Sharp has gone on to become the Blues Brother—singular—of New Zealand literature—smarter and harder hitting than everyone else, and, arguably, better dressed. (Baxter was certainly the worst dressed person in the history of New Zealand letters, apart from his brief, fashionable forays into wrong-way-round coat wearing during his Otago University days. While he dressed badly, he certainly dressed the part—particularly in his counterculture, sage-like later years. The clothing became part of that myth. Baxter’s sheer audacity and extremism, in this instance and elsewhere, bring us around to Aristotle’s assertion that ‘poetry implies a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness’.)