James K Baxter
- Category : Writers-Critic
- Type : ME
- Profile : 4/6 - Opportunistic / Role Model
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Service 2
New Zealand writer, a poet, dramatist, literary critic and social commentator. Baxter was born into an Otago farming family where legend has it that his dad, Archibald, prayed that he "might have a poet for a son." James, his first-born son indeed became one of New Zealand’s finest poets though often a controversial figure at odds with a society unable to stomach his criticism.
He was known as Jim, or later by a nickname, "Hemi." His parent’s politics, distinctly leaning to the left, profoundly influenced him, as did their contrasting backgrounds. Where his dad came from farmers in the Scottish highlands, his mom was a strong-minded professor's daughter. On the boy’s first day in school, he burnt his hand, symbolizing an initial aversion to formal education. He went on to Quaker schools. This was not a good period for pacifists and the family was suspected of spying. James was bullied, and his brother Terence sent into detention as a military defaulter. Adolescence was a solitary time, but Baxter felt that his experiences ‘created a gap in which the poems were able to grow’. Indeed, as a teenager between 1942 and 1946 he drafted some 600 poems.
Though he was an unmotivated student, he loved words and was inspired by the moderns who spoke of the social battles of the time. He enrolled at Otago University in 1944 at a time when he won the Macmillan Brown literary prize for "Convoys" and Caxton Press published his first collection, "Beyond the Palisade" to critical acclaim.
He was already approaching alcoholism to the extent that he lost his first love, a young medical student. An even more important relationship began in 1947 when he met Jacqueline Sturm.
From 1945 to ’47, he dropped out to work in factories and farms, an experience that later went into his novel "Horse," 1985. In late 1947 Baxter moved to Christchurch, ostensibly to renew his university studies, but actually to visit a Jungian psychologist. He began incorporating Jungian symbolism into his poetic theory and practice. He periodically attended lecture and took various menial jobs, all the time reading copiously and writing consistently.
In 1948, "Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness," confirmed Baxter as the pre-eminent poet of his generation. His interest in religion culminated in baptism as an Anglican, and, despite considerable parental concern, he and Jacquie were married in St John’s Cathedral,
Napier. The young couple moved to Wellington and both enrolled at Victoria University College. Their association of a generation of writers that included W.H. Oliver, Alistair Campbell and Louis Johnson became known as the Wellington Group. Completing his Teachers’ College course, Baxter attended Victoria University in 1953 and was assistant master at Lower Hutt’s Epuni School in 1954. He continued publishing poetry and criticism.
In late 1954, Baxter joined Alcoholics Anonymous and remained true to the twelve steps for the rest of his life, sponsoring other alcoholics and visiting prisons to speak. An inheritance was sufficient to buy a home in the Wellington suburb of Ngaio. In 1955 he received his BA and the following year, left the school. His work was severely criticized in 1957 but in 1958, his greatest success was a radio play that was adapted for the stage in 1950 and made into a film in 1979.
He converted to Catholicism, which seemed to his wife to be an astonishing move and they separated in October 1957. He took his first communion in the R.C. Church in 1958. A UNESCO Fellowship to study educational publishing in Japan and India gave Baxter and Jacquie a chance to reconcile. He left for Japan in September 1958 and the family joined him later in India. Baxter was overwhelmed by the poverty and the situation of ethnic minorities, the impact of which haunted his imagination and his poetry. He returned to New Zealand wasted by dysentery and increasing disillusionment with society.
Drama became his vehicle to express his criticism. "The Wide Open Cage," staged in 1959 by Richard Campion, explored themes such as guilt and alienation in
relationships. Its success inspired Baxter to write "Three Women and the Sea," 1961 and "The Spots of the Leopard," 1962.
In 1963 he went to work as a postman, leading to his light-hearted "The Ballad of the Soap Powder Lock-Out," about the postal workers’ industrial action against delivering heavy soap powder samples. More significant were a number of polemical poems protesting the Vietnam War. In 1966–67, Baxter was honored at the University of Otago. It was a triumphant homecoming for the man who had left 20 years earlier under a cloud of failure. He took an active part in university life, protesting against Vietnam and satirizing the university prohibition against student cohabitation in a pamphlet. Revisiting the site of his painful but formative adolescence also impelled Baxter to revisit, in his poetry, the themes and locales of the verse of that period.
Though the extent of his creative output is staggering, a marked change in style accompanied these variations on earlier themes. Whereas the youthful poetry might, with ponderous metre and Latinate diction, move towards a final grand, sonorous phrase, now unrhymed run-on couplets (increasingly the unit of choice in Baxter’s later work) create a tone both direct and personal. Baxter’s later poetry becomes stripped of artifice and abstraction, until all that remains is a personal voice ‘almost ostentatiously matter of fact’ (Vincent O’Sullivan).
In 1967, Baxter also published two volumes of criticism and saw a number of his plays and mimes staged by Dunedin director Patric Carey. His experiences as an alcoholic and working with alcoholics supplied a usefully emblematic ‘tribal’ context within which human frailties were examined through a mythical, or archetypal, lens.
Within himself, Baxter continued to struggle with both his belief system and his marriage, feeling trapped by domesticity and finding it difficult to relate to his children.
Around April 1968 he began to plan a small community at a small Maori mission station on the Wanganui river where he could live without money or books, worship God and work the land. The family returned to Wellington in December and he began his pilgrimage. He first worked in Auckland but was unable to hold a job at the sugar factory. He settled there in a cluster of run-down squats in the suburbs of Grafton in Easter 1969, a center of drug addicts. He set about counseling and trying to establish the Twelve Steps. Barefoot, bearded and shabby, he was kept in surveillance by the police. By August 1969, he headed for Jerusalem, his proposed commune on the river, where he aimed to recover the simple values of Maori communal life. In practice, he could not regulate the order he envisioned and he made the locals uneasy with his interference. He returned to Wellington in September 1971 but returned in February 1972 to his Jerusalem with a smaller, tighter nucleus of fellow idealists. Through each of his moves, volumes of poetry explored his philosophy.
By August 1972 Baxter was drained, physically and emotionally. He sought refuge on a small commune in Auckland where he died of a coronary thrombosis on 10/22/1972. His body was escorted back by his family to Jerusalem where, in a rare honor, he received a full Maori tangi and was buried on tribal land, attended by hundreds of people from the many walks of life with which he had merged.