James K. Baxter. Courtesy New Zealand Book Council.

James K Baxter
Born June 29, 1926(1926-Template:MONTHNUMBER-29)
Dunedin, New Zealand
Died October 22, 1972(1972-Template:MONTHNUMBER-22) (aged 46)
Auckland, New Zealand
Nationality New Zealand
Occupation Poet
Influenced by Dylan Thomas
Political movement Wellington Group

James Keir Baxter (June 29, 1926 - October 22, 1972) was a New Zealand poet. The Encyclopædia Britannica says that his "mastery of versification and striking imagery made him one of New Zealand’s major modern poets."[1]

Life[edit | edit source]

Baxter was born in Dunedin to Millicent (Brown) and Archibald Baxter, He was named after James Keir Hardie, a founder of the British Labour Party. His father had been a conscientious objector during World War I. His mother had studied at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Sydney, the University of Sydney and Newnham College.

Baxter grew up near Brighton. On his 1st day of school, he burned his hand on a stove, an incident he later used to represent the failure of institutional education. As a child he contrasted the social order represented by his maternal grandfather with the clan mentality of his Scottish father and frequently drew analogies between the Highland clans and the Māori tribes.

Baxter, like the comparable Francis Webb in Australia, claims to have begun writing poetry at the age of 7, and it is certain that he accumulated a large body of technically-accomplished work both before and during his teenage years. He continued to write throughout his lifetime, although his frequent shifts of religion and lifestyle were the center of much controversy and speculation.

In 1944, at age 17, he joined the University of Otago, and that year he published his debut collection of poetry, Beyond the Palisades, to much critical acclaim. His work during this time was, as with his contemporary compatriots (most notably experimental novelist Janet Frame), largely influenced by the modernist works of Dylan Thomas.

James K. Baxter and J.C. Sturm. Courtesy Horiwood's Blog.

He was a member of the so-called "Wellington Group" of writers that also included Louis Johnson, W.H. Oliver and Alistair Campbell.

Baxter failed to complete his course work at the University of Otago and was forced to take a range of odd jobs, most notably a cleaner at Chelsea Sugar Refinery, which inspired the poem "Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works". In 1948 Baxter married New Zealand poet and story writer J.C. Sturm.

and at about the same time his interest in Christianity culminated in his joining the Catholic church.

In February 1951 Baxter enrolled at Wellington Teachers’ College. In 1952 his son, John, was born and a selection of poems in a collaborative volume, Poems Unpleasant, was published. Having completed his course at teachers’ college in December, Baxter spent 1953 in full-time study at Victoria University College and that year published his 3rd major collection, The Fallen House. In 1954 he was appointed assistant master at Epuni School, Lower Hutt. He received a B.A. in 1956.

While at the University of Otago Baxter began drinking heavily. By 1954 he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous. By 1955 he had garnered a substantial legacy and could afford a comfortable house in Ngaio, Wellington. He left Epuni School early in 1956 to write and edit primary school bulletins for the Department of Education’s School Publications Branch. This period is likely to have influenced his writing providing material for numerous attacks on bureaucracy.

In 1957 Baxter took a course in Roman Catholicism, and his collection of poems In Fires of No Return, published in 1958, was influenced by his new faith. This was his earliest work to be published internationally, though English critics were largely nonplussed. His wife, a committed Anglican, was dismayed by his Catholicism, and they divorced in 1957. Through the late 50s and 60s Baxter visited the Southern Star Abbey a Cistercian monastery at Kopua near Central Hawke's Bay.[2]

The following year, 1958, Baxter received a UNESCO stipend and began an extended journey through Asia, and especially India, where Rabindranath Tagore's university Shantiniketan was one of the inspirations for Baxter's later community at Jerusalem. Here he was reconciled with his wife and contracted dysentery. His writing after returning from India was more overtly critical of New Zealand society. In the 1960s he became a powerful and prolific writer of both poems and drama, and it was through his radio play Jack Winter's dream that he became internationally known.

The beginning of the 1960s saw Baxter struggling to make ends meet on his postman's wage, having refused to take work as a schoolmaster. However, it was at this time that the collection of poems Pig Island Letters was published, in which his writing found a new level of clarity. In 1966, Baxter took up the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago.

In 1968 Baxter claimed that he had been instructed in a dream to 'Go to Jerusalem'. Jerusalem was a small Māori settlement (known by its Māori transliteration, Hiruharama) on the Whanganui River. He left his University position and a job composing catechetical material for the Catholic Education Board, with nothing but a bible. This was the culmination of a short period in which he struggled with family life and his vocation as a poet.

Baxter spent some time in Grafton, Auckland, where he set up a centre for drug addicts acting on the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1969 he adopted the Māori version of his name, Hemi, and moved to Jerusalem. He lived a sparse existence and made frequent trips to the nearby cities where he worked with the poor and spoke out against what he perceived as a social order that sanctions poverty. His poems of this time have a conversational style but speak strongly of his social and political convictions.

The harsh deprivations Baxter adopted at this time took their toll on his health. By 1972 he was too ill to continue living at Jerusalem and moved to a commune near Auckland. On October 22, 1972 he suffered a coronary thrombosis in the street and died in a nearby house, aged 46. He was buried at Jerusalem on Māori land in front of "the Top House" where he had lived, in a ceremony combining Māori and Catholic traditions.

Writing[edit | edit source]

Baxter typically wrote short lyric poems or cycles of the same rather than longer poems.

In his critical study Lives of Poets, Michael Schmidt defines Baxter's 'Jacobean consonantal rhetoric'.[3] Schmidt has claimed that Baxter was 'one of the most precocious poets of the century' whose neglect outside of New Zealand is baffling.[4] His writing was affected by his alcoholism. His work drew upon Dylan Thomas and Yeats; then on MacNeice and Lowell. Michael Schmidt identifies 'an amalgam of Hopkins, Thomas and native atavisms' in Baxter's 'Prelude N.Z.' [5]

Publications[edit | edit source]

Poetry[edit | edit source]

  • Beyond the Palisade. Christchurch, NZ: Caxton, 1944.
  • Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness. Christchurch, NZ: Caxton, 1948.
  • Hart Crane; a poem. Christchurch, NZ: Cat's Paw Press, 1948.
  • Poems Unpleasant, 1952 (with Louis Johnson & Anton Vogt). Christchurch, NZ: Pegasus Press, 1952.
  • The Fallen House. Christchurch, NZ: Caxton, 1953.
  • Lament for Barney Flanagan, Licensee of the Hesperus Hotel: A fine new poem. Wellington: privately published, 1954.
  • Traveller’s Litany. Wellington: Handcraft Press, 1955.
  • The Night Shift: Poems on aspects of love (with Charles Doyle, Louis Johnson, & Kendrick Smithyman). Wellington: Capricorn Press, 1957.
  • In Fires of No Return: Poems. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.
  • Chosen Poems. Bombay : Konkan Institute of Arts & Sciences, 1958.
  • The Ballad of Calvary Street. Wellington: privately published, 1960.
  • Howrah Bridge, and other poems. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.
  • A Selection of Poetry. Wellington: Poetry Magazine, 1964.
  • Pig Island Letters. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.
  • The Lion Skin: Poems. Dunedin, NZ: Bibliography Room, University of Otago, 1967.
  • The Man on the Horse. Dunedin, NZ: University of Otago Press, 1967.
  • The Rock Woman: Selected poems. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
  • Jerusalem Sonnets: Poems for Colin Durning. Dunedin, NZ: Bibliography Room, University of Otago, 1970.
  • Stonegut Sugar Works, Junkies and the Fuzz, Ode to Auckland, and other poems. Dunedin, NZ: Caveman Press, 1972
  • Autumn Testament. Wellington: Price Milburn, 1972
    • (reissued in 1998, edited by Paul Millar)
  • Four God Songs. Karori, NZ: Futuna Press, 1972.
  • Six Faces of Love. Karori, NZ: Futuna Press, 1972.
  • Runes. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
  • Two Obscene Poems. Adelaide: Mary Martin Books, 1973.
  • The Labyrinth: Some uncollected poems, 1944–1972. Wellington & New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
  • The Bone Chanter: Unpublished poems, 1945-1972 (edited by J.E. Weir). Oxford, UK, & New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • The Holy Life and Death of Concrete Grady: Various uncollected and unpublished poems (edited by J.E. Weir). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Collected Poems (edited by J.E. Weir). Wellington, South Melbourne, Vic, & New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Selected Poems (edited by J.E. Weir). Auckland & Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • Cold Spring: Baxter's unpublished early collection (edited by Paul Millar). Auckland, New York, & Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • New Selected Poems (edited by Paul Millar). Auckland & New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Poems (selected and introduced by Sam Hunt). Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2009
  • Selected Poems (edited by Paul Millar). Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010; Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2010.
  • Poems to a Glass Woman, 1944-1945 (edited by J.E. Weir). Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2012.

Plays[edit | edit source]

  • The Sore-Footed Man / The Temptations of Oedipus. Auckland: Heinemann, 1971.
  • Two Plays: The Wide Open Cage and Jack Winter's Dream. Hastings, NZ: Capricorn Press, 1959.
  • The Devil and Mr. Mulcahy / The Band Rotunda. Auckland: Heinemann, 1971.
  • Collected Plays (edited by Howard McNaughton). Auckland & New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Novel[edit | edit source]

  • Horse. Auckland & Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Non-fiction[edit | edit source]

  • Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry. Christchurch, NZ: Caxton, 1951.
  • The Fire and the Anvil: Notes on modern poetry. Wellington: New Zealand University Press, 1955.
  • The Iron Breadboard: Studies in New Zealand writing. Wellington: Mermaid Press, 1957.
  • Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand. Christchurch, NZ: Caxton, 1967.
  • The Flowering Cross. Dunedin, NZ: Tablet, 1970.
  • Jerusalem Daybook. Wellington: Price Miller, 1971 [1972]
  • James K. Baxter as Critic: A selection from his literary criticism (edited by F.M. McKay). London: Heinemann, 1978.

Juvenile[edit | edit source]

  • The Tree House, and other poems for children. Wellington: P. Milburn, 1974.
  • Selections from 'The Tree House': James K. Baxter's poems for children (edited by Eleanor Fern). Auckland: Scholastic, 2002.

Collected editions[edit | edit source]

  • Baxter Basics. New Zealand: Steele Roberts, 1978.
  • The Essential Baxter (edited by J.E. Weir). Auckland & New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Letters[edit | edit source]

  • Letter to Peter Olds. Dunedin, NZ: Caveman Press, 1972.
  • Spark to a Waiting Fuse: James K. Baxter's correspondence with Noel Ginn, 1942-1946 (edited by Paul Millar). Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001.
James_K._Baxter_reading_a_poem_(1971)

James K. Baxter reading a poem (1971)


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[6]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. James K. Baxter, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, Mar. 19, 2014.
  2. Matthews, Richard]] (1995) James K. Baxter and Kopua, Journal of New Zealand Literature: JNZL, No. 13, pp. 257–265
  3. Schmidt, Michael: Lives of the Poets, page 833. Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 2007.
  4. Schmidt, Michael: Lives of the Poets, page 835. Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 2007.
  5. Schmidt, Michael: Lives of the Poets, page 836. Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 2007.
  6. Search results = au:James K. Baxter, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Mar. 18, 2014.

External links[edit | edit source]

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