Spark to a Waiting Fuse: James K Baxter’s correspondence with Noel Ginn 1942-1946
ed Paul Millar
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
I began this book thinking that a shorter one might have been enough for a smallish collection of letters – just the text, perhaps, with a minimum of scholarly apparatus. But it soon became evident that if the 57 letters were to be published, the poems, all 320 or so of them, had to be there too, for the letters are so taken up with commentary on the poems that they would mean little on their own. (Whether the 40-odd poems of Noel Ginn had to accompany them is another matter.) Add to that an introduction of over 100 pages and the upshot is a very large volume.
If, as it seems to this reviewer, the letters and poems do not obviously merit publication in their own right as pieces of writing, the justification of the book can only lie in its contribution to a fuller understanding of the life and work of the later Baxter. It does make a contribution to that end, but, in my view, a somewhat ambiguous and not especially large one. This, of course, is simply the response of one who reads more for pleasure than for profit; obviously, the volume would return more profit and pleasure to a serious student with, say, a thesis to write.
The Baxter of this book is the teenage prodigy who became the author of Beyond the Palisade in 1944. Prodigies, especially literary ones, are likely to be solitaries; while musical ones may become celebrities through performance, the child poet is on their own with their notebooks. The young Baxter was a precocious performer, who lacked an audience until his brother Terence showed some poems to his fellow detainee in defaulters’ camp, Noel Ginn. It is unlikely that Ginn was in any significant way “a spark to the waiting fuse” – Baxter hardly needed, then or later, any confirmation of his vocation. In fact, the phrase indicates a good deal less than its use as a title may be thought to imply. As I read the requisite passage on p345, Baxter says no more than that Ginn had helped him to realise that writing prose should become his major literary activity. And that, of course, did not happen.
Perhaps because the relationship was not an intimately personal one, the letters did not tell Ginn, and do not tell us, much about those highly problematic matters which we know to have troubled Baxter during his early years: family relationships, loneliness, sex, alcohol, and (perhaps to a lesser extent) religion. They depict a carefully self-presented Baxter – the writer of poems, who is knowledgeable about poetry (and knows it). He writes with an effortlessly assumed authority; he approves and disapproves of Ginn’s poems and delivers magisterial judgements upon the poets he is reading: “Eliot’s reputation is based on a misconception of the definition of poetry”; “Auden will never lose his childishness unless he develops in prose.” A gathering of these obiter dicta would contain much that was well worth pondering – see, for example, on p235 a set of summary verdicts upon Eliot, Spender, Auden, Pound, and Yeats. Baxter had just turned 17; the self-assurance is remarkable – and, of course, it did not go away.
This poetry-learned young man was still recognisable, significantly modified, in the Baxter who showed up in Wellington a few years after this correspondence came to an end. By then a good deal else had happened – psychoanalysis, religious conversion, marriage and publication. This suggests a simpler answer to a problem that Paul Millar attempts to solve – the abrupt ending of the Baxter-Ginn relationship. Maybe Baxter did not need Ginn any more; he had Baigent, McCahon, Pearson and Glover; he had been set to music by Lilburn and canonised by Curnow. It was that way with many, perhaps most, of the people with whom Baxter became close – one ceased to matter once he passed on to new concerns. I am not entirely sure that people mattered all that much to him except, from time to time, as occasions of recollected guilt and pain, and more rarely of joy and delight.
Certainly, in Wellington around 1950, he seemed to be – or, in retrospect, he now seems to have been – a man without a past to which he paid much attention. Of course, we knew the poem addressed to Ginn but no-one, including the author, seemed to care about its provenance. Nor did he talk of his parents or his brother and their opinions and sufferings. I formed, perhaps erroneously, the impression that pacifism had ceased to matter all that much. Around 1950, probably, he showed me a poem with a line about a peasant cry coming from Korea and said something like “It’s good for poets to be seen to be taking notice of these matters.” Not exactly the stance of an anti-war crusader; more a sign of the cynic who surfaced from time to time.
But, in this as in everything to do with Baxter, drawing general conclusions from a specific bit of evidence is risky; others who remember him from those years may have different memories. Paul Millar explores his self-mythologising habit; it needs to be added that Baxter constantly de- and re-mythologised himself into a multitude of overlapping selves. “Blow, wind of frightfulness” was for a time his way of referring to his second volume; was this just a slick joke, a self-deprecatory pose, or the assertion of a less romantic persona? Probably all three. Very little, if anything, that Baxter said of himself is not both a revelation and a concealment of the self. Still, a phrase from a late letter seems to go beyond his habit of guarded self-presentation. Anticipating Terence’s release, James is moved to write of “the deep discomfort and deep ties of shared experience”. Here, surely, we glimpse the person behind the poet – the friend, the lover and the spouse as well as the brother and the son.
Some aspects of the mature Baxter are hardly at all anticipated in these poems and letters. There is little that prefigures the involvement in religion – and not at all the joyless religiosity – which characterised him after the later 1940s. There is no sign of the prophet whom Pat Lawlor, after Baxter’s address at the 1951 Writers’ Conference, pronounced to be a Catholic saint – or so I seem to remember, and, if I do so correctly, it could be the first step in the evolution of St Hemi. The young Baxter had little to say to Ginn on the subject. He notes that “Religion can never be my way” and that “all I know of a God I know from natural things”; that he was “fast becoming a semi-atheist” and again that “I do not think I will ever become an atheist … I remain agnostic”. A handful of poems from those years show a rather generalised concern with religion and Christianity: among them “In numeris”, “Doctrine of philosophy”, and “Him not mentioned” – a refreshing piece of light verse which merits a brief quote:
God’s over his angels
The Pope is in Rome
But death and the devil
Are always at home.
That is all, and it would not lead one to anticipate the Anglo-Catholic conversion of the late 40s, around the time of his Jungian analysis and his pub talks about Catholicism with Colin McCahon and Bill Pearson. This conversion was a radical shift; there was no formal religion in his upbringing, but he adhered, uneasily enough, to a religious institution from that time on. Maybe, too, it was part of that drift to conformity which around this time took Baxter into marriage and parenthood, more or less regular employment, and suburban living.
If the way in which religion figures in these letters and poems does not prefigure the emergence of the prophet Baxter, they in many ways foreshadow the mature poet, both his strengths and his weaknesses. Paul Millar finds in Baxter’s “adolescent” phase the origins of his habit of understanding himself in terms of myths and symbols, especially Prometheus, the salamander, the unicorn and the archer. This certainly identifies a habitual preoccupation. Further, and in spite of the efforts he made from time to time to be “modern” (imitating, with unpromising results, Hopkins, cummings, and Empson among many others) he remained and was to remain the romantic he had been from the very beginning, nurtured on Burns and Byron.
Some of his less engaging attributes are also clearly evident in these early poems; neither at the time nor later did Baxter take to heart the lesson he claimed to have learned in 1944: “I have at last discovered that it is more meritorious for me to abstain from writing a poem than to write it.” He shows every satisfaction with a host of poems that range from the awful to the merely tolerable. But only a handful found their way into print in his lifetime. Was this because his capacity to discriminate among his numerous progeny increased? Or was it that Baigent and then Glover had a large hand in the selection of the first two volumes? I suspect the latter explanation to be the true one. After Cold Spring came to nothing, Baxter made no effort to select from his early output. Nevertheless, in putting together new collections, he continued to show the same tolerance for poems which did not come off.
Of course, one should not waste too much space on the failure of the great majority of these poems to amount to much; one hardly expects that of juvenilia. Still, it is rather odd that the matter of quality is not at all addressed in the introduction for, if it’s the future we are looking to, the “bad” Baxter, prolix, sententious and unable to come to a stop, is abundantly in evidence. Of course, the “good” Baxter is here too, in his astonishing capacity to write a marvellous poem from time to time and also in the development of his manner (and his critical perceptions) from a simplistic romanticism to a more sophisticated intellectual approach. In July 1944, he wrote: “I have sneered at poets who beat out each line upon the anvil of thought. Now I do it myself.” From around this time he tries to do harder things, he is less “poetical” and more thoughtful, and his voice becomes more colloquial. “Me also”, the unpublished stanzas of “Prometheus” (though the final version is the better for their deletion), “In honour of all beasts”, “Poem to Rimbaud”, “The ghost unborn”, “To a poplar tree” and “I have cut from my heart” exhibit his rapid progress towards maturity.
These, together with a handful of familiar poems – known the better for being seen in their original context – pretty well exhaust all there is here to be simply enjoyed rather than diligently studied. A few of the old friends can be observed emerging from their less promising beginnings – for example, the over-lengthy original “Prometheus” and the successive versions of “Letter to Noel Ginn II”. The protracted way in which “Wild Bees” came into existence is even more illuminating. First it was:
with white nets and bandages firm-tied,
With masks slit-eyed
Like robbers ravaging,
We lit dry grasses and the hive awoke
To the dread sulphur-smoke …
Then it became:
Masked to the shoulders and netted,
slit-eyed, like strange desperadoes
Dry grass we lit crouching.
The hive woke: sulphurous fuming
Curling and eddying through
till the stunned bees stumbled from shelter …
And at length that turned into:
Till one half-cloudy evening
Of ripe January, my friends and I
Came, gloved and masked to the eyes like plundering
To smoke them out. Quiet beside the stagnant river
We trod wet grasses down, hearing the crickets chitter
And waiting for light to drain from the wounded sky.
I wonder how many of the later poems we have come to value so highly began in this unpromising way.
It is possibly not entirely fair to the editor to review an academic book from a general reader perspective – to look for enjoyment rather than instruction. However, as one who has lived for a long time with this “dour Kiwi ghost” (C K Stead’s phrase), I have found myself more and more closely attached to a handful – a sizeable one – of entirely satisfactory poems and less and less to the larger-than-life legend, the prodigy who evolved into a prophet. But even if one ends, as I do, with a niggle of doubt about the rationale of this substantial academic enterprise, it has to be added that it has been carried through with meticulous scholarship and sympathetic understanding.
Paul Millar’s industry in establishing and recovering the text, in researching the references and in clarifying the young Baxter’s writing habits, is to be commended; further, his perceptive and painstaking introduction is a major contribution to Baxter studies. It is by some distance the best place to go for Baxter’s childhood, his family relationships, especially with his brother, his life at school and university, and the successive phases through which his early writing developed. It is also rather more than that: it enhances our understanding of a dimension of social as well as literary history, conscientious objection and especially the life in the detention camps. I am not sure that one now understands either the genesis of the poet or the character of his poetry more deeply than before, but one certainly knows more about those matters and knows it more securely.
W H Oliver is a Wellington writer and historian, and the author of James K Baxter: a portrait (1983).