The virtue of defeat, Bill Oliver

I am not sure why I or anyone else should bother about the politics of a poet, especially of a poet whose typical response to politics varied only between contempt and rage. Still, he wrote a considerable number of political poems and endowed our political history with a collection of political archetypes, from rebels and martyrs, such as his father, to monsters like Harry Fat and mr mouldybroke, with a few more or less recognisable protagonists in between, like Peter Fraser, Walter Nash and Keith Holyoake.

Given his upbringing, in a family and a circle of pacifist and socialist agitators, given the World War I sufferings of his father and the World War II imprisonment of his brother, a persistent itch to write politically was perhaps unavoidable. But the politics is the politics of the apolitical … wholly unprogrammatic and, in the end, entirely without belief in the efficacy of even the most visionary kind of political action. And, perhaps, that is not too far away from where we are now, marooned between FPP and MMP, with governments intent upon abolishing (well, attenuating) government, and the voters throwing their votes around confetti.

Sometime about 1950 or 1951 (to trust an unverified memory) in his dark little house in the unlikely well-to-do milieu of Messines Road, Karori, Baxter showed me a poem he had just written containing the phrase “a cold wind from Korea” (or was it China? ‑ later it could have been Vietnam or, had he survived, East Timor, Bosnia or Rwanda) and explained “It’s good that poets should be seen to refer to such matters.” I am reminded, now, of an occasion on which I took a recently ordained Anglican clergyman to a smart little coffee bar in Chancery Lane, Christchurch. He looked around, his new white collar gleaming, and announced: “It’s good for the church to be seen in these places.” Both were slightly uneasy but, curious visitors, the poet to a world he could not neglect but equally could not take quite seriously, and the clergyman to a place shimmering faintly with a patina of sin and sophistication. Both, I expect, went back with a sense of relief to their impregnable citadels: one to the sanctuary of self, and the other to a more institutional safe house.

Why, then, worry about Baxter in the house of politics, or about the clergyman in the house of (very modest) temptation? Chiefly, I think, because neither could leave the alien place quite alone; the imperatives of the gospel of salvation would not allow it. Thus Baxter, though in neither his very early nor his very late years, wrote a series of major political poems; historians of politics, if only in a footnote, should pay him a little attention. And historians of literature? Maybe another footnote.

From one with as political an upbringing as his ‑ sentenced to clean the King’s High toilets for refusing military drill ‑ the celebrated lines from “Pig Island Letters” contain a striking repudiation:

Political action in its source is pure.

Human, direct, but in its civil function

Becomes the jail it laboured to destroy.


Understandably, as these lines follow a description of his father’s punishment between the lines in France, Baxter prefaces them with “I set now / Unwillingly these words down”.

Significantly, though his father figures constantly in later poems, it is not as the agitator he in fact became, but as the exemplar of simple, strong colonial virtues, and as one for whom the conflict is over, he having (this never quite stated) lost.

But though he turned away unwillingly from that kind of upbringing, and for the most part limited his own role in agitation to causes so hopeless that the purity of the source was hardly in danger, it remained powerful enough to colour the tone of his rejection of politics. The old slogan of the United Front of the 1930s retained its cogency … “no enemies on the left”. The politicians who arose on a wave of working class anger and revolt are, of course, beyond approval because in their “civil function” they have become jailers in their turn. But they are regarded with at least a resigned and at times almost benign contempt.

It was my dearly held delusion once

That labouring men were better than their betters

And needed only to throw off their fetters

For Eden to return to Adam’s sons.

Since then I’ve worked with them; and they’re go‑getters

Just like the Rev Fraser ‑ bless his bones.

(“Letter to Noel Ginn II”)

That justly celebrated poem, “Election 1960”, contrasts two archetypal leaders, King Log (for whom the poet voted) and King Stork (who won). Log is “an old time‑serving post / Hacked from a totara when the land was young.” Stork is “an active King, / A bird of principal, benevolent”, equipped with “That idiot poking bill, the iron gullet.” If it were not for the title, we would hardly guess that the contestants in this election were Walter Nash and Keith Holyoake. But that hardly matters, the parable has its own dynamic. The contest is one between active and inactive government, between “benevolence” (bad) and neglect (good), between order and anarchy.

Tiny dragons,

They dodge among the burnt broom stems

As if the earth belonged to them

Without condition.

For most of Baxter’s adult life ‑ from the writing of the “Letter to Noel Ginn” in 1946, his first notable political poem ‑ he had the good fortune to live under a succession of National governments and so was enabled to rage, more or less convincingly, against the succession of monsters his imagination conjured from their leaders. The more or less harmless Holyoake is pressed into unlikely service:

“That napalm now,” said Holyoake,

“Must make a frightful stench ‑

When they burn like wetas in a log

Does it put you off your lunch?… “

(“The Grand Tour”)

Holyoake is at least endowed with an element of reluctance, perhaps the saving grace of squeamishness. But nothing like that redeems the utterly evil Harry Fat, a demoniac National grey eminence. Later, and less convincingly, there is Baxter’s salute to the spirit of Robert Muldoon, mr mouldybroke. And had he survived into what may yet be called “The Age of Shipley”, who knows what nightmares the spectacle of a politically powerful woman would have produced. A combination of Pyrrha and Harry Fat?

As “Election 1960” suggests, this demonology is set against a vision of primitive innocence. While luckless, hard-working Queen Elizabeth is greeted with disproportionate anger:

I give you now to end our talk

A toast you will not like:

MacSweency the Lord Mayor of Cork

Who died on hunger strike.

It took him eighty days to drown

In the blood and shit that floats the Crown.

(“An Ode to the Reigning Monarch”)

the colonial queen, Victoria, is handled much more gently. On the one hand:

… Incubus 

and excellent woman, we 

inherit the bone acre 

of your cages and laws.

(In the Baxter lexicon “excellent woman” is not a term of approval.)


But, perhaps surprisingly, the picture of Queen Victoria leads to a touching image of early colonial primitive virtue:

you stand most for the time of

early light, clay roads, great trees

unfelled, and the smoke from huts

where girls in sack dresses

stole butter … The small rain spits

today. You smile in your grave.

(“To a Print of Queen Victoria”)

The colony’s early years, when his own peasant ancestors arrived with their tribal inheritance and their rural virtues, becomes the time before it was all spoiled, when the source was pure.

It is reasonable to link this primitive, lost innocence with Baxter’s powerful affinity with the phenomenon of primitive revolt (though I do not think that he actually makes the connection). Whatever the formal connection, it is clear that virtue is located among the poor, and in their primitive anger at their suffering. Their suffering and their revolt provides the environment in which companionship, brotherhood and solidarity (and later aroha) may flourish, at least for a time.

I saw the bright bone of Lenin

Glitter in the air above

The house we wintered in, ten or twelve

People like lovers

(“The Strike”)


And only a few years before his death:

To work beside your fellow men

Is good in the worst place.

To call a man your brother

And look him in the face,

And sweat and wash the sweat away

And joke at the world’s disgrace.

(“Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works”)

But the virtue of the poor, in both their poverty and their revolt, is destined for corruption as it gets tangled in the sad games of politics:

… We won the strike,

And fell back to our squabbles,

Counting shilling, drugs, cosmetics.

Lenin did not come back

To us. He slept again

In man’s heart, the holy mountain.

(“The Strike”)

In “Crossing Cook Strait” the symbolic ancestor of the poor in revolt (“I am Seddon and Savage, the socialist father”) observes but does not join the process of corruption which sets in when they strive successfully to cease to be poor.

I walked forth gladly to find the angry poor

Who are my nation; discovered instead

The glutton seagulls squabbling over crusts

And politics made and broken behind locked doors.

The poor had better not try ‑ had better stay poor to remain virtuous? It looks like that.

My Counsel was naive. Anger is bread

To the poor, their guns more accurate than justice,

Because their love has not decayed to a wintry fungus

And hope to the wish for power among the dead.

No wonder the socialist father left with “an ambiguous salute”. But the conclusion to the “Stonegut” ballad is unambiguous enough: “To shovel shit and eat it / Are different in the end.”

It may seem a fair way from here to the community at Jerusalem (though in fact excrement and other bodily functions are quite prominent in the poems coming from there). But the community is a gathering of the poor, even if a different kind of poor ‑ the rejected urban young and (at least in aspiration, the rejected Maori ‑ who will within it preserve their special virtue. Whether Baxter knew it or not (and he probably did) when he went north from the New Edinburgh to the New Zion on the Wanganui River, he was also joining a long tradition of communitarian thought and action, one of people seeking at, one and the same time to leave and to redeem the world. But for him leaving was a good deal more significant than redeeming.

Communitarians begin from the vantage point of powerlessness ‑ they must do so, for power is the corrupting principle. Powerlessness is the stone which the builders rejected and now becomes the keystone of the arch more aptly, perhaps, the broken beam which became the ridgepole of the tribal house, Hiruharama (Jerusalem), both Maori and Catholic, and monastic in at least its poverty, was to be the place of escape and of joy in escape:

… – an old man’s laughter

Rumbles in my head, to have evaded the net

Society spreads for even the smallest fish …

(“A Man went on a Search”)

It is the gathering place of the dispossessed: ‘The trap I am setting to catch a tribe”. It is Maori, or it will become Maori, for the defeated tribes are the pre‑eminent losers in New Zealand. It is from this alliance of loss that a very slender chance of redemption may arise.

E taku Ariki, how long, how long

Till Your moon lights the heart of a Maori Zion

And a thousand men move out of the bin and the clink,

Working and eating together, sharing whatever they have

And You are born again in a broken whare

And Your Mother wears on her head the taniko band?


However, apart from a few probably dutiful gestures, Baxter seldom goes beyond this to the final communitarian step, to see in the community the genesis of a new and good society. As long ago as the lecture, Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry, he had been able to see in poetry then, not in a community, the prospect that cell of good living would redeem, if not quite convert, society as a whole. But that vision, in its own way, is a political vision and Baxter had long since rejected the entire political spectrum. He was far too shrewd to imagine that the new order would arise from the junkie refuges in Wellington and Auckland or from the ramshackle little band of brothers and sisters at Hiruharama. He did not really believe that it would last, let along prevail.

The wind can pluck the strings, and I

Am a stranger to myself, e Tana,

No longer a man of words, no longer

The master of the rostrum, but a man without a name

Lamenting for the fallen village of Zion

Into whose doors and windows the knuckles of bramble are growing.

“He Waiata mo Tana”

It seems inevitable, when politics becomes anti‑politics, that what begins as praise of the virtue of the defeated becomes an acceptance of the virtue of defeat itself, and eventually the defeat of oneself. And that is where, not so many years earlier, he had started off:

Let Time be still

Who takes all things,

Face, feature, memory

Under his blinding wings.

The difference, 20 or so years later, is that Baxter knew that time would not be still, and that he no longer wanted it to stop.

Bill Oliver’s James K Baxter: A Portrait, (1980) is republished this year by Godwit.

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