James K Baxter: Poems
Sam Hunt (ed)
Auckland University Press, $29.99,
Doubtless: New and Selected Poems
Craig Potton Publishing, $29.99,
Googling the phrase “New Zealand’s greatest poet” finds hits evenly divided between James K Baxter and Allen Curnow. There’s something fitting in picturing these two heavyweights squaring off for the crown; it was Curnow, after all, who plucked the near-schoolboy Baxter from obscurity as a last-minute inclusion in his canon-making anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45. And it was in oedipal revolt against Curnow’s belief in the possibility of forging a distinctively “New Zealand” poetic voice that Baxter became the central figure of the so-called “Wellington Group”, champions of “universal” internationalism over stultifying localism.
It’s not surprising that Baxter rebelled against the severity of Curnow’s autochthonic vision of the New Zealand poet’s mission; few poets have had a more promiscuous muse. The ease with which Baxter could tune his receivers to every possible poetic frequency – channelling Yeats, Dylan Thomas, MacNeice, Hardy, Housman, or Hopkins as the whim struck him – was always both his blessing and his curse. In 1965 Baxter described his struggle “to get rid of the mere echo language in my poems …. I have been from the start a very imitative writer.” If this sounds like severe self-reproach, to Baxter the problem was not imitation per se; it was avoiding those situations where “the content itself [is] manufactured to fit the other man’s style.” Ironically, the cure he describes is itself imitative: he turns to Robert Lowell and Lawrence Durrell as models that help him to find his way to his “true subject”; the first helping him “use words as a strait-jacket to contain … violent experiences”, the second “helping [him] to avoid heavy aphorisms about Time or God.” “Neither poet,” he adds, digging an elbow into Curnow’s ribs, “is a New Zealander.”
History, irony’s playground, has seen Baxter’s and Curnow’s reputations rise and fall in ways that neither could have foreseen. The Freed generation of the 1970s was as bored by the early Curnow’s “authenticity” as they were embarrassed by the younger Baxter’s self-conscious literariness. Meanwhile Curnow found himself writing poems about Aldo Moro, and Baxter’s untimely death in 1972 seared the gaunt, hirsute “Hemi” Baxter of Hiruharama days into the nation’s consciousness as a dinkum Kiwi icon: a Pakeha Jesus, atoning for his people’s sins against the Maori.
After his death, Baxter-the-icon tended to obscure Baxter-the-poet. Despite John Weir’s monumental, but unwieldy, Collected Poems of 1979, it seemed an open question whether Baxter’s poetry was irrevocably stuck in the amber of its historic circumstances. In recent years, though, both scholarly and popular attention to Baxter seems to be reviving. Charlotte Yates’s turn-of-the-century Baxter project, gathering an eclectic bunch of poets and musicians to set Baxter’s poems to music, made a strong (and, in Jane Hurley’s CD-booklet notes, explicit) claim to Baxter’s poetry as a kind of multi-sided mirror-to-the-nation, a neat squaring of the Curnow/Baxter circle: Baxter’s chameleonic nature allows him to be the truly representative New Zealand poet; like Whitman, he is large and contains multitudes.
Sam Hunt’s new selection of Baxter’s poems, by contrast, gives us a decidedly singular vision of Baxter. This is a polemical anthology: Hunt eschews such obvious Baxter warhorses as “The Bay”, “Wild Bees”, “The Homecoming”, “The Morgue”, “Elegy for an Unknown Soldier”, “Poem in the Matukituki Valley”, or “Shingle Beach Poem”. He wants as little as possible of Baxter’s imitatio Christi, cutting out the Jerusalem sonnets altogether and giving us a largely secular version of Hemi’s Hiruharama experiences. Readers who want a “representative” selection of Baxter’s poetry should turn to Paul Millar’s 2001 New Selected Poems. The Baxter that Hunt gives us here is – as Yates and Hurley would be unsurprised to discover – one who looks remarkably Hunt-like. This is Baxter the roving minstrel, poète maudit, Cakes-and-Ale Party scoffer at New Zealand’s puritan bourgeois Malvolios:
That girl in her jersey and beads,
Second row from the front, has the original
I blundered through nine hundred parties and
In search of. The words are a totem
Erected long after for scholars and yobs
Who’d make, if they could, a bicycle-seat
of my scrotum.
(“To Any Young Man who Hears my Verses Read in a Lecture Room”)
Sam Hunt, Sam Hunt, Sam Hunt, Sam Hunt,
The housewife with her oyster cunt
Has pissed upon what might have been
Lively, original and green,
The old pohutukawa tree
With hairy ballocks on its knee.
(“Letter to Sam Hunt”)
There’s no sense, of course, in which this is a previously undiscovered Baxter (the majority of the poems in Hunt’s small volume can also be found in Millar’s), but it’s interesting to encounter him largely uninterrupted by the sententious “Time or God” Baxter or the self-conscious capital-P Poet. It’s like spending a boozy weekend with someone you’ve always suspected of being a bit of a stuffed shirt.
Hunt’s main (and very Huntian) principle of selection for these poems is that they must be poems that work orally – and aurally. Hunt’s engagingly off-the-cuff introduction informs us that these are poems he recites from memory during poetry readings. Here Hunt’s project and Yates’s find common ground; by presenting a Baxter for the ear rather than the eye they place in its proper context much that has seemed overblown and stagey on the page, like theatrical costumes or make-up seen in the light of common day:
It is a thought breaking the granite heart
Time has given me, that my one
Your limbs, those passion-vines, that
Should age and slacken, rot
Some day in a ghastly clay-stopped hole.
(“On the Death of Her Body”)
If “bamboo body” doesn’t quite bear close examination as an image (I assume he’s going for something like “lithe” but you have to push aside “knobbly,” “iron-hard,” “yellowish”, and “leafy” on your way there), it sure sounds great, reaching back to the b in the first line’s “breaking”, picking up that related, though unvoiced, “pa” sound from “passion-vines” and bodying it out in a row of three relentless stressed syllables: bam boo bod. While we’re still reeling from that combination, Baxter pulls the rug out from under us as we start the next stanza. The loose pentameter rhythm of the first three lines abruptly gives way in the fourth, slackened and rotted like the imagined future body of his lover. The three strong stresses (“clay-stopped hole”) that bring the sentence to a juddering end, dramatically underscore the finality of the lover’s fate. By undercutting this effortless (sometimes too effortless) mastery of dramatic sound effect with the loucheness of the poems’ subject matter, Hunt’s judicious selection offers us a timely opportunity to celebrate Baxter’s unique poetic gifts by developing a fast dying skill: reading poetry aloud.
Googling “Sam Hunt” and “New Zealand’s greatest poet” turns up exactly zero hits, but google “New Zealand’s best-known poet”, and Sam Hunt owns the title without a challenger in sight. Like Lemon and Paeroa, he’s world-famous in New Zealand. Like Baxter, Hunt has a mythic stature in Kiwi culture and, like Baxter, the myth has a way of interfering with our appraisal of the poet. With Penguin’s old Collected Poems long out of print the appearance of Doubtless: New and Selected Poems last year was doubly welcome, a chance for readers to catch up with Hunt’s recent work and to reacquaint themselves with a generous selection of the old.
If the Hunt myth (the Rod Stewart hair, faithful Minstrel, the Valiant, the oh-so-imitable vatic delivery) distorts our vision of the poetry, it sometimes distorts the poetry itself. Hunt spends a lot of time in his poetry reminding us that he’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good. It’s remarkable how many of his poems have the word “poem” or “song” or “blues” in the title, a “poet at work” sign that self-consciously affirms his vocation. At its worst, this strain in Hunt’s verse can seem more like brand maintenance than mere narcissism.
But if it’s easy to tire of Hunt doing Hunt (eg “really knowing nothing more/Than empty bottles round the floor;/Waking doomed, at noon” from “Singing for you now”), it’s also easy to overlook what a master of subtle craftsmanship he can be. Hunt’s memory for poetry is prodigious – he claims always to have absorbed poems by memorising them – and the result is a capacity to handle poetic sound and rhythm almost unmatched among living New Zealand poets. Hunt’s poems work so well in recitation not because of his somewhat hammy delivery, but because he forges lines of sinewy and, unlike Baxter’s, quite unostentatious beauty.
Take the opening of “Lines for a New Year”, the best of the new poems in Doubtless:
I like the branch
I find myself on
a view over the garden
all the way down to the beach
the family below me
gathered in the garden
debating where I’ve gone.
My father’s got a theory.
I like the branch
I find myself on.
The couplets use half-rhymes to pull themselves into loose ABBA quatrains (branch/on/garden/beach; me/garden/gone/theory), which in turn find their interior B-rhymes symmetrically reflecting each other (on/garden; garden/gone). A poem that sets out to meditate on the New Year starts out with a kind of Janus-faced rhyme-structure, uncertain whether it’s moving forward or back, whether it can let go of what is past or not. The poet likes the branch he finds himself on because it suspends him out of time, gives him a view “all the way down to the beach” (the sudden expansiveness of that three-beat line breaks us out of the largely two-beat world – past and future – we thought we were inhabiting), but the very form of the poem tells us that the perch is temporary, vulnerable; the new year is coming in.
Or consider the trimeter terza rima that Hunt makes so essential, so inevitable in his searing poem of love and mourning, “My father today”:
I heard the bitchy chords
of magpies in an old-man
pine … My old man, he’s worlds
away – call it Heaven –
no man so elegantly
dressed. His last afternoon,
staring out to sea,
he nods off in his chair.
The terza rima form embodies the poem’s subject matter; a chain of linked tercets (aba, bcb, cdc …), the form is inherently genealogical – each stanza fathering the next. It is also, famously, a form that can only be brought to a crippled conclusion; the chain is broken, the last link left dangling: “my dead father today”.
If I have a complaint about both Doubtless and Poems, it is the almost total lack of scholarly apparatus in both volumes. At least the Baxter poems are arranged in chronological order, but in neither volume are we given place or date of first publication. Hunt’s “selected” poems start out in reverse chronological order, but the order becomes increasingly erratic with poems from the 1970s and 1980s mostly jumbled together. No doubt Hunt shares Baxter’s disdain for “any young man who hears my verses read in a lecture room” but it’s not just Professor Dryasdust who wants to know these things; even a greatest-hits record will usually tell you where the songs first appeared.
Hugh Roberts teaches English literature at Irvine, University of California.