Being a bard, Dougal McNeill

Selected Poems of James K Baxter
Paul Millar (ed)
Auckland University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781869404611

Maurice Shadbolt called Baxter “a Bard, our only one”. It’s unusual now to read the term used without irony or self-consciously distancing care; but, with Baxter, it fits both self-presentation and subsequent consumption. To be a bard, Robert Crawford argues in his biography of Baxter’s model in these matters, Robert Burns, is to forge identity out of “a vital poetic relationship with … community”. This poetic relationship undermines easy separations between outside and in. There’s no way, with a bard, to judge which is wiser or nicer, their public faces or private places. Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose” slips a comment on contemporary debates in geology into what looks like a private lyric, and Baxter can squeeze a sermon out of anything from childhood memories to observations on lice. This is poetry as prophesy, as pronouncement and judgement and, at its best, the transformation involved in “public poetry from private fears” works because those private fears connect with a community’s history and more general unease. “Whoever can listen/Long enough”, the first “Pig Island Letter” announces, “will write again” and, if there is little evidence of any listening at work in the poems selected here, the sentiment summarises Baxter’s project and plan. It’s his status as Bard – “the sore thumb of the tribe”, “Hemi tutua” – and the way this status’ crafting anticipates and shapes one of the most significant quarrels of our time – what is the relationship between Maori and Pakeha to be? – that makes Baxter New Zealand’s most important poet. That judgment isn’t an aesthetic one, and although he is, with the possible exception of Hone Tuwhare, this country’s most read, most known and most widely recognised poet, the reasons for this recognition are as much political and historical as to do with taste and literary value. (It’s no accident that the most important scholarly work on Baxter from the last decade, John Newton’s Double Rainbow, is not literary criticism.)

The connection between the personal project of identifying poetry Baxter carried out, the sense, in Ian Wedde’s words, “of internal relation between who and where”, and historical developments since Baxter’s death help explain his work’s wide and sustained audience in a time when poetry’s status and centrality in our culture has collapsed. The strong feelings he and his work evoke are further evidence of that connection, too: it’s not uncommon to meet people who don’t read poetry but who love or loathe Baxter (some of us who do read poetry feel both ways at once); one doesn’t expect or encounter similar sentiments towards A R D Fairburn.

All this is one way of saying that Baxter is a poet of content more than form, and it’s hard to imagine a reader responding to his work who didn’t in some sense already agree with it, a claim one wouldn’t make of Auden, say, or Pound. Poems from a bard are prophesies, to be sure, but they’re also propositions. Baxter’s sermonising is not always a bad thing, the sermon being of course one of the most successful literary forms of the past centuries, but it does require a readership prepared to sit as a part of the congregation. No suggestion here, of course, that his poems don’t earn their keep: Baxter was a superb technician and seems, from the evidence collected here, to have been able to toss off a sestina at a sitting or a ballad at the bar, and the range and dexterity of his skills is astonishing. One of this selection’s many virtues is that it gives us enough of Baxter’s work for the reader to get a sense of its scope and range but is restrained enough to prevent repetitiveness and insistence then shutting the reader out. (A particularly welcome inclusion is a previously unpublished piece in Standard Habbie, sometimes called the “Burns Stanza”.) Millar’s feels like Weir’s Collected Baxter without the numbness or the hectoring: there are no vital works missed out, and plenty of space has been given to important sequences, but we’re left with moments to regain our breath.

If Baxter’s verse requires some sort of ideological consent from its audience to work, what it is we’re consenting to has never been quite clear. Biculturalism is an easy, and inaccurate, answer; this is a poetry of lack and loss instead of any official ideology of partnership. Millar makes a good case for the “gap” being an organising tool and theme: gaps in the Pakeha social world (where we need an older brother, a tuakana, to “work alongside me and instruct me in these matters”), gaps between poet and society, gaps between social and wild self, gaps between polite experience and reality. The selection builds “towards Jerusalem”, a convincing case Millar has been making for some years now: others may prefer other arrangements of the work – Sam Hunt’s recent selection could stand here as a sort of anti-Millar – but this one is the most clearly argued and textually convincing.

While Baxter’s demand that Pakeha recognise repressed truths of colonial settler society – “the Maori owned the land” – is the most common theme we find in contemporary discussions of his work, Millar’s selection highlights other dimensions of his social criticism. This is poetry of the era of social democracy, Keynesianism and the long boom, not only for the way it draws on the intellectual currents of the time but also for how distant from our own dilemmas the denunciations of sterile affluence seem. Baxter’s targets – Pakeha and Karori and Remuera each eliding the other in a common slippage from race to class – are “the area of civilised coma”, the “well-lit prison” of the home where “money and prestige are worse drugs than morphine” and the unloved underclasses expose Calvary Street’s moneyed suburban sterility. After almost three decades of neoliberalism, and in a society characterised by widespread, entrenched poverty and low wages, this rhetoric wears its date as clearly as a serving of devilled eggs or fondue.

Another aspect of Baxter’s social criticism this selection highlights is its misogyny. Millar calls Baxter’s attitudes to women “problematic”, which is an academic and coy way of saying appalling. This view can’t be explained away as the attitudes of another time: Baxter’s critique of domesticity and suburbia is grounded in a relentless, dreary woman-hating misery. In poem after poem we encounter “half-witted housewives”, “young delinquent bags”, a “brisk gaunt woman in the kitchen”, “the housewife with her oyster cunt”, to say nothing of the repetitive use of “whore” as a symbol of degradation, and boring and lazy equations of sex and death, caves, tunnels and vaginas. This is a part of Baxter’s oppositional stance with more than a few echoes in the official world he set himself against; we’d do well to attend to them.

It’s thanks to Millar’s skill in presenting the “broad range of Baxter’s achievement” that patterns of imagery and theme like this come into focus, and this expansive, expertly edited and prepared edition ought to be the standard Baxter text for readers and students for many years. The text is clear and there are very few errors (although, explanatory note to the contrary, Whanganui saw no fierce battle in 1964). A suggestive introduction and useful editorial notes help contextualise the poems, and will help readers new to his poetry negotiate their way through its intellectual, spiritual and political assumptions and arguments. Millar has a good ear for lyrical debts, too, and points readers in useful directions for finding echoes and antecedents. The glossary of Maori words will be helpful for overseas readers, but Millar’s other notes are more uneven in quality. They’re useful, and welcome, but it’s hard to discern the editorial policy guiding them: there’s a note for “saveloy skins” but none for bach, a note for Seddon and Savage but not for Fraser, an explanation of “dee” but none for “boobhead,” a term over which the uninformed mind might boggle. More worryingly, none of the many classical allusions or Latin phrases in the poems are glossed, and yet these, more than Maori, are now, surely, signposts from a cultural world closed even to educated readers.

That closed world increases my sense of anticipation over work from Millar to come: he is involved in a forthcoming collaborative critical volume on Baxter and mythology, and one day, I hope, will write the modern biography of Baxter we so obviously need.


Dougal McNeill is organising a symposium on Baxter and Burns with Liam McIlvanney.


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