So wide, can’t get around it, John Newton

James K Baxter: Complete Prose
John Weir (ed)
Victoria University Press, $200.00
ISBN 9781776560370

James K Baxter’s Collected Poems which appeared in 1979 remains the most monumental object in New Zealand verse. But it contains a mere 700 poems; the total corpus is said to approach 3000. There’s a fat hardback edition containing some but not all of Baxter’s plays (he wrote about 30). It’s anyone’s guess how much shelf-space the letters will eventually occupy – but a single correspondence, the letters to Noel Ginn, already runs to 570 pages in Paul Millar’s edition of 2001. All this from a writer who died at 46. Laurence Baigent describes locking himself in the bathroom to try to get away from Baxter’s barrage of talk: “But even then, like the baying of the hound of heaven, Baxter’s voice pursued him through the door panels,” writes John Weir in his introduction. Others have recounted the same manic deluge. And Baxter seems to have written as compulsively as he talked.

Here, then, in four enormous volumes, in a lavish boxed set, is the Complete Prose: 4.5 kilograms (on Philip Matthews’s scales), 1.25 million words. The metrics may sound flippant but it’s hard to know where else to start. There’s just so much of it, and more to the point this edition seems calculated, not to moderate Baxter’s profusion, but if anything to exaggerate it. The whole package is extravagantly complete. We don’t just get the criticism and the non-fiction prose, but the fiction as well, including the short novel Horse. There’s hack work: dashed-off book reviews, essays for the Catholic journal the Tablet (more than 50 of them – Baxter would later say that they “disgusted” him), and the text of a coffee-table book on New Zealand scenery.

More oddly, there are also numerous items of which Baxter isn’t even the author, but in which he’s merely quoted, in some cases not even directly: newspaper stories, reports of addresses to literary societies or student gatherings, even school visits: “The memory of this most informative lecture, coloured throughout by a touch of wry humour, is something which I, like many other sixth formers, will hold for a long time.” The supporting apparatus follows the same expansive model. Weir’s introduction, largely biographical, runs to 150 pages. Thumbnail biographies of New Zealand writers take up another 70.

All of which makes for a very large target. But Baxter wasn’t shy of big statements, and in a cautious literary culture this is one of his cardinal virtues. Weir’s career-long commitment to Baxter – as a critic and bibliographer, as editor of the Collected Poems and now of this humongous tome – is an epic narrative in itself and says much about the kind of loyalty that Baxter inspires. Weir was the poet’s close friend; his approach is obviously partisan, obsessive and Catholic. But no one in their right mind would envy him the task, and no one with an historical interest in New Zealand literature could fail to be grateful for so much well-organised material. Plainly the argument could be made for a leaner, tougher, more selective edit – one that might have offered a more immediate sense of what Baxter can actually do as a prose writer, beyond overwhelming us with sheer volume. But the bulky, baggy, compendious approach is almost certainly more faithful to the kind of writer Baxter was.

We all know that Baxter is a dazzling phrase-maker, and on almost any page here we’re likely to be reminded. By a livewire image: “Faults there may be in [Lawrence Durrell’s] work, as there are spots on the nylon fur of a sea leopard … .” By a stirring piece of rhetoric: “It is not our business to be charitable. It is our business to be on fire with love and the desire for social justice.” Or even (I say this as an atheist) by the sheer poetry of a spiritual intuition:

We believe Te Ariki [Christ] rose from the dead. But to find him in experience we have to look in front of the bow of the canoe, where the water swells before it begins to foam. He is present in the Not-Yet. He is present in our burning hunger for the fully human society.

And yet, fireworks are largely beside the point. As Weir puts it, “With exceptions, especially late in his life, his prose is more important for what he said rather than how he said it.” Even as a poet, Baxter is the least formalistic of our major writers and, as prose writer, doubly so. He has little ambition to be thought of as a prose stylist. Rather, he has a great deal to say, he’s in a hurry to get it said, and typically he wants the attention of an audience that is only incidentally literary.

At times, as for example when skim-reading the doctrinal essays of the Tablet era – and even Weir admits to misgivings about their cumulative impact – I found myself wondering how a generic organisation might have worked: drafting out and separating the literary criticism, the autobiographical essays, the Catholic material, the bicultural material, and so on. But any approach was going to present difficulties, and ultimately I think the chronological ordering that Weir has preferred is one of the edition’s strengths. Unfolding through time, and on such a broad front, it amounts, one might argue, to a kind of spiritual autobiography. At the very least, it shows us the development of Baxter’s thinking about poetry as an activist vocation.

As a literary critic, Baxter is mercurial and patchy. He has flashes of cunning; he never lacks for eloquence (of course). But a lot of it seems hasty, as no doubt it was. The lectures later published as The Fire and the Anvil were written, Baxter admitted, “between or during savage drinking bouts”, and in Landfall E A Horsman tore the book to shreds. Even his most famous critical intervention, the address to the 1951 Writers’ Conference in Christchurch, is said to have been written on the overnight ferry with the help of a chance reading of Auden’s The Enchafèd Flood. Baxter himself concedes that it’s a “rambling address”, and the fact that it held its audience spellbound says more about his performance than about its structure or the coherence of its argument.

But by 1951 there were ructions afoot, and the assembled might of New Zealand writing must have felt this. For, in hindsight, “Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry” reads chiefly as a shot across the bows of Allen Curnow, signalling the onset of the “poetry wars” of the 1950s and 1960s. We can hear as much in a sniping remark about “the schizophrenia of the New Zealander who cannot distinguish himself from his grandfather”, and more directly in his promotion of his immediate Wellington contemporaries (in the end only Alistair Campbell would justify Baxter’s partisanship). But the deepest division between Baxter and Curnow – and the one that, in my view, tells us most about Baxter’s ultimate significance – is announced in his famous statement about the “dilemma of the modern poet”:

If he breaks with the society and departs into the Wilderness … then he loses brotherhood with all but similar outcasts. What Justice demands is something more difficult – that he should remain as a cell of good living in a corrupt society and in this situation by writing and example attempt to change it.

The decisive phrase is “and example”: the credo is not just prophetic and activist; it also takes implicit aim at what Baxter calls “the disease of formalism”. While Curnow, like a number of Baxter’s own generation (C K Stead, Kendrick Smithyman, Keith Sinclair) would follow the modernist career track of the poet-academic, Baxter breaks in the opposite direction: into populism and political activism. For the modernists, the poet did his job on the page, “committ[ing]”, as Curnow put it, “the whole man to the poetry”. But Baxter would insist that the poet was a social actor – being a poet was more than just writing – and in pursuit of that mission would use whatever means were available, up to and including the theatrical extravagance of his final years.

This is the context that makes best sense of the instrumental way that Baxter thinks about prose. It’s notable, then, that in the watershed period that he spends in Dunedin, 1966-68, his output of prose increases steeply. This will be a massive sea-change in Baxter’s life: the period leading into his late incarnation as the bicultural hippie militant, Hemi. Two entire volumes (two thirds of his prose output) post-date the Dunedin shift. Though Baxter in Dunedin writes his best literary criticism – the essay entitled “The Innovators”, for example, and parts of The Man on the Horse – it’s also the last of it. From here on, his prose focuses overwhelmingly on Catholic doctrine, on social justice and, in particular, (from around 1968) on justice for Māori. This may or may not have produced his most attractive prose. But it undoubtedly produced the prose that meant most to Baxter himself and will, I think, mean most to posterity as well.

This may also be the fairest context in which to judge the inclusion of that second-hand print-media material. As Baxter committed increasingly to the performative aspect of his vocation – activism by example – the media would come to play an integral role. The Hemi persona was a calculated spectacle. It was also good copy – this was the point – and the image projected in the media became an essential part of Baxter’s activist work. To represent the Jerusalem period by means of a kind of scrapbook is, in this sense, to read it accurately. If this edition is more like a hard-copy archive than a shapely volume of literary text, historians and scholars at least should not be complaining.

To this reader at least, the staunchness and whole-heartedness of Baxter’s relationship with Māori is his most appealing legacy. He is, of course, far less circumspect than any Pākehā radical would care to be in our own time – ingenuous, if we want to put it that way. But he’s also 10 years ahead of enlightened Pākehā opinion, and his willingness to think outside the monocultural box, and the sheer commitment and courage of the Jerusalem experiment, still seem exemplary. From a New Zealand Listener essay of 1969:

The difference between Maori and paheka cultures is the difference between a community of neighbours and a society of strangers. The tragic meaning and consequences of this cleavage have been poorly understood. Tragic not only for the Maoris who are steadily being absorbed by the majority culture; tragic also for the pakehas who have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years, and taken nothing from it but a few place-names and a great deal of plunder.

One might baulk at the romantic dichotomy of the first sentence. But the wasted opportunity of Pākehā culture (the failure to take that identity to heart – to learn what it means to be the “other” of Māori) has never been stated more directly, more consistently, or with more conviction, than in the climactic phase of Baxter’s work.

Reading Baxter writing on Māori, I never doubt for a moment that he’s on the side of the angels. Baxter on women, and on sex, is a murkier business. As Baxter studies stand at present, this question is something of an elephant in the room. There’s plainly an issue to be confronted, but there’s been a noticeable reluctance to take it up. There are several missing pieces. The Jungian-Oedipal-Catholic bestiary that is woman in Baxter’s poetry calls for a toughness and subtlety that critics have seldom brought to it. And, for understandable reasons, there isn’t yet a candid biographical narrative, either. In the meantime, the Collected Prose will certainly help.

Baxter can be gauche in his remarks about women, but he’s basically chivalrous rather than hostile. He spends a lot of time championing or defending women writers, particularly among his own post-war cohort (Fleur Adcock, Mary Stanley, Marilyn Duckworth, Sylvia Ashton-Warner); and he advocates for Women’s Liberation in more general terms as well. But, to my ear, it never feels wholly comfortable, and a large part of the problem is surely Baxter’s Catholicism.

Making sense of Baxter as a Catholic thinker is a (necessary) job I’ll leave to others better qualified than me. But, even to an outsider, it’s apparent that his doctrinal instincts are conservative: “Perhaps it is because I came to the Church as a convert that I tend to react sharply to even the most innocent attempts to water down the wine of Catholic doctrine … .” And this zeal of the convert gets him into odd places. On contraception, for example, as he defends the Pope in the correspondence columns of the New Zealand Listener:

the elimination of potential fertility takes away one of the dimensions of meaning from the sexual act …. I think that one of the factors leading to a spiritual claustrophobia in modern marriage is precisely the elimination of potential fertility by artificial contraception.

Which may make sense to Baxter himself as the proud father of two or more illegitimate children. But it doesn’t cut much ice in an argument for women’s autonomy.

It’s a virtue of the structural organisation of these volumes (the preference for chronology over generic segregation) that it helps the reader to pick up the rhymes as well as the dissonance between the different voices in which Baxter speaks, not least this antic Catholic warp that runs through the weft of such a big-hearted politics. Baxter is like Whitman: he’s vast, he contains multitudes. He may not be our best poet (is Whitman better than Dickinson?). But I don’t mind proposing that he’s our best Romantic poet, and without doubt our greatest poet-activist. Yes, he can be pompous, moralistic and repetitive; he bullies and he browbeats; he can be turgid as well as simplistic. All these problems are amply on show in this massive terminal moraine of prose. But so is the case, and made with unashamed passion, for what his great rival Curnow called “taking poetry seriously”.

John Newton, poet and literary historian, is the author of The Double Rainbow: James K Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (2009).

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Non-fiction, Review, Short stories
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