June 01, 1995

Looking for Runes

Filed under: Commentary


A view of the writings of James K. Baxter

Murray Bramwell
Flinders University

The day before I left Adelaide I received a fax from Vince O’Sullivan listing the conference program. To my surprise I discovered that the vagaries of international subscriber dialling had created a new topic for me. The title I dictated down the phone was Looking for Runes – what got transcribed was: Looking for Rooms. This caused a flurry of reconsideration. Was this verbal flip an omen ? Were the Muses using microprocessors to pitch me towards a more fruitful idea than some slight conceit about germanic inscription. Maybe- “Looking for Rooms : James K Baxter as Unaccommodated Man” was the way to go. Or, Luke 14:12- In my father’s house are many mansions, and James K Baxter has slept in all of them.

I must say when it was suggested that I offer a paper for this gathering my first thoughts were not of Baxter at all but to consider New Zealanders whose writings have in part been located in Europe – Allen Curnow’s An Incorrigible Music perhaps or Janet Frame’s autobiographical works. But a more insistent perversity has me talking about James K. Baxter instead.

It is a perversity because Baxter, it would seem, showed scant regard for the Old World. His preoccupations were so defiantly regional, his imagery and subject matter so invariably local, that to discuss his work in a forum such as this might be regarded as misguided or even churlish. I am -of course- presuming that it is neither.

But I am also somewhat daunted by my task. Surrounded by colleagues expert in current New Zealand writing and cultural history I’m about to wax on about Baxter’s runes -or, is it his rooms (doubts are still tearing at my sleeve about that one)- when I haven’t lived in New Zealand for twenty years.

I return to New Zealand for family visits and keep contact with old friends but, while I am aware of the range and growth of literary activity, I have now lived away too long to appreciate the intricacies of the local debate, to understand instinctively the driving pressures of the day. To that extent I must reluctantly concede to myself that I have lost the plot. My credentials as a native, the sheer authenticity of my passport, these are no longer guarantees. I cannot merely assert that, of course I know about this verse or that novel, because I am a New Zealander. In crucial ways I have become a foreigner and so it is from this half-in half-out perspective that I’m now speaking.

I may be mistaken, but my suspicions are that Baxter’s work is not greatly considered in New Zealand at the moment. He may perhaps have become a kind of literary equivalent of flared trousers. I also understand why that might be the case – much has happened in two decades and would have also for the mercurial Baxter had he not died so unreasonably young. But I will plunge on – risk being the conference Rip Van Winkle and propose the view, or more accurately, confirm the view that Baxter’s writings, in scope, in technical finesse and imaginative power speak for immutable values in New Zealand life. If Europe is looking again to the margins, this time not to impose its culture but to revitalise it, then it could do worse than stumble over Baxter’s runes, runes inscribed not cryptically but with eloquent plainness. Or- get behind thee, alternative metaphor – I might say: anyone travelling in the realms of gold might come to Aotearoa and stay at Jim’s house for a while.

There are people here who knew Baxter, some quite well. As an undergraduate student at Massey University in the late 1960s I was well aware of Baxter’s public activities. He visited campuses often. When he moved to the Wanganui district he would frequently visit Palmerston North where Jim Keble, the Catholic chaplain at Massey would put him up at McManus House, the former Franciscan Friary in Ihaka Street. It was a hangout for students. Some, encouraged by amphetamines, would sit around talking and playing chess all night. I met Baxter briefly there once. My impression was that he was a poseur, that he cultivated a voice like a church bell and that since he was staying in a residence with four bathrooms it was absurd for him to complain about crabs and nits. I knew of his considerable literary standing and had read his work often with general admiration. But I also felt that the interesting things were happening elsewhere. In 1968 that meant London, San Francisco, Prague and Paris.

When I was getting ready to leave New Zealand, I remember making a last dash into Bennetts bookshop in Palmerston North to buy a copy of Jerusalem Sonnets to take with me. I don’t know what prompted me to do so except that in the following months I read them often and was struck by the completeness of their world and the astonishing assurance of the voice in them. When Baxter died of a heart attack in October of 1972, the first year I was away, I understood the shock and sense of loss that many New Zealanders felt. It was not just that he was only forty-six. There was a startling realisation that someone who had been so readily, abundantly, even tiresomely apparent, was an exceptional artist uniquely gifted.

What also struck me at that time was that Baxter made so much more sense from a distance, that he was able to construct a coherent view of a society that I saw only as inchoate and inadequate. That recognition still strikes me when I read his work.

This is perhaps why certain writers have an international reputation that is not shared or quite understood in their own country. Living in the complexity of our own society we are not necessarily impressed by the broad brush, or the iconoclastic statement. Many Australians feel that way about Patrick White, or Judith Wright, that their observations are cliched and old hat, while readers around the world believe that they have revealed Australia to them. The same may be true for such various nationals as, say, Allen Ginsberg in his prime, or Gunter Grass or Narayan or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I provisionally called my paper Runes in Hiruharama in part because of the self-consciousness that the incongruity suggests. Others have commented, including notably, Vincent O’Sullivan, on the way Baxter “stage-managed” his work and to a large extent his life. Commenting in the text of the pictorial volume, James K. Baxter: A Portrait (Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1983) W.H. Oliver said of Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament-

“each sequence is like an album of snapshots; it is easy to forget they were taken by a clever photographer. They exhibit both the innocence of a dove and the guile of a serpent. In the last months (of his life) he was preparing Runes for the press… the book was to be published in England; it does not breathe a word about Jerusalem. They are the highly polished poems of a literary man, as careful as ever about his reputation.”(p.146)

The choice of the title, Runes, is unexplained- except that the cover blurb quotes Baxter (who was dead by the time the volume appeared) as saying- “Runes are inscriptions and I think people associate them with the dead.” He may have been refering to Catullus whose poems form the basis for the fourteen poems in the Pyrrha sequence which opens the collection. Others have suggested the reference to the dead was self prophecy. That is also possible since by then Baxter believed, in more ways than one, that he had a bad heart. But equally, the idea of poems as inscriptions with a magical life of their own is characteristic of Baxter for whom poetry was bardic, in the way that Yeats’s was and Dylan Thomas. It is Baxter’s achievement that he could make the local and particular so vivid, that he understood them so plainly, that they can be read beyond their time and context.

For that reason he didn’t need to excise the Jerusalem poems from his international repertoire. From an outsider’s point of view they are central to what is engaging and illuminating about his work. Baxter’s value, particularly in the context of a forum like this, does not depend on him being familiar to the European in the sense of using the vocabulary and literary imagery of Europe but in being clearly inscribed in the terms of his own place. From that, all else readily follows.

* * *

What strikes us about James K. Baxter in these ironic, equivocally postmodern times is the certainty of his belief in poetry and in the place of the poet in society. His self-mythologising is everywhere evident. But he cannot be blamed for believing that his origins were auspicious. His maternal grandfather founded the Chair of Classics and English at Canterbury University College in 1874, his grandmother graduated in Latin and English in 1881, his mother enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1909. He had, clearly, a good grounding in the best that had been thought and said. As for having strong views about the world, his father Archibald Baxter, was a conscientious objector of heroic proportions whose memoir We Will Not Cease is as moving and illuminating as the works of Graves or Owen. From these forebears, it is not surprising that Baxter imbibed a sense of destiny without forebearance.

His younger life might well have been modelled on such alcoholic literati as Dylan Thomas or Brendan Behan. Stories are legion about friends finding Baxter, then a postman in Wellington, completely plastered at ten in the morning surrounded by undelivered mail. Bill Oliver and others memoirists have properly reminded us that it wasn’t particularly funny. Nor for Jacquie Sturm, his Maori wife. But their relationship was, despite Baxter’s absences and inconstancy, his lifeline. It was also symbolic. Baxter made solemn links with Maoritanga- ones that his late poetry was powerfully to confirm.

The search for myths and heroes while not characteristic of the poetry itself was certainly a feature of Baxter’s own imaginative praxis. In an address to the New Zealand Universities Arts Festival in 1966, entitled “Shots Around the Target”, Baxter drew a wide bow at New Zealand life but in fact he spoke against unadventurous suburban life in any Westernised society. The terms of his address are archaically romantic, the terminology somewhat short of politically correct, the gender distinctions open to modification, but in substance it has a ring of truth. He focuses on two New Zealand apostate heroes – the bushman jailbreaker George Wilder and the novelist Janet Frame.

There are always moments in history, Baxter wrote-

“When an artist can reach out to his country, towards his people and feel an answer, a response, something quite separate from the rattling noise of the bureaucratic machine. At that moment an artist no longer has to fight his people: he is carried, lifted, strengthened by their genuine identification with his themes, as a boxer or a bullfighter is helped and strengthened by being at one with his audience. This is the marriage ceremony by which a myth is born… It is the secret hope of every artist to experience a moment of this kind. I cannot think that it is likely to happen to any New Zealand artist- that is, to an artist in the narrow sense of the word. It does happen to some of our footballers; and when I was young, I seem to remember that it happened to some of our wrestlers.

“You will understand then that I have not got my tongue in my cheek when I propose George Wilder as a prototype of the New Zealand hero. George is, or was, an expert bushman. He has or had the physical powers and the emotional reticence, the ability to cope with danger and solitude, which we require of the average kiwi…(but) the average kiwi, decent bloke though he is, will hardly do for a hero figure. Endurance, kindliness; the difficult acceptance of a negative situation- these may very well help him out at the Last Judgement. But it takes something more to make a myth. It seems to me that George Wilder has done the best a man could do with kiwi conditioning. He had found a narrow, quiet door, just this side of the graveyard, that he could go through and keep his mind, imagination and reflexes working; he could go through into the narrow paradise of the mountaineer, the deerstalker, the bushman, the man who lives off the land…Our society offers no other place for him to occupy . He stands by necessity outside society because he doesn’t want money or safety as much as we want it. It is a very dangerpus position. One false step and the digestive process of society begins to absorb him. Once it starts it never lets go.”

“What about the NZ heroine ?” He continues -“In this country the pressures towards conformity are twenty times as great in the lives of women than they are for men. Thus for a woman to break the pattern takes twenty times as much courage. I propose one of writers, Janet Clutha – whose books are written under the name of Janet Frame- as the prototype of the NZ heroine. Janet grew up inside our social pattern, like a bird dumped in the wrong nest, went to Training College, and in her PA year became schizophrenic. She spent a number of years in our mental hospitals, and emerged from that terrible training ground as the best woman writer in the country.”

Baxter’s admiration for machismo and his implied sense of gender determination sits uncomfortably now. The piece is nearly thirty years old and there is an instinct to file such observations
under hoary cliche and leave it at that. But the comments about the difficulties of the society and the alienation of much about everyday life we recognise intuitively as still true.

At least he speaks for much of Australian society despite its increased “sophistication”- by which we mean how much more European we have become. Ideas travel as fast as airmail subscriptions, we all belong not to old fuddy Europe but a kind of global Cafe Society. Ambrosia is a caffe-latte and dreams of the Odeon or the Cafe Voltaire. Whether Europeans looking to the antipodes want to find such things is quite another question. As is whether being internationally “grown up” is quite what it was cracked up to be. After the destruction of the welfare state, the show trials of entrepreneurs and the level playing field as ground zero, it may be that regionalism has its merits after all.

Baxter doubted that a writer could achieve central significance in New Zealand society although he himself came close by the time of his death. The grandiosity of seeking such a place is
all too plain to us – the twentieth century has greatly tired us of demagogues. But if we believe that the artist is always and only marginal to the society’s view of itself then we risk being more romantic than Baxter.

Travelling up the Wanganui River near the southwest coast of the North Island of New Zealand there is a succession of townships which dot the road to Pipiriki. Their names – Atene, Koriniti, Ranana, Hiruharama -translate as a map of Western civilisation- Athens, Corinth, London and Jerusalem.

It is entirely apt that James K Baxter should have centred his later work in Jerusalem. This tiny community was the site of the first mission station of Mother Mary Aubert, founder of the Sisters of Compassion in New Zealand. It embodied Franciscan charity, as well as being an important location of Maori defiance during the land wars. It was also arcadian – along the ferny banks of the Wanganui River. No one with Baxter’s eye for the mythopoeiac could resist such a confluence of sources. Where else, you might ask, would he shore against his rune ?

That, as his biographer Frank McKay reports, the idea came to him in a dream is visionary to the point almost of cliche. The fulsomeness of Baxter’s claims for himself and his mission was, and is, all too apparent. But the fundamental sincerity and good-heartedness of his plan for the Jerusalem community is indisputable. Its success as a refuge for the young, addicted and criminal looks considerably more impressive now than it did then. Judged against the pitiful efforts of the state to provide for the needy, especially the young, in the past decade, Baxter’s compassion stands as a rebuke to economic rationalism.

When he left his family in Wellington to move to Jerusalem Baxter embarked on a new phase in his life. It can be readily understood in artistic terms as well. We get a strong sense that like Yeats, Baxter made abrupt changes in his life as much out of the need to generate new subject matter as any other. Vincent O’Sullivan’s term `stage-managed’ is entirely appropriate. Baxter stage-managed in the same way that Pound went to Italy and Yeats bought a tower in order to cast his cold eye on life, on death. When Yeats wrote

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat…

it could be Baxter speaking.

Whatever one makes of Baxter’s Jerusalem – and as I say the passing of time makes the very impulse seem socially remarkable- the poetic vision released by his bardic pose is exceptionally complete. He poured the particulars of ordinary life in with
Maori speech, Christian imagery and disarmingly wry comment to create lively, convincing meditations. The Autumn Testament sequence seems to me especially accomplished- certainly as fresh and intact twenty years on as Lowell’s Life Studies for instance. It is not to boost Baxter stock that I say this but rather to emphasise that from beyond New Zealand his work is still etched clear and if his social commitment were to become fashionable again that would be no bad thing either.

Perhaps to conclude I’ll read a section from Pig Island Letters (1966)

From an old house shaded with macrocarpas
Rises my malady.
Love is not valued much in Pig Island
Though we admire its walking parody,

That brisk, gaunt woman in the kitchen
Feeding the coal range, sullen
To all strangers, lest one should be
Her antique horn-red Satan.

Her man, much baffled, grousing in the pub,
Discusses sales
Of yearling lambs, the timber in a tree
Thrown down by autumn gales,

Her daughter, reading in her room
A catalogue of dresses,
Can drive a tractor, goes to Training College,
Will vote on the side of the Bosses,

Her son is moodier, has seen
An angel with a sword
Standing above a clump of old man manuka
Just waiting for the word

To overturn the cities and the rivers
And split the house like a rotten totara log.
Quite unconcerned he sets his traps for ‘possums
And whistles to his dog.

The man who talks to his masters of Pig Isalnd
About the love they dread
Plait ropes of sand, yet I was born among them
And will lie some day with their dead.

(Collected Poems, OUP, Wellington, 1979. pp. 277-8)

And a poem from Five Sestinas – first collected in The Labyrinth in 1972.

The Dark Welcome

In the rains of winter the pa children
Go in gumbbots on the wet grass. Two fantails clamber
On stems of bramble and flutter their wings
In front of me, indicating a visit
Or else a death. Below the wet marae
They wait in a transport shelter for the truck to come

Bringing tobacco, pumpkins, salt. The kai will be
To my hungry wandering children
Who drink at the springs of the marae
And find a Maori ladder to clamber
Up to the light. The cops rarely visit,
Only the fantails flutter their wings

Telling us about the dark angel’s wings
Over a house to the north where a man has come
Back from Wellington to make a quiet visit,
Brother to one of the local children,
Because the boss’s scaffolding was too weak to clamber
Up and down, or else he dreamt of the marae

When the car was hitting a bend. Back to the marae
He comes, and the fantails flutter their wings,
And the children at the tangi will shout and clamber
Over trestles, with a noise of welcome,
And tears around the coffin for one of the grown-up
Who comes to his mother’s house on a visit
(Collected Poems, p.586)

The poem is one of any number one might choose to indicate Baxter’s gift for the vivid, the resonant and the local. Anyone from anywhere in the world given a footnote or two (certainly fewer than Yeats would need) could happen on this inscription from the dead, this rune from the far south. Or, if it is still the case that Baxter is looking for rooms, then he will need several. Not only one in which to store his produce- because it is worth keeping, but one to house his large, tickery, quixotic, poet’s heart.

Draft version of “Looking for Runes : A View of the Writings of James K Baxter” in The Poet’s Voice No.2.1 New Series, June 1995, Dept of English and American Studies, University of Salzburg, Austria, pp.106- 113.

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