James K Baxter

Article on life and poetry of James K. Baxter.


It seems that almost every poet writes about their childhood. James K Baxter, unanimously New Zealand’s greatest poet, is no different in this regard, except that he was writing poetry while he was a child; he wrote his first poem at age seven and completed six hundred between the ages of sixteen and twenty. Pacifist parents, the sparse yet beautiful southern landscape of New Zealand’s South Island, a dislike of traditional education and a difficult adolescence (described by the poet as a “testing time”), not unfamiliar colours in any poet’s palette, yet nobody had written about these topics before in New Zealand, making Baxter an immediate, uniquely indigenous voice that has yet to be surpassed.

Named after a founder of the British Labour Party, James Keir Baxter was born in 1926, Dunedin, New Zealand, to talented, pacifist parents; his father Archibald was tortured for his beliefs during the First World War and later wrote a book about the experience; his mother Millicent was the strong-willed, university educated daughter of one of New Zealand’s top academics. Family fable has it that his father prayed that he might have a poet for a son.

An able, although not highly motivated student, Baxter was more interested in reading and then imitating almost the entire English poetic Atcannon than his school curriculum; particularly the moderns – Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day-Lewis; later on Dylan Thomas. He entered university a year early at seventeen, the beginning of what he later called a “long, unsuccessful love affair with the Higher Learning.” Already at this early age a distinct poetic voice was emerging, and in 1944 – still seventeen – he published his first collection of poems Beyond the Palisadeto critical acclaim; six poems selected for the very first A Book of New Zealand Verse. He also won the Macmillan Brown literary prize, coincidentally named after his grandfather.

Now recognised as a major emerging talent, Baxter quit university to gather raw material for his poems from the experience of life, working for several years in factories and on farms, as a sanatorium porter and copy editor; also beginning a life-long struggle with alcoholism. A child raised on Greek myth and symbols, he incorporated Jungian symbolism into his poetry after visiting a Jungian psychologist, then began a lifelong commitment to religion after baptising as an Anglican. He married a Maori woman, Jacqueline Sturm – a fine poet and writer in her own right – then struggled for the rest of his life to fulfil the conflicting roles of husband, father, employee, religious seeker and poet – frequent separations from his wife the result despite a life-long love for her.

Religion, love, myth, the New Zealand landscape and society formed the backbone of Baxter’s poetic themes, and probably in that order; later explorations would include a conversion to Catholicism, partially assisted by the writings of C.S. Lewis; visiting Japan and India on a UNESCO scholarship, where he was haunted by visions of the poor and destitute; leaning Maori; and in the final years of his life leaving his family with only a bible in hand to follow a dream-vision to found a spiritual community in the Maori settlement of Jerusalem, where people

“would try to live without money or books, worship God and work on the land.”

Baxter once described his poems as “part of a large subconscious corpus of personal myth, like an island above the sea, but joined underwater to other islands”, and elsewhere commented that what “happens is either meaningless to me, or else it is mythology.” He saw himself as touching and embodying a broader, mythic consciousness, at times spiritual as well; when delivering mail around the hills of Wellington as a postman he would imagine the heavy mailbag on his back as the cross of Christ.

Like his contemporary Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Baxter was a man of letters who attempted to put his words into action:

“It is the business of a poet, I think, to be destitute as well as honest. He may have money; but he should recognise that it is dirt. He may have prestige; but let him hate it and wear it like an old filthy coat. Then he may be able to stay awake a little better. Love will not harm him, though. It will slice him open like a fish, and hang him by the heels, and let the sun into his private bag of dreams and idiot ambitions. He will think he is dying when he is just beginning to wake up.”

Baxter’s greatest works of poetry include Pig Island Letters, Jerusalem Sonnets and Autumn Testament; he also wrote numerous plays, books of criticism, religious commentaries and one novel.

New Zealand is only a nice idea for most. Even for those who live in New Zealand it is more of a concept than a living reality, an unconscious experience of a land as unknown as the nature of our true selves. We admire New Zealand on postcards and in still and moving image, but few in a nation of recent settlers have attempted live and embody New Zealand, to truly understand what it is and then explain that to others. James K. Baxter attempted to do this, and his vision of New Zealand was at core a profoundly spiritual one.

Alone we are born and die alone Yet see the red-gold cirrus over snow-mountain shine upon the upland road ride easy stranger Surrender to the sky your heart of anger. High Country Weather)

More on James K Baxter


Article by John Gillespie.

John Gillespie is a New Zealand based designer and writer with a love of writing and a practise of meditation. John is a member of the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre