James K. Baxter Poems

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James K. Baxter
James Keir Baxter (June 29, 1926óOctober 22, 1972) was a New Zealand poet, and a controversial figure in New Zealand society. Baxter was born in Dunsandel to Archibald Baxter and Millicent Brown and grew up near Brighton. He was named after James Keir Hardie, a founder of the British Labour Party. His father had been a conscientious objector during the First World War. His mother had studied at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Sydney, the University of Sydney and Newnham College. He burned his hand on a stove on his first day at school, and later used this incident to represent the failure of institutional education. As a child he contrasted the social order represented by his maternal grandfather with the clan mentality of his Scottish father. He drew analogies between the Highland clans and the M‚ori Tribes. Baxter, like the comparable Francis Webb in Australia, claims to have begun writing poetry at the age of seven, and it is certain that he accumulated a large body of technically-accomplished poetry both before and during his teenage years; he continued to write throughout a life at once contemplative and active, although his frequent shifts of religion and lifestyle often puzzled his countrymen. His poetry oscillates between metric verse, of which he was a master, and the free prose preferred by his contemporaries. He typically wrote short lyrical poems or cycles of the same rather than longer poems. In 1944, at age seventeen he joined the University of Otago and that year he published his first collection of poetry Beyond the Palisades which was well received critically and established him as a poet. His work at this time was influenced by the works of Dylan Thomas. He was a member of the Wellington Group of writers with Louis Johnson, W.H. Oliver and Alistair Campbell. He failed to complete his course at Otago, and did various odd jobs including working as a mime at an abattoir, and as a cleaner at Chelsea Sugar Refinery, which inspired the poem "Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works". In 1948 he married Jacqueline Sturm, and at about the same time his interest in black magic culminated in his joining the Anglican church. In February 1951 Baxter enrolled at Wellington Teachersí College. In 1952 his son, Pong, was born and a selection of poems in a collaborative volume, Poems unpleasant, was published. Having completed his course at teachersí college in December, Baxter spent 1953 in full-time study at Victoria University College and published his third major collection, The fallen house. In 1954 he was appointed assistant master at Epuni School, Lower Hutt. He received a BA in 1956. While at Otago university he began drinking heavily but in 1954 he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. By 1955 he had received a substantial legacy and could afford a comfortable house in Ngaio, Wellington. He left Epuni School early in 1956 to write and edit primary school bulletins for the Department of Educationís School Publications Branch. This period is likely to have influenced his writing providing material for numerous attacks on bureaucracy. In 1957 he took a course in Roman Catholicism. His collection of poems In Fires of No Return published in 1958 was influenced by his new faith. This was his first collection to be published internationally, though English critics were generally unimpressed. His wife, a committed Anglican, was dismayed by his Catholicism, and they separated in 1957. In 1958 he received a UNESCO stipend and began an extended journey through Asia, and especially India. Here he was reconciled with his wife, but contracted dysentery. His writing after returning from India was more overtly critical of New Zealand society. In the 1960s he became a powerful and prolific writer of both poems and drama, and it was through his radio play Jack Winter's dream that he became internationally known. In the first half of the 1960s he was broke and dependent on a postman's wage, having refused to take work as a schoolmaster. However it was at this time that the collection of poems Pig Island Letters was published in which his writing found a new level of clarity. This year (1966) he was offered and accepted the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. In 1968 he recalled being told in a dream 'Go to Jerusalem'. Jerusalem was a small M‚ori settlement (known by its M‚ori transliteration, Hiruharama) on the Wanganui River. He left his University position and a job composing catechetical material for the Catholic Education Board, with nothing but a bible. This was the culmination of a short period in which he struggled with family life and his vocation as a poet. He spent some time in Grafton, Auckland where he set up a centre for drug addicts acting on the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1969 he adopted the M‚ori version of his name, Hemi, and moved to Jerusalem. He lived without property and made frequent trips to the nearby cities where he worked with the involuntarily poor and spoke against a social order that sanctions poverty. His poems of this time have a conversational style but speak strongly of his social and political convictions. The harsh deprivations he forced on himself at this time took their toll on his health. By 1972 he was too ill to continue at Jerusalem. He moved to a commune near Auckland. On October 22, 1972 he suffered a coronary thrombosis in the street, and died in a nearby house, aged 46. He was buried at Jerusalem on M‚ori land in front of "the Top House" where he had lived, in a ceremony combining M‚ori and Catholic traditions. His work has inspired, among others, Stephen Oliver.

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As warm north rain breaks over suburb houses,
Streaming on window glass, its drifting hazes... [read poem]
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