05 October 2010

Tuesday Poetry Question: Does James K. Baxter Still Influence New Zealand Poets?

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email that I wasn't sure how to answer. It came from an American called Scott Baxter, and he asked:

"I came across your blog while looking for information on Ithaca Island Bay Leaves ... I am interested in New Zealand poetry and a big fan of James K Baxter; is he still widely read in NZ amongst younger poets?"

Scott went on to say:

"I first came across him as we shared the same last name and upon reading his poetry I became a huge fan. I like his use of classical/Christian and later Maori imagery. I wonder how he's read today; as a Catholic poet, an advocate for the Maori or something else entirely.

I see there is a symposium in November in Dunedin exploring the relationship between Robert Burns (another favorite poet of mine) and Baxter."

I think that Scott has asked some excellent questions there. Is James K. Baxter still widely read by New Zealand poets? If so, how is he read, and what if any influence do his poetry and his example still have?

What do you think? Has James K. Baxter influenced your poetry, or how you read poetry? Is he still an influence? How about other poets famous in the 1960s and 1970s?


harvey said...


A bit of self-promotion here. I devote a section of my new anthology 'These I Have Loved' to Baxter. He's a colussus in my poetry development. Your American correspondent may be interested.
Come to the launch this Sunday at St Ninian's Hall, Karori 4 pm



Piokiwi said...

I studied James K Baxter's Jerusalem Sonnets in 7th form and for a 17 year old schoolgirl in a posh single-sex school, it was a shock at first! Very different from his other poems studied in schools. His earthiness, complete lack of taboo regarding subject matter and playfulness with form have influenced me since.

Brighton Belle said...

This Greg O'Brien essay could be dated now, but could still be the key document http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/misc/obrien.asp

Helen Rickerby said...

How timely! I'm currently re-reading some of Baxter - prompted by a friend who is studying him in a 3rd year university paper. She was having trouble with him at first, trouble getting past the often dated and sometimes down-right offensive attitude to women in his work, which can be very alienating. But despite all that, I love him. Or his work. But they're quite inextricable. I also first became familiar with him at university (honours level esp), though I'd certainly read some before that. It's the later work that I really respond to - I've just been rereading Jerusalem Daybook and Autumn Testement. Those, plus Jerusalem Sonnets, are the ones I respond to most. The honesty. The earthiness. The lyricism.

I've found, going back to him after so long, that things that annoyed me still annoy me - maybe even more than they did before - but that I have a greater respect for him than I did also. I respect what he was trying to do in his work and his life.

My friend, I'll call her A, and I had a conversation about this at lunchtime. We think he's still read - at least by people who do NZ lit at university. But I'm really interested to know what others think about that.

And as to his influence - that's an interesting question. He seems to have been, and be perhaps, such a giant, but a very singular one in many ways. It's probably hard to say who you're influence by, as opposed to which poets you like. I'm sure I must have been influence by him to some extent, but he isn't a model exactly. But, on rediscovering him, I hope I'll be able to follow his path of honesty - sometimes raw - and bravery.

As to how he's read - I would think as a granddaddy of NZ poetry, rather than the religious or Maori aspect. That said, John Newton's recent book about the Jerusalem commune focused on it as a bicultural project - but that was the life rather than the work.

Oh, I could rant for ages about this, and perhaps still not come to any conclusions. I'm really interested to hear other people's thoughts on this.

Also, I hope your correspondent found out what he wanted about Ithaca. I would be happy to provide more information (and perhaps purchasing options) about this fine book...

AJ Ponder said...

It is hard to grow up in New Zealand and not be exposed to James K Baxter's poetry and writing.

And it's not just his "serious" stuff.
the kids "Baxter Basics" came out relatively recently and sold like hot cakes (out of print). What more influence do you need?

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Harvey, Renee, Brighton Belle, Helen and AJ.

Harvey, the anthology sounds great, and I hope I'll make it to the launch. Sorry you had trouble with the comments - I know at least one other person whose comment on this post disappeared, so I suspect Blogger was playing up earlier today.

Renee, I remember reading Baxter at High School, but I can't remember whether these were set texts or books I borrowed from the high school library. It's impressive that his work made such an impact on you!

Bathing Belle, yes, that is a great essay! Here's the link: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/misc/obrien.asp

Helen, I'm glad this post was so timely! I know that my early poetry was very influenced by Baxter; then I tired of it, and aligned myself to Allen Curnow's more distanced and cerebral approach. Where I am with now, I don't really know.

AJ, we too have a book of Baxter's poems for children - our son had a phase of wanting poems from that book to be read to him at bedtime.

Harvey Molloy said...

Yes, I think Baxter does still influence our writing; especially Jerusalem Sonnets. As I've got older, I find his increasingly claustrophobic; I feel trapped, hemmed in, hectored, rather than liberated. Still, he was the first NZ poet that grabbed me and shook me into writing. And he worked very hard at his craft and produced some fine poems. I teach Tuwhare at school and I've thought about shifting to teaching Baxter (it's good to change). But I'm still not sure.

Anonymous said...

I've only recently become interested in reading poetry. I write prolifically, and since I started to write I have also needed to follow along with other voices behind words. Romanticism: I was totally carried away by his writing on a house wall just before he died - a true "I must get these words down" act. How often have you awoken in the middle of the night, been driving on the motorway - some place, any place where you must find a pen immediately. Jerusalem sonnets are very freeing - after writing constricting sonnets in old style, it was a wonderful experience to try sonnets like Baxter wrote. I have only recently started to read him, but he has his own voice to, as they say "take what you like and leave the rest". A poet who can stand the test of time says a lot to me - I want to read how things were yesterday, and I am truly amazed when words written yesterday will still be appreciated beyond tomorrow.