James Keir Baxter

James K. Baxter.

James Keir Baxter

On the Razor’s Edge

“Bone in the river bed,
Old bone like a honeycomb,
Brown bone, man bone,
Where do you come from?”
(From Brown Bone)

Poet, prophet, postman, social activist, alcoholic derelict, dogmatic catholic, randy libertine, spiritually brash showman, guru … James K. Baxter was a compelling mix of high and low culture, sacred and profane. He cut an iconic figure as New Zealand’s indigenous counter-culture messiah, a reputation which has diminished little in the years since his death. In 1976 Vincent O’Sullivan posited that Baxter’s verse, “is the most complete delineation yet of a New Zealand mind. The poetic record of its shaping is as original an act as anything we have.”

The tribe’s scribe

Baxter once referred to his poems as being “part of a large subconscious of personal myth, like an island above the sea, but joined underwater to other islands.” It was this submarine and frequently reluctant connection with New Zealand society which set him apart as a people’s prophet. As David Eggleton writes, Baxter was, “young, gifted and twisted … a self-styled lightning rod, the people’s voice, the tribe’s scribe.”

“I walked forth gladly to find the angry poor
Who are my nation; discovered instead
The glutton seagulls squabbling over crusts”
(From Crossing Cook Strait)

Baxter on his postal round in Wellington

Baxter on his postal round in Wellington (1965). Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library

A unifying thread to Baxter’s diverse body of work (as Eggleton puts it, he “soaked up influences like a sponge”) is an unrelenting social criticism. He looked shrewdly at a society that he saw as lazy, conformist and materialistic. Baxter chose to prosecute from a vantage point well outside of the norm, be it through conscientious objection, religion (he was baptised twice, first as an Anglican, second a Roman Catholic), or the spiritual commune he established in Jerusalem in 1969. He remarked in the 1960s,

“One becomes used to living on the razor’s edge. If my economic or social or domestic condition were alleviated in such a way that I had more leisure to write, and possibly more stimulus to write, I would be a Sisyphus divided from his boulder. The gritty touch of its huge surfaces, the grinding weight, the black shadow which it casts, are the strongest intimations of reality which I possess, and the source of whatever strength exists in my sporadic literary productions.”
(From “Writers in New Zealand”)

Southern man bone

Born on 29 June 1926 to a left-leaning Otago farmer and an intellectual mother, the heady southern brew that fermented in Baxter was perhaps unsurprising. Archibald and Millicent were celebrated early prophets of the Aotearoa peace movement: Archie a famous conscientious objector and political outsider, and both parents active socialists and pacifists. They weaned the young Baxter on everything from Byron and Blake, to Robbie Burns and Henry Lawson, and as Baxter remarked, he came down with a localised strain of the poetic measles: “With the same place – the bare coast between Dunedin and Taieri Mouth – and the same people, someone else might have become a prominent Social Crediter and a collector of gold-bearing rocks. But instead I broke out in words” (from “Notes on the Education of a New Zealand Poet”). His prolific writing life – he is credited with some 2600 poems, as well as plays, a novella, literary criticism, educational and political pieces – began at age seven,

“One landscape, many women:
Ambition of that savage empty boy
Haunting the bathing sheds and diamond bay,
Composing verses in an upstairs room.”
(from Be Happy in Bed)

– and continued till his early death at 46. He grew up in Brighton, Dunedin: “Small town of corrugated iron roofs / Between the low volcanic saddle / And off-shore reef where blue cod browse”. After an alienating adolescence, Baxter’s “long, unsuccessful love affair with Higher Learning” began with a year at Otago University in 1944. He would later write, “Aphrodite, Bacchus, and the Holy Spirit were my tutors, but the goddess of good manners and examination passes withheld her smile from me” (from “Essay on the Higher Learning”).

A young Baxter in front of Mt. Aspiring

A young Baxter in front of Mt. Aspiring. Courtesy of Archives New Zealand.

Aotearoa AA

During the 1940s he worked in odd jobs, while his restless mind ranged widely from religion to Jungian psychology. In 1948 he married Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm, a Maori woman, and converted to Anglicanism (the relationship would produce a daughter, Hilary, in 1949 and a son, John, in 1952). In 1949 Baxter moved with his family to Wellington where he worked in a slaughterhouse and as a postman before entering Teachers’ College. He was by then a friend and contemporary of many poets, and played a key role in developing a Wellington writers’ group that included Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and W.H. Oliver. Interspersed with stints as a school teacher and working for the Department of Education’s School Publications Branch, he eventually completed his BA at Victoria University, Wellington, in 1956.

Baxter and family. In the back row stand his parents, Archibald and Millicent; and his wife, Jacquie, on the right. Image supplied by the Hocken Library, Dunedin.

Around the time of his first enrolment at Otago, he had begun a long and damaging relationship with alcohol:

“Good things came to me from Otago. My incipient alcoholism took wings like a bush fire, leaping fence and river, in the Bowling Green, the Royal Albert, the Captain Cook, the Grand, the City, the Oban, the Shamrock (on Sundays), and the Robert Burns (my best friend had a flat above it). The Furies, those Muses of black-humour poetry, roosted on my doorstep like great scraggy chickens, and never left it again.”
(from “Essay on the Higher Learning”)

By the time Baxter was living in Christchurch in the late 1940s, “the irrigating river of alcohol flowed continually through my veins”. Here, as he put it in the same essay, he “lived inside the spiritual bomb-shelters erected by Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane”. In Wellington in 1954 he sought less literate shelter in Alcoholics Anonymous. He eventually obtained sobriety and would retain an association with the organisation throughout his life; evidenced for example, in his actions in helping others via shelter, counseling and prison visits. His struggle to dry-out was hard on the Baxter family and in 1957, after his unheralded conversion to Catholicism had shocked Jacquie, they separated. The “gloomy drunk” and the “troubled woman” reunited, but the schism would happen more than once. Their relationship would be increasingly complicated as Baxter wrestled with the domestic requirements of family, and his anxiety about how to make his words potent through action.

Baxter in Canterbury

Baxter outside “Canterbury University” in 1947.  Image supplied by Hocken Library

Fringe dwellers and regular boys

Alcohol was also the tonic that drew people to the pub – the institution that then also acted as a whare (closed: 6 o’clock) for those on the fringe. Baxter’s communion with the farm hand, the lonely adolescent, the bum … victims of broken economics or broken families, was a characteristic of his life and verse. In his classic ballad about the owner of the Hesperus Hotel, Lament for Barney Flanagan, Baxter classifies with barely sympathetic vitriol the stereotypes within the environment of the pub. The rapacious and the privileged ignore the death of the publican, remaining ignorant of the bar’s shadow dwellers (who will remember Barney).

“The regular boys and the loud accountants
Left their nips and their seven-ounces
As chickens fly when the buzzard pounces –
‘Have you heard about old Flanagan?’

.  .  .

While publicans drink their profits still,

While lawyers flock to be in at the kill,
While Aussie barmen milk the till
We will remember Flanagan!”

Baxter took the traditional ballad form (accessible, familiar), and with his mix of humour and pathos, became New Zealand’s principal lyricist. Lively, bawdy, serious, yet wry and witty, his best known ballads included The Ballad of Calvary Street, Gunner’s Lament, Ballad of the Junkies and the Fuzz. The performance element in Baxter’s verse is evident in the number of pieces translated into song by New Zealand musicians, with poet Sam Hunt the preeminent vocal interpreter of Baxter’s ballads. A collection of songs written to Baxter’s poems, Baxter, was released in 2000 with contributions by some of Aotearoa’s finest troubadours: Dave Dobbyn, Martin Phillips, Emma Paki, Greg Johnson, David Downes, Andrew Brough, and Hunt. It culminated in a group concert at the 2000 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.

Pig Island Letters

Baxter returned to Otago University with his family in 1966 – with rare financial security – as a Robert Burns Fellow in Creative Writing. His second spell at Otago was marked by increased social activism and political agitation; in his words, he was “quite happy to get on the gravy train,” but refused to “take [his] hat off to the driver.” This was, in part, influenced by his time in Asia on a UNESCO scholarship to study educational publishing, in 1958. The extreme poverty he encountered there, particularly in India, contributed to his general disillusionment with society. He wrote a number of important protest poems against the Vietnam War and, in 1966, published the acclaimed collection, Pig Island Letters. Pig Island being New Zealand’s South Island; he addressed himself to her Majesty:

“Madame, I beg to quarrel with
Your trip across the water –
Pig Island needs no English myth
To keep its guts in order,
Though our half-witted housewives yearn
At your image on the TV screen”
(from An Ode to the Reigning Monarch on the Occasion of her Majesty’s Visit to Pig Island)

Eventually, Baxter’s dissatisfaction with mainstream culture and his distrust of institutions, especially the government, reached its logical conclusion; he renounced ownership of property, took a vow of poverty, and established himself as a self-described “barefooted and bearded eccentric, a bad smell in the noses of many good citizens.”


After working in Auckland and Wellington with alcoholics, drug-addicts, the poor and homeless, Baxter realised an urgent need for a refuge for those living on society’s fringes. He left his family to establish a spiritual commune at the tiny Maori settlement of Jerusalem on the banks of the Whanganui River in 1969, shifting to what Michael King calls “his guru mode”.  “Whenever anybody comes to my door, where I live at Jerusalem, he or she receives a ritual embrace and is offered food and drink and a place to lie down…”

Baxter in a field by the church in Jerusalem. The original caption read: “Each man needs part of the day to himself and James Baxter spends his in silent meditation. ‘I feel a need for whakaiti – becoming small,’ he says.” Copyright NZ Herald. Image supplied by the Alexander Turnbull Library

He aimed to create a settlement based around “spiritual aspects of Maori communal life” in an effort to recover values that had been lost in Pakeha urban life. Baxter sought o bring belief down to earth and make it understandable in the midst of our personal experiences and local metaphors. Keeping it real in Maori Jesus, the title persona is “[breaking] wind” and making “the little fishes tremble” (surely an inspiration for NZ-edged Reg Mombassa’s iconic design for Mambo, Australian Jesus – the miracle of the pies and the beer). From his base at Jerusalem, Baxter made itinerant forays around the country to fulfill speaking invitations; often surprising people with his bedraggled and barefooted appearance, and his proclivity to enthusiastically embrace perfect strangers. Naturally this made Baxter a suspicious figure for the defenders of the ‘citizenry’, the police, press and local authorities. “I have encountered many people who thought they hated me …”

Baxter’s “Maori Jesus” walks on Wellington harbour – now in the form of a sculpture. Photo by Lesley Gedye

Passage from Baxter’s “Maori Jesus” in the form of a sculpture along  Wellington’s Writers Walk. Photo by Lesley Gedye

Baxter’s commune struggled and, disillusioned and ill, he eventually left it in 1972 and travelled aimlessly north. That October he died suddenly in Auckland, of a coronary thrombosis, his long irascible struggles with God, society, the bottle, and the ethical life, over. He was eventually buried on his adopted tribal land, one of few Pakeha to receive the honour of a full Maori tangi. News of his death was a national event, from living rooms under photos of the Queen to the gutter along Bond St. He had become a national figure: beloved, controversial, banned.

J.K. Baxter by Nigel Brown

J.K. Baxter in Nigel Brown’s “A Poet as Christ” (1981)

Close to Home

Most of those who have written about Baxter’s work consider that he reached his artistic peak in his final collections of poetry – Jerusalem Sonnets (1970) and Autumn Testament (1972). By this stage he had found his own style; an easy, conversational tone mixing the trivialities of daily life with intensely personal reflection and notions of a higher spirituality. The poems in Autumn Testament, in particular, abandon the Latinate structures, often derivative style, and public nature of his earlier works in favour of subjects much closer to home – for both himself and his readers. It is an exploration of a life’s inner landscape in Aotearoa. Take the direct, bittersweet, almost elegiac, love song to his wife, He Waiata Mo Te Kare:

“Those we knew when we were young,
None of them have stayed together,
All their marriages battered down like trees
By the winds of a terrible century.

I was a gloomy drunk.
You were a troubled woman.
Nobody would have given tuppence for our chances,
Yet our love did not turn to hate.

If you could fly this way, my bird,
One day before we both die,
I think you might find a branch to rest on.

I chose to live in a different way.

Today I cut the grass from the paths
With a new sickle,
Working till my hands were blistered.

I never wanted another wife.”

John Weir in his introduction to the Collected Poems writes that Baxter, “… blurred the border between poetry and prose. While his deceptively simple words and phrases indicate a mastery of language, they also duplicate the simplicity and freedom he longed for in his own life. Plain, forthright, angry, compassionate, wry, self-mocking. Baxter’s last poems express with absolute authenticity the experiences and convictions of a passionate, complex and haunted man.”

Into the arms of Hine-nui-te-po

Baxter, like his contemporary Colin McCahon, has been described as a “frustrated internationalist, whom [while he was alive] few overseas could understand or were even exposed to” (Eggleton). His status as a poet achieved international recognition in 1958 with the publication of In Fires of No Return by Oxford University Press, but the attention was brief and the response mixed. Yet the impact he had on his native country was both profound and ongoing. Vincent O’Sullivan eloquently summed up Baxter’s achievement in his seminal monograph, James K. Baxter (1976):

“A man who was probably New Zealand’s best poet, just as probably its best literary critic, certainly as astute a social observer as we have had, and in a fuller sense than any other of our writers, constantly engaged with the daily life of his country – how that man could move as naturally through the ageless configurations of myth as through a city street, could turn the existential privacy of being a modern Christian into his most absorbing and most public literary theme, could adopt social values that set him apart from most of his contemporaries, and yet do these things in a way that made him as national a figure as a successful politician or a well-known sportsman”

On the important publication of Collected Poems in 1980 Baxter, the “man bone” was dug up and celebrated, the dirt dusted off posthumously. Historian Michael King wrote, “It is not only Baxter who speaks to us here. There is more of the New Zealand I recognise and know – more of our public dreams and our realities – than any other single book I can think of.” The years since his death have seen his idiosyncratic southern cross burn brightly: “He is one of the great English language poets of our century,” wrote the Sydney Morning Herald. The Times called Baxter “…a highly significant figure in contemporary literature.” He has inspired numerous New Zealand artists as well as New Zealand poets.

Many myths surround Baxter’s life and Baxter himself actively cultivated his own. His legacy is a profound critique of New Zealand society matched by a life of commitment to its betterment and a sympathy for the underdog. His contribution as poet or prophet is central to the history and ongoing understanding of the New Zealand experience. The foul-mouthed shaky isles’ shit-stirrer who drew disgust and adoration in equal measure … the bar-room bard with the manuka-sweet tongue who in this green and sometimes pleasant land builded here Jerusalem:

“Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow mountains shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger”
(from High Country Weather)


References & Resources:


[Sourced 2013]

For a detailed Baxter bibliography from the University of Auckland Library resource site see: http://www.library.auckland.ac.nz/subjects/nzp/nzlit2/baxter.htm

Paul Millar’s excellent biographical entry from New Zealand Book Council site http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/baxterjk.html

Paul Millar entry from New Zealand Dictionary of Biography site: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5b14/1 

John Weir’s introduction to Collected Poemshttp://www.nzbooks.com/nzbooks/author.asp?author_id=JamesKBaxter

Weir quotes extensively from Baxter’s “Essay on the Higher Learning” here, as well as in his introduction to Baxter’s Selected Poems.

Entry on Baxter written by Mark Williams of The University of Canterbury for the Literary Encyclopedia http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=303

Entry on Baxter from Finish literary resource site Pegasoshttp://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/baxt.htm

Posthumous praise for Baxter following the publication of Collected Poemshttp://web.archive.org/web/20030722070027/www.nzbooks.com/nzbooks/product.asp?sku=JamesKBaxter019558337x

Print Articles

Eggleton, David. “Oh Baxter is Everywhere.” Listener, 23 March 1996, 52-53.

Four Books by Baxter

Beyond the Palisade. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1944; Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pig Island Letters. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Jerusalem Sonnets: Poems for Colin Durning. Dunedin: Bibliography Room, University of Otago, 1970,

Autumn Testament. Wellington: Price Milburn, 1972; Edited by Paul Millar; Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Five Collections of Baxter’s Work

Collected Poems. Ed. J.E. Weir. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1980; Reissue, 2003.

Selected Poems. Ed. Paul Millar. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2001.

The Flowering Cross. Dunedin: New Zealand Tablet, 1969. (Prose and some poetry).

Collected Plays. Ed. Howard McNaughton. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1982.

James K. Baxter as Critic: A Selection from his Literary Criticism. Ed. Frank McKay. Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978.

Four books about Baxter

McKay, Frank. The Life of James K. Baxter. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Oliver, W.H. James K. Baxter: A Portrait. Wellington: Port Nicholson Press, 1983. Auckland: Godwit Press/Bridget Williams Books, 1994.

O’Sullivan, Vincent. James K. Baxter. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Weir, J.E. The Poetry of James K. Baxter. Wellington University Press, 1970.


Tags: J K Baxter  Poet  

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