Poet Profile: James K. Baxter

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.

James K. Baxter, ‘High Country Weather’

Poet, prophet, alcoholic, social activist: the poetry of James K. Baxter (1926-1972) remains well-known and loved in New Zealand today. Baxter’s father was a conscientious objector in World War One, his mother an educated woman who spoke several languages, and Baxter lived with his feet in many different worlds: social activism, academia, the Catholic church, Maori culture, the life of the working poor, sixties counter-culture. All of this found expression in his poems, which were also influenced by the work of Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins, among others.

James K. Baxter.
James K. Baxter

In ‘A Rope For Harry Fat’ he protested against the death penalty following four executions in 1955 (New Zealand last used the death penalty in 1957. It was abolished for murder in 1961, and for all crimes including treason in 1989).

Oh some have killed in angry love
And some have killed in hate,
And some have killed in foreign lands
To serve the business state.
The hangman’s hands are abstract hands
Though sudden death they bring —
“The hangman keeps our country pure,”
Says Harry Fat the king.

from ‘A Rope For Harry Fat’, by James K. Baxter

‘He Waiata Mo Te Kare’ (‘A Song For My Sweetheart’, Te Kare also being an alternative name of his wife, Jacqueline Sturm) was a love poem not only for his by-then-ex-wife but also for Hiruharama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River, where he lived between 1968 and 1972, having arrived with nothing but a Bible, and the Maori culture of his wife and the Maori people at Hiruharama.

The church at Hiruharama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River.
The church at Hiruharama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River.

And ‘The Maori Jesus’ pictured a modern-day incarnation of Christ living among the working poor of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, being run in by the police for vagrancy, imprisoned, and lobotomised, plunging the world into darkness.

Opening lines of 'The Maori Jesus' displayed on Wellington's waterfront.
Opening lines of ‘The Maori Jesus’ displayed on Wellington’s waterfront.

In other words, his work was hugely varied and deeply grounded in New Zealand society and culture, yet is barely known overseas. Sometimes soothing, sometimes challenging, sometimes hauntingly beautiful, like Hopkins he wove together the spiritual and the material to create something of transcendent beauty and enduring value.

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