Page 1: Biography
Baxter, James Keir
Poet, postman, teacher, dramatist, writer, social critic
This biography, written by Paul Millar, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000, and updated in February, 2019.
James Keir Baxter was born on 29 June 1926 at Nurse Ross’s maternity home, Dunedin, the second son of Archibald McColl Learmond Baxter, an Otago farmer, and his wife, Millicent Amiel Macmillan Brown. His brother, Terence, had been born in 1922. Neither Archie nor Millicent had religious affiliations and their sons were unchristened.
Baxter’s middle name, after the Scottish socialist Keir Hardie, indicated his parents’ left-leaning politics. Their contrasting backgrounds also influenced his development. Whereas Archie was a quiet, self-educated man, whose ancestors had been small farmers in the Scottish highlands, Millicent was the strong-minded elder daughter of noted Canterbury College professor John Macmillan Brown. Archie had been a conscientious objector during the First World War. Millicent had successfully studied languages at Newnham College, Cambridge, and in Halle, Germany. She shocked her father when she chose to marry Archie Baxter and live on his humble farm. The failure of this mismatch was widely predicted, but the relationship was enduring and highly successful.
For the first five years of his life James thrived on the family’s farm at Kuri Bush, south of the Otago coastal village of Brighton. In 1931 the family moved to Brighton, and he attended the local primary school. On his first day he burnt his hand on a stove, an incident that came to symbolise his enduring dislike of systematic education.
Baxter, who credited his father – ‘a poet whom the time betrayed / To action’ – with bringing him to a knowledge and practice of poetry, wrote his first poem at the age of seven. His early verses were influenced by Scottish tradition and English fairy tales and poems and given immediacy by New Zealand’s landscape and life. However, at an early age he recognised a difference between New Zealand’s dominant social order, represented by his maternal grandfather, and the ‘closely-knit Otago Tribes of my father’s family’. From his Gaelic ancestors he developed a conception of a tribal ethos ‘of charity, peace, and a survival that is more than self-preservation’ and identified the same concept burning ‘like radium in the cells of my body’. This sense of difference gave impetus to his writing.
In 1936 the Baxters moved to Wanganui where Terence and James attended the Quaker St John’s Hill School. The following year the family travelled to Europe and the boys boarded at another Quaker school, Sibford, in the English Cotswolds. Towards the end of 1938 the family returned to New Zealand and settled back in Brighton. In 1939 James again attended St John’s Hill, this time as a boarder, but he felt ‘out of touch with my childhood companions and uncertain whether I was an Englishman or a New Zealander’. He articulated this confusion in his poems, which he was writing at the rate of four or five a week.
The following year he returned to Brighton and enrolled as a third former at Dunedin’s King’s High School. This was not a good period for pacifists: the family was suspected of spying, James was bullied, and Terence was sent into detention as a military defaulter. Adolescence was therefore a solitary time, but Baxter felt that his experiences ‘created a gap in which the poems were able to grow’. Between 1942 and 1946 he would draft some 600 poems.
An able although unmotivated student, Baxter matriculated a year earlier than usual, with unspectacular results. Poetry merited greater application and he was inspired by contemporary poets such as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice and Cecil Day-Lewis. In 1944 he began a ‘long, unsuccessful love affair with the Higher Learning’ when he enrolled at the University of Otago. At 18 he was of average height and build, with straight brown hair and an aquiline nose. His two most notable features were a mellifluous resonant voice and a complexion that gave him a ‘cherubic face ... like a new born apple’. It was a year of academic failure during which Baxter’s ‘incipient alcoholism took wings like a bush fire’. His poetry, however, was successful: he won the Macmillan Brown prize for the poem ‘Convoys’ and Caxton Press published his first collection, Beyond the palisade , to critical acclaim. A second collection, Cold spring , remained unpublished until 1996.
From 1945 to 1947 Baxter worked in factories and on farms. Part of this period is fictionalised in his posthumous novel Horse (1985). His struggle with alcoholism earned him a reputation as something of a wild man and his bouts of drinking probably played a part in the failure of his first significant love affair, with a young medical student. In 1947 he met Jacqueline Cecilia Sturm; she was also a student, and one of few Maori then studying for a degree.
In late 1947 Baxter moved to Christchurch, ostensibly to renew his university studies, but actually to visit a Jungian psychologist. As a result, he began incorporating Jungian symbolism into his poetic theory and practice. He made sporadic appearances at lectures and held short-term jobs as a porter at a sanatorium, copyholder for the Christchurch Press , and freezing worker. He began associating with the poets Allen Curnow and Denis Glover, and reading Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane. The publication, in 1948, of his second collection, Blow, wind of fruitfulness , confirmed him as the pre-eminent poet of his generation.
Baxter had been increasingly interested in religion since the 1940s; this culminated in baptism as an Anglican in November 1948. The following month, on 9 December (and despite considerable parental concern), he and Jacquie were married in the Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist, Napier. They moved to Wellington, where Baxter initially worked at the Ngauranga abattoir. A daughter, Hilary, was born in 1949. Both James and Jacquie had recommenced studying: he towards his BA and she an MA in philosophy. Baxter made stimulating new literary friendships, and became identified with a group of writers that included W. H. Oliver, Alistair Campbell and Louis Johnson.
In February 1951 Baxter enrolled at Wellington Teachers’ College. That May he enthralled a Christchurch conference of New Zealand writers with a lecture, subsequently published, on Recent trends in New Zealand poetry. His comments inspired one reviewer to describe him as ‘the profoundest critic we have’. The next year, 1952, was celebrated for the birth of a son, John, and the publication of a selection of poems in a collaborative volume, Poems unpleasant .
Having completed his course at teachers’ 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. An able teacher, but no disciplinarian, his major contribution was a series of children’s poems published posthumously as The tree house (1974). Also in 1954, he gave three lectures on poetry at Victoria University College. These were published as The fire and the anvil (1955) to mixed reviews, with some critics concerned at his simplification of issues and reliance upon anecdote.
In late 1954 Baxter joined Alcoholics Anonymous and, eventually, achieved sobriety. AA’s tenet, that helping others was the foundation of any rehabilitation, set him on a course of counselling and prison visitation. His struggle to dry out was hard on his family, but their situation improved in 1955 when he received a substantial legacy with which they purchased a house. He also received his BA in 1956. But Baxter was not enjoying teaching and he left Epuni School early in 1956 to write and edit primary school bulletins for the Department of Education’s School Publications Branch. This period would provide his writing with material for numerous attacks on bureaucracy.
Baxter received international recognition in 1958 when Oxford University Press published In fires of no return. Critics, however, thought the book loose and poorly selected. His greatest success that year was a radio play, Jack Winter’s dream. The script was adapted for the stage in 1960 and filmed in 1979. Domestically, things were less successful. Jacquie was astonished by her husband’s unheralded decision to convert to Roman Catholicism and in October 1957 they separated. He was conditionally rebaptised a Catholic in January 1958. A UNESCO fellowship to study educational publishing in Japan and India gave them a chance to reconcile. Baxter left for Japan in September 1958 and the family joined him later in India. He was overwhelmed by the poverty and affected by the experience of being part of an ethnic minority. His sense of displacement and disorientation is evident in his next collection, Howrah Bridge and other poems (1961).
The Baxter who returned to New Zealand in May 1959 was wasted by dysentery. From a gaunt face, his shadowed, sunken eyes gazed critically at New Zealand society, and in his writing he seemed disillusioned by its dehumanising aspects. Drama became a vehicle for criticism. The wide open cage (1959) explored themes such as guilt and alienation in relationships. Other plays followed. In 1960 Baxter became embroiled in a controversy over Allen Curnow’s anthology The Penguin book of New Zealand verse. His argument that Curnow misrepresented the state of New Zealand poetry by under-representing younger poets did little to lessen an antipathy his erstwhile champion had developed towards him.
Baxter resigned from School Publications in March 1963 to become a postman. He wrote a number of polemical poems protesting against the Vietnam War, and Poetry Magazine published A selection of poetry in 1964, but Baxter’s next major collection was Pig Island letters (1966). It was widely praised and its language showed a directness and clarity not often found in his work in the 1950s.
The Baxter family left Wellington for Dunedin in 1966 to allow James to take up the Robert Burns Fellowship in creative writing at the University of Otago. He held the position for two years, during which time he took an active part in university life. He continued protesting against the war in Vietnam and enjoyed satirising university prohibitions against student cohabitation in his pamphlet A small ode on mixed flatting. His creative output was staggering: he wrote numerous poems and published a selection, The lion skin (1967); published two volumes of criticism, Aspects of poetry in New Zealand and The man on the horse ; and saw a number of his plays and mimes staged by Dunedin director Patric Carey.
In 1968 Dunedin’s Catholic Education Office employed Baxter to prepare catechetical material and teach at Catholic schools, and his articles for the Catholic periodical the New Zealand Tablet were collected and published in The flowering cross (1969). Yet the fellowship appeared to have drained him of energy. He struggled in his marriage, fearing the trap of domesticity, found difficulty relating to his children, and was dogged by the feeling that mere words were impotent without action.
Around the beginning of April 1968 ‘a minor revelation’ led him to think of Jerusalem (Hiruharama), the mission station on the Whanganui River. He thought he might go to this small Maori settlement, bordered by a Catholic church and a convent, and ‘form the nucleus of a community where the people, both Maori and pakeha, would try to live without money or books, worship God and work on the land’. Following the family’s return to Wellington in December 1968, Baxter left home to put his beliefs into practice.
Although his ultimate destination was Jerusalem, Auckland was his initial stop. He discovered his niche in a cluster of run-down squats in the suburb of Grafton. Number 7 Boyle Crescent, where he settled in Easter 1969, became a drop-in centre for drug addicts. Baxter, who had adopted the Maori transliteration of his name, Hemi, set about counselling and attempting to establish a narcotics anonymous organisation. His appearance – barefoot, bearded and shabbily dressed – attracted both media and police, who suspected his motives and morality. He put the drug users’ side of the story in ‘Ballad of the junkies and the fuzz’, and also published a selection of 20 years’ verse in The rock woman (1969), but poetry was not his main focus. By August 1969 Baxter was heading for Jerusalem.
Arriving there in September, Baxter attempted to form a community structured around key ‘spiritual aspects of Maori communal life’ so as to recover values New Zealand’s predominantly Pakeha urban society had lost. In practice the commune lacked order. Baxter could not regulate numbers or behaviour, the media sensationalised his activities, and the locals became increasingly uneasy. Problems compounded because he was often away: in Dunedin visiting his dying father, on speaking tours, and in February 1971 protesting with young Maori radicals at Waitangi. The commune’s first phase ended in September 1971 and Baxter returned to Wellington. But his desire was to go back to Jerusalem and in February 1972 the landowners permitted him to return with a smaller, more cohesive, group.
Baxter’s last collections, Jerusalem sonnets (1970) and Autumn testament (1972), show him more at ease. The language of the poems is colloquial, their structure less formal than before, their tone conversational. Both the poems – and the prose of Jerusalem daybook (1971) – mingle the trivia of daily life at the commune with a highly personal form of religious meditation.
By August 1972 Baxter was drained, physically and emotionally. Unable to manage at Jerusalem any longer, he sought refuge on a small commune in Auckland. On the evening of Sunday 22 October he died of a coronary thrombosis. He was 46 years old.
His body was escorted by his family back to Jerusalem. Hundreds of mourners attended a full Maori tangihanga. Following a requiem mass on 25 October, he was buried on tribal land. One year later a boulder inscribed ‘Hemi / James Keir Baxter / i whanau 1926 / i mate 1972’, was placed on his grave. Two small selections of Baxter’s religious writing were published posthumously, and several volumes of previously unpublished verse were followed by the publication of his Collected poems in 1980, Collected plays in 1983, Complete prose in 2015, and Letters of a poet in 2019.
If, at times, Baxter appears to evaluate New Zealand society harshly, his judgements are always from the perspective of one intimately involved in the social process. His criticisms of national life and his ultimate decision to step out of the mainstream seemed to develop naturally out of the preoccupations of a lifetime of verse. Yet these preoccupations were, as a rule, neither negative nor despairing. Rather, the mythological cast of mind that underpinned his poetry sought to place the individual (and the nation) within a wider frame by directing attention towards universal elements of human experience. The Baxter who found intolerable ‘depersonalisation, centralisation, [and] desacralisation’ of urban civilisation, could still find reason for hope ‘in the hearts of people’.