Old white man of the day



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)

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 (NZ) in 1969. […]

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.[…]

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)

End quote.

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WH is a pale, stale, male who does not believe all the doom and gloom climate nonsense so enjoys generating CO2 that the plants need to grow by driving his MG.

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