Angelheaded Baxters burning for the ancient heavenly connection…

James K Baxter, Hiruhārama, or Jerusalem, by the Whanganui River, 1971.

“It’s not On the Road. It’s just for me” (19), Jack says in Eli Kent’s The Intricate Art of Actually Caring. But it is On the Road; Kent’s play works hard to emulate this iconic Beat Generation novel, through dialogue and narrative form. Curiously, however, alongside Jack Kerouac and later American countercultural figures like Bob Dylan (38) and The Velvet Underground (40), Kent also implicates his relative, James K Baxter. In doing so, Kent appears to claim Baxter’s work as a New Zealand expression of the Western countercultural movement of the 1960s. Kent’s statement that “Baxter changed this country” (16) can, therefore, best be made sense of by also considering this wider frame of the Beat Generation, who themselves helped change the United States (Morgan 247).

A definition of the Beat Generation is difficult in any way except provisionally:
• mostly born between 1920 and 1940
• mostly published from the 1950s to the 1970s
• influenced by jazz
• marginal to mainstream life
• in the language of ordinary/street people
• valuing the unmediated experience
• intensely spiritual (Zauhar)

Baxter is also hard to accommodate in theoretical terms (Sturm 247) but he immediately shares the first of these traits, coming of age and publishing in the post-WWII era. Born in 1926, the same year as Allen Ginsberg, without whom the Beat Generation would never have existed (Morgan xv), it is through comparing Baxter’s life and work to Ginsberg’s that the other striking traits emerge.

Related image
Michael McClure, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco, 1965.

Ginsberg thought any writer who shared his values was eligible for inclusion within the Beat Generation (Morgan 146) and believed a writer should commit to improving society (Morgan 221). Baxter shared this social and moral sense of responsibility (Sturm 391). Ginsberg went to India from 1961 to 1963, connecting with Eastern spirituality. He helped introduce this into the countercultural movement in the United States as more people looked for meaning in non-Western forms (Morgan 203). Baxter also had a spiritual journey involving India. In 1958, the year he was re-baptized a Catholic, he travelled to India and was deeply moved by the condition of the poor, becoming critical of the effects of Western culture (Weir xxii). His journey continued upon his return to New Zealand, becoming intrinsically woven with Māori community and spiritual life (Sturm 416). It is partly these spiritual connections that allowed both poets to sharply focus their sense of justice upon the dominant mainstream forces surrounding them, leading them both to actively participate in anti-establishment protests and lifestyles.

Their poetry, however, reveals this even further and establishes a close artistic bond between them. This bond validates Kent’s implication that Baxter was a ‘New Zealand Beat poet’. Though Baxter’s Romantic poetry during the 1950s was lavishly praised (Sturm 391), Weir describes it as “inconsistent”, “gravely rhetorical”, and “derivative” (xxi). However, Weir claims Baxter then wrote “prolifically” and with “considerable power” (xxii) in the 1960s. Ginsberg’s landmark Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, and after the ensuing obscenity trial ruled in his favour in 1957, the floodgates of American publishing were opened and by the 1960s the Beats were a global phenomenon (Zauhar). This is relevant given Baxter’s capacity to absorb the work of other poets and turn it into his own (Sturm 391).

In the 1960s, Baxter noticeably wrote more in free verse. This is not to say that anything in free verse is automatically Beat, nor that the Beats owned free verse, but it is a style which lends itself to less structured poetry. This rejection of traditional poetics for jazz-inspired rhythms, for non-conformity, helped Ginsberg and Baxter express themselves in a number of ways. It aided their considerations of alternative viewpoints, enabling them to more critically peer at the mainstream. This allowed them to more fairly represent the outcasts. Moreover, Baxter’s drift away from traditional poetics allowed him to use ordinary ‘street’ language. In his “At the Grave of a War Hero”, he uses language in jarring contrast to the reverence usually reserved for such places; “Nobody to fuck … Swallowed up in Caesar’s black mad eye … you rot” (Baxter 363-364). This would be seen as highly disrespectful at an Anzac Day service. However, Baxter calls the soldier “mate”, like a fellow soldier might, making it an altogether more human poem than one espousing war cliches. Thus, Baxter treats the soldier with greater respect.

Form aside, the content of Baxter’s 1960s poetry and the bravery he displays it makes this decade of work so powerful, so Beat. In “Pig Island Letters”, he writes of a night-long argument about the “Mythical, theological, political” (Baxter 285). Both he and Ginsberg often blurred the lines between these subjects, blending them into one human experience reflective of the different racial, social, and political changes which defined the 1960s.

Incidentally, they both lent the names of their countries to the titles of poems. “America”, from Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, is a powerful critique of his country, and with the impact the Cold War was having on American society in 1956, lines like “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” (39) led to the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, being tried for obscenity (Morgan 127). While Baxter’s “New Zealand” offers no real comparison to this, “The Maori Jesus” does, both in form and content. “His hands were scrubbed red to get the shit out of the pores” (347) is equally confronting for Pākehā society, not just because of the profanity but the implication that Māori skin has “shit” in it which needs to be “scrubbed” out. Baxter’s critique of Pākehā society continues in “Ballad of Calvary Street”, turning on a seemingly model home, picking it apart, and suggesting something darker is hidden beneath the surface; “Where two old souls go slowly mad” (213).

On madness, Ginsberg paints confronting imagery of a mental institution in “Howl”:

where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void … where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha … where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb (25).

In “The Maori Jesus”, Baxter writes in similar, equally confronting language:

While he worked in the Asylum laundry … he told the head doctor, ‘I am the Light in the Void; I am who I am.’ … he was lobotomised; the brain of God was cut in half … God was neither alive nor dead … Mountainous, mile-deep, civilized darkness (347).

Here, Baxter is writing of Māori detachment from their land at the hands of Pākehā. In “America”, Ginsberg similarly writes of the plight of Native Americans; “America why are your libraries full of tears?” (39). These are the “Mythical, theological, political” expressions delivered within the same breaths.

“The Maori Jesus” also invokes Ginsberg and the counterculture’s liberal attitudes towards sex (Morgan 201), speaking of “a call-girl who turned it up for nothing” and “a housewife who had forgotten the Pill” (Baxter 347). Baxter also wrote sexually explicit poems such as “The Hymen”, “A Question of Rape”, and “Daughter”, the latter raising questions of incest (354). Baxter’s unfiltered, hard edge social critique reach a Beat-like peak in 1969 with “Ballad of the Junkies and the Fuzz”, describing various confrontations between Auckland outcasts and the law. His writing is almost unrecognisable as the same Baxter of the 1950s.

In “To a Print of Queen Victoria”, Baxter writes, “I advise rest; the farmhouse we dug you up in has been modernized” (316), advising an exhumed British monarch to rest while using the American spelling of ‘modernise’. In “Obsequy for Dylan Thomas”, from whom Bob Dylan took his name, Baxter writes of American English, “The English Language mourns her spouse … The bedlam jailors have her now” (216). Baxter is aware New Zealand is now under the political and cultural hegemony of a new ‘empire’, helping pave the way for later New Zealand poets, like Bill Manhire and Ian Wedde, to embrace the vitality of the Beats (Sturm 418).

However, perhaps the deepest measure of Baxter as a ‘New Zealand Beat poet’ is in the wake of his legacy. The Beat Generation helped transform America (Morgan xxi) and Baxter, by embracing Māori in his vision of just society (Sturm 417), gave New Zealand a blueprint for social reconstruction between Pākehā and Māori (Weir xxv). This helped prepare the national psyche, at least from the Pākehā perspective, for the Māori Renaissance of the 1970s and beyond. Without this, New Zealand wouldn’t be a country today of which any of us could be proud.

This is perhaps why Kent focusses so much on his connection to Baxter, and through Baxter, his connection to the Beats and the values of the countercultural movement. It represents a national spiritual quest for something larger than New Zealand. Kent attempts to disguise this, “People hold so much fucking reverence for the past, I don’t” (47), but his play is a memorial to the past, to friendship, to culture. His friend’s character, Jack, is more honest; “I am that kid in the Baxter poem … I’ve seen the angel with the sword and I’m ready to overturn the cities” (36-37). He pleads––or howls––for someone to “Give me something to fight for” (37).

New Zealand is still on the road.

Works Cited:

– Baxter, James K. Collected Poems, edited by John Weir. Oxford University Press, 1995.
– Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. City Lights Books, 1956.
– Kent, Eli. The Intricate Art of Actually Caring. The Playground Collective, 2009. PDF file.
– Morgan, Bill. The Typewriter Is Holy. Free Press, 2010.
– Strum, Terry. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature. Oxford University Press, 1991.
– Zauhar, David R. “Beat Poetry.” Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, edited by Eric L. Haralson, Routledge, 1st edition, 2001. Accessed 03 Sep. 2018.

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