Today is the anniversary of James K. Baxter's death. It's likely that not many on TB will know Baxter. He was a poet from here in New Zealand who is still regarded by many as the country's most astonishing literary figure. Some of the world's literary critics consider his talent to have placed him amongst the later modernists - Auden, Spender etc - had he not been from this little colony. Of course, this is a catch-22 as he would not have been the poet he was without something unique that a life in a young colony with pasifist parents offers. He died in a gutter in Auckland on this day, 1972, aged 46.
I discovered Baxter years ago, when I was in high school. English classes were boring (yet I'm currently finishing my 4th year of an English Lit degree - go figure), and there was a bookshelf in the class that had many of his collections. He's been a sort of beacon for me ever since.
He was a bright talent from his first publication, Beyond the Palisade
, at the age of 18 in 1944. He lived a life of contradictions - he would tell the nuns to loosen up and embrace youth more readily, and then tell the kids to get to church. He was a womaniser, an alcoholic and a devout Catholic.
In 1969, Baxter became a sort of figurehead for NZ's counterculture. He received a vision at night of god telling him to go to Jerusalem and start a community. He knew that it wasn't Jerusalem of Israel/Palestine, but a very remote missionary outpost on the Wanganui River, transliterated in Maori as Hiruharama. From Jerusalem, Baxter was thought of as a national enigma, a man you could find, barefoot and bearded on any of NZ's roads at night, or at a party down the road, or speaking at a local church or university.
He adopted the name Hemi, Maori for James, and built a community that learnt "from the Maori side of the fence."
Sorry for the essay, but I felt the need to share the (horribly truncated) story of one of the last centuries greatest poets. NZ's literary world still feels the weight of Baxter, as if his ghost still inhabits the collective literary mind.
I've attached a picture of Hemi at Jerusalem.