STEPHEN BURT

“I DO NOT EXPECT
YOU TO LIKE IT”

THE EXHILARATING, STAGY, AMBITIOUS,
PROFOUND POETRY OF JAMES K. BAXTER

DISCUSSED: AA, American Exceptionalism, Anger, Robert Burns, The Chills, Jesus Christ, Coastal Landscapes, Fame, Hippies, Jonah, Robert Lowell, Maoritanga, Pacificism, Paradoxically Self-dramatizing Humility, Pentameters (Iambic and Otherwise), Physical Exhaustion, Prospero, Psalms, Pubic Lice, Sestina Form

Published when he was only eighteen, his first book got him noticed right away; soon he became his nation’s leading poet, lecturing (and raising hackles) across the country. He changed his style drastically several times, becoming not just a celebrated literary man but the famous head of a scandalous commune, and a public voice for the dispossessed. A devout Catholic, he enjoyed a reputation as a libertine; a noted drinker, he became an apostle of Alcoholics Anonymous. A master of academic technique, he considered himself an heir to Scottish bards; he also embraced non-European folkways, renaming himself in a local language. His last publications made him his country’s closest answer at once to Dylan Thomas, to Robert Lowell, to Walt Whitman, and to Allen Ginsberg; his sudden death occasioned national mourning.

The poet is James K. Baxter (1926–1972), of New Zealand, and most Americans—no, most Americans who read modern poetry—have never heard of him. Why? New Zealand is far away and small; Baxter never visited the United States; parts of his work sound defiantly local, keyed to New Zealand’s social and political history, as Yeats keyed his work to Ireland’s. Other parts of Baxter’s work, though, belong to the international 1960s, with its embrace of intuition, its flight from institutions, its attention to the young. To read Baxter’s best poems is to enter an English-speaking culture that bears surprisingly little relation to the contexts most American readers know. It is also to enter a passionate, tormented psyche, and to find an original verbal world.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Stephen Burt is a Reform Democrat. He teaches at Macalester College in Saint Paul. (His books are Popular Music, a collection of poems, and Randall Jarrell and His Age.)

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