All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books revisits the great poet James K Baxter. Today: John Newton reviews a new book of Baxter’s letters, in which he calmly reveals he raped his wife.
For the rival heavyweights of New Zealand poetry, recent years have brought a boxed-set bonanza. James K Baxter’s Complete Prose (VUP, 2015) runs to four volumes and 2662 pages. The slip case packaging of Allen Curnow’s Collected Poems together with Terry Sturm’s Curnow biography (AUP, 2017) adds up to just over 1100 pages. And now James K Baxter: Letters of Poet, edited like its predecessor by the poet’s friend John Weir, comes in at 1616 pages (two volumes). All told, that’s something approaching half a metre of shelf space. If there’s such a thing as canonical New Zealand writing then this is what it feels like.
As always the pair present a study in contrasts: Baxter as our great Romantic, Curnow our most distinguished modernist; Baxter pitching for a broad-church audience, Curnow unapologetically mandarin; Baxter sprawling untidily where Curnow’s work is obsessively controlled. When Curnow’s Collected Poems arrived it was no great surprise to find very few discoveries; the same austere corpus had been published and re-published, groomed and perfected throughout the poet’s long career. Baxter, on the other hand, seems to scatter his verses to the four winds: at a rough count, more than 140 poems, mailed in manuscript to friends, appear in these volumes for the first time. If Sturm’s account of Curnow’s life felt to some readers frustratingly ‘official’, it’s without doubt the book the poet himself would have wanted: an unrevealing biography of a deeply defended literary personality. And similarly, I think, with this edition of Baxter’s letters: candid – sometimes hair-raisingly so – but that’s the kind of writer Baxter is.
This contrast of tone and temperature offers one way of thinking about a potentially vexing question: the small matter of an audience. These editions may be built as if to outlast bronze, but what are their chances of finding a new readership? It’s hard not to feel that Baxter’s breadth, his humanism, his far-sighted biculturalism, all help to make him a more plausible sell (to, say, millennial readers) than do Curnow’s severity and prickliness. Eli Kent’s warmly received play The Intricate Art of Actually Caring (2009) is about a pair of millennials on a pilgrimage to Baxter’s Jerusalem. An equivalent homage to the magus of Tohunga Crescent is not so easily imagined.
And yet Baxter is not for everyone. Among the oddities of his treatment by literary critics is that his representation of women has, to this point, gone virtually unchallenged. With the appearance of the Letters this is surely about to change. The poet’s candour, and the corresponding openness of his executors and editor, put the problem front and centre. Baxter’s reputation may or may not be diminished, but inevitably it is going to be affected. With these volumes we enter a moment where it’s no longer possible to talk about him without addressing the ways that he thinks and writes about women.
The first thing to say is that this massive publication is a credit once again to the dedication of John Weir. From his early bibliography and critical study (almost 50 years ago), through the 1979 Collected Poems, the Complete Prose and now the correspondence, no one has laboured harder in the Baxter archive, and the poet and his readers alike owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Weir is also one of Baxter’s key correspondents. Along with the Dominican priest Eugene O’Sullivan, he is the chief private audience for the poet’s ruminations on doctrine, morality and Christian activism. In this respect no one knows Baxter’s thought better, and the highlight of his introduction is an elegant reconstruction of the spiritual process that led Baxter to Jerusalem.
In terms of sheer consistency, the most abiding of the poet’s correspondents is his mother, Millicent. It’s a clammy and sometimes disconcerting relationship that plainly had its pains on both sides. But it gives up moments of Freudian comedy: “Though I’m quite capable of infatuation, I think I could do without women. Excepting you and one or two others they do not attract me as persons though I am over my earlier shyness. And it is intolerably humiliating to be attracted by someone you don’t like…”
That’s the poet at 19. In the middle years of his life he successfully draws his parents into the Catholic church, which later comes in handy when he’s trying to explain away the poem “At Serrières” with its teenage masturbation and Oedipal voyeurism: “I can hardly be sorry I wrote it… But I’m definitely sorry I let it be published. And I ask your pardon for any hurt or offence it gave to you. To clinch that, say 3 Hail Marys quietly for me, that I may have a clearer mind and a purer heart – and I will say 3 for you.” (Phew!)
True to the shape of Baxter’s life, the more strictly ‘literary’ correspondence tends to come earlier, while social and religious concerns dominate increasingly from the mid-60s. Putting aside the early correspondence with Noel Ginn (familiar to Baxter readers from Paul Millar’s Spark to a Waiting Fuse), the most significant dialogue about poetry is with Charles Brasch.
As Baxter explains, they are a distance apart: “I have often felt between us, along with a very genuine mutual regard, a clash between two different views of life and art… I think you regard a work of art as a much holier thing than I do: to me a work of art is an interesting and very temporary construction, but I do not, for example, regard the mass-produced hideous quality of much Catholic church statuary as a matter of great negative importance – in fact I distrust somewhat any implication that good or bad taste are closely bound to good or bad living. More personally, I cannot feel that you or I are better people for producing good poems – it all depends on how we regard these products.”
In Baxter’s rejection of Brasch’s aestheticism we can see how far away he is, not just from the refined and somewhat snobbish editor of Landfall, but from the modernist assumptions of the nationalist mainstream – elders like Curnow and Sargeson, but also his key contemporaries (Frame, Duggan, Smithyman et al). To Baxter as a humanist, a Christian and activist there are always more important things to worry about than poetry. As Weir observes, then, we don’t learn much about the “circumstantial scaffolding” of particular works. Here and there we pick up the odd clue about Baxter’s reading (it comes as a surprise to hear him, aged 16, championing Pound). And with Brasch he shares some interesting remarks about his own poetic weaknesses: “My liking for rhetoric often leads me to swollen phrases and begging the question…”; “My fault has always been the emotional cliché, and I have to rely on intensity to carry me”; “[I]t is necessary to correct my long tendency to the easy and echoing statement . . .”
To what extent Baxter overcomes these habits in his later work is open to dispute. It’s instructive, though, to come across these often expressed criticisms spelled out so frankly by the poet himself.
In the literary struggles of the 1950s and 60s, Baxter is of course the younger generation’s champion. And yet it’s interesting how little he corresponds with his immediate cohort. There are 12 letters to Bill Oliver, seven to Keith Sinclair, four to Maurice Shadbolt; there’s just one to Hone Tuwhare; and nothing at all to Alistair Campbell, Kendrick Smithyman or Albert Wendt. Even Louis Johnson, so often thought of as Baxter’s chief confederate in the ‘poetry wars’ with Curnow, receives only 10. For all the bulk of Weir’s edition, he observes that it’s still well short of complete. Some material has proved so far untraceable; some may have been destroyed; more, he hopes, may be “flush[ed] out” by the appearance of these two volumes. But the overall picture, which is not going to change, is of a poet conducting struggles on many fronts, only some of which are ‘literary’.
However, there’s one select group among his contemporaries who Baxter does engage with – intimately, and at length. Fleur Adcock is the most accomplished female poet of their generation; Phyl Ferrabee is writer of short fiction who submits work to Numbers where Baxter is an editor; Grace Adams is an aspiring poet who sends him verses for critique. So all three are writers. But none of these correspondences remains “on message”.
Baxter isn’t naïve about this. By the time he starts writing to Adams, in 1963, he can recognise the pattern: “Neither of us are poem-writing machines. You are a woman (married); I am a man (married). We will get friendly; have already begun to get friendly. Without some carrying-wave of friendship, I don’t see how we could make sense of one another. But I know, or should know, my own subconscious mind by now – it will want to make you number 19 of the women with whom I have committed adultery. My conscious intention is to be of help to you as a writer and fellow-creature. But remember I am an old bag of shit, a psychopathic ex-drunk – and don’t think too well of your own subconscious, either.”
The attention of women writers excites Baxter’s imagination in way that sets these correspondences apart. As a story within the story they yield a vivid account of his psycho-sexual landscape. More unsettlingly, however, they also provide a distressing insight into his marriage to Jacquie Sturm.
Sturm, who married Baxter in 1948 (she was 21, he was 22), was one of the first Māori women to gain a university degree (a BA from Canterbury, an MA from Victoria). If the collection of short stories that she had ready by 1966 had found the publisher it deserved, it would have been the first book of fiction by a Māori writer, male or female. (As it was the honour went to Witi Ihimaera; Sturm’s book would finally appear as The House of the Talking Cat in 1983.) After Baxter’s death she would shift her attention to poetry, and take her rightful place among the elders of Māori writing.
But you wouldn’t guess much of this from Baxter’s letters, where his wife features chiefly as a scold, a task-mistress, and above all as the partner who refuses him sex. As he puts it to his mother only six months into their marriage, “I used to think marriage had a lot to do with sex, find it has practically nothing.” It’s a dissatisfaction he rehearses ad nauseam: Jacquie is “that sour little girl”, “my prune-faced old woman”, “the Puritanical bitch”; and so on. But more painful, even, that what he actually says is whom he chooses to say it to. His favourite audience for complaints about his sex-life is that revolving cast of other women. As he puts it to Grace Adams, “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything of how things go with me at home here; because one is inclined to adopt the whinging tone, which is in me alas a version of the mating call!”
It’s to Phyl Ferrabee in 1960 that Baxter makes these letters’ most appalling disclosure. On the strength of a “very sober & perhaps truly considerate knowledge”, he has dealt with his sexual frustration by force: “Sex relations with wife resumed. This at least gives some common ground to stand on to clear up difficulties. Achieved by rape. From a very clear knowledge no other way could break down J’s reservations & that she was gradually shoving herself round the bend. She seems ten times happier in herself. But it looks as if each new act will have to repeat the rape pattern.”
What Ferrabee made (or was intended to make) of such a jaw-dropping confidence, we can only guess. But it won’t be a surprise if, for many potential readers, this statement comes to drown out everything else that Baxter wrote.
With the letter reading more as a boast rather than a confession, it’s difficult to be be certain that Baxter understands the horror of what he has done. What we do know, however, is that the betrayal of trust and the violence that have taken place are repeated when he shares them with Ferrabee; not only that, but repeated again when the letter appears now in the official Baxter corpus. However appallingly it might reflect on him, history is being narrated, if not by the ‘victor’, then (in literary terms, at least) by the dominant partner. His wife’s humiliation becomes his intellectual property, her pain more grist to his self-display. I can’t avoid the feeling that a cruelty is being compounded in these letters. Having lost her voice in an unequal literary marriage, Jacquie Sturm loses it again as the marriage is laid out for analysis.
Baxter is nothing if not contradictory (like his prototype, Whitman, he is “vast” and “contain[s] multitudes”). His treatment of women is no exception. Yes, he can write like a dreadful misogynist, but he remainsinterested in women, in female creativity, and he seeks out and tries to encourage women writers (if not necessarily his own wife). He’s a staunch supporter of Janet Frame, an active advocate for Mary Stanley (whose work he seems to prefer to her husband Kendrick Smithyman’s). And he’s keenly aware of the plight of women enmeshed in what he likes to call “the N.Z. social pattern”. Baxter’s sociology, however, is inclined to run aground on his mythicism: ‘What happens is either meaningless to me, or else it is mythology.’ The credo certainly illuminates his method, and for Baxter qua verse-maker it works well enough. But for the Baxter who would “rather be a good man than a good poet” it creates trouble.
Close to the core of his understanding of women is the psychoanalysis of Carl Jung. Before he turns 20 he reports to Lawrence Baigent that “Jung… has been leading me in the paths of righteousness.” The following year he enters therapy with the Zurich-trained Grete Christeller. As Kai Jensen was the first to argue, the threatening female figures in Baxter’s poetry often respond to reading as spectres of the Jungian unconscious. But when these figures are projected on to ordinary human relationships, things get ugly. Just three weeks before the rape announcement, Baxter mails Ferrabee a book called Loathesome Women, a cranky study in female psychopathology by Jungian analyst Leopold Stein.
“This book woke me up,” he tells her. “The thing is that my beloved spouse has in her psyche some pretty powerful strands of the DORA and JUDITH personalities…” And in the same letter: “She has settled into a good-woman frame, with occasional outbreaks of the hag. The interesting whore whom I have once or twice caught a glimpse of in our marriage is walled away in a cellar in a box of triple brass…”
This investment in types and archetypes underwrites the murkiest of presumptions: “Curious that rape should win the battle where kindness, gifts, poems or persuasion never could. Perhaps it is the Maori way of doing things: to every Hinemoa her Tutanekai… I had thought at times that J.’s sexuality might be much more in line with the down-to-earth Maori subconscious; but then in other ways she could be prim as a steel ruler and bamboozle me. I remember a dream she had, a kind of Jungian revelation, in which she stands in a Maori meeting-house and sees a religious ritual in which a bird devours a snake… perhaps in line with the Indian culture she liked so whole-heartedly, where their religious symbol is a huge joined phallus and vulva. I mean that she is not actually European-romantic at all, and sweet words and bright ideas can only irritate her… Well, we live and learn. At least I can feel that I have begun to solve this tangle of my own volition, using my rule-of-thumb intuition, against all appearances.”
Pressing the marriage through this home-made sieve of bush psychology and mythopoetics obliterates the (real) other person at a cost that is difficult to exaggerate.
Spare a thought for John Weir. Not simply Baxter’s tireless editor, but equally his loyal friend, assembling this book he can’t but be fearful of the damage to the poet’s reputation. Much of the material I have just described he front-foots in his introduction – in the tone of one who knows that he’s giving up his friend to be “punished” (as Auden put it) “under a foreign code of conscience”’.
Despite the significant revelations that I’ve described, I still can’t regret the appearance of these volumes. They constitute an extraordinary resource, and nowhere more, in fact, than in what they reveal about Baxter and women. How much do we really know about masculine sexuality in the 1950s and 60s? Where can we turn to discover how men – privately – thought about women, about sex, and about relationships? By and large, not to our local literature. Like the generation before them, the writers of the 50s remain a stoical and inexpressive bunch. You won’t find many love-poets or journal writers. But among Baxter’s virtues is a willingness to self-scrutinise. He’s familiar with psychotherapy, he acknowledges the unconscious, and he seems to want to accurately describe his own desires, his flaws and the awful places they took him. Baxter is the most ‘confessional’ of New Zealand poets (both historically and temperamentally he belongs with Lowell and Plath). Publishing these letters is consistent with the way Baxter worked. He was never too shy to offer up his internal life as a kind of case history, and in the form of his correspondence it yields a complex wealth of material.
Baxter stands (ironically enough) with Robin Hyde in refusing to bend the knee to the restraint and decorum of mid-century nationalism; like Hyde he writes “too much”, too variously, and with more regard for his human subject matter than for literary form. For this, like Hyde, he earns the censure of his nationalist critics (first and foremost, Curnow), but the loyalty of a wider audience.
He is the nearest thing we have to a genuine folk poet. He is our foremost activist writer. He is also, in his final years, our foremost Pākehā writer, by which I mean a writer who actively investigates what it means to identify as the ‘other’ of Māori.
If the Letters provoke an overdue critique of Baxter’s behaviour, so much the better. There’s little point, surely, in curating these textual monuments if we’re not willing to read them without fear or favour. The same kind of reading, in my view, is due in relation to Curnow. But where Curnow is always drawing the shutters, sealing the exits, defending like grim death, Baxter makes himself, as he liked to say, “available”: a self-involved, deeply flawed man, unafraid of his own feelings and willing to share them, regardless of the ultimate consequences for his own reputation.
James K Baxter: Letters of a Poet edited by John Weir (Victoria University Press, $100) is available at Unity Books.
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