James K(eir) Baxter

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Date: 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,982 words

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About this Person
Born: June 29, 1926 in Dunedin, New Zealand
Died: October 22, 1972 in Auckland, New Zealand
Nationality: New Zealander
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Baxter, James Keir
Updated:Oct. 28, 2003


Family: Born June 29, 1926, in Brighton, Otago, New Zealand; died October 22, 1972, in Grafton, Auckland, New Zealand; son of Archibald Baxter (a writer); married Jacqueline Sturm, 1948; children: Hilary, John. Education: Attended University of Otago, 1944, and Canterbury University College; Victoria University, B.A., 1952. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, reading.


Poet and playwright. Worked as journalist, teacher, actor, proofreader for Christchurch Press, 1948, brass tap grinder, 1948, freezing-worker, 1949, and postman, 1950; founded Jerusalem commune, Wanganui River, New Zealand, 1969. Member of New Zealand State Literary Fund Committee.


MacMillan Brown prize for Convoys, 1944; UNESCO grant for travel to India and Japan, 1958; Robert Burns Fellowship, University of Otago, 1966, 1967.




  • Beyond the Palisade, Caxton Press, 1944.
  • Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness, Caxton Press, 1948.
  • (With Louis Johnson and Anton Vogt) Poems Unpleasant, Caxton Press, 1951.
  • The Fallen House, Caxton Press, 1953.
  • Traveller's Litany (poem sequence), Handcraft Press, 1955.
  • The Iron Breadboard: Studies in New Zealand Writing (verse parodies), Mermaid Press, 1957.
  • (With Charles Doyle, Kendrick Smithyman, and Johnson) The Night Shift: Poems on Aspects of Love, Capricorn Press, 1957.
  • In Fires of No Return, Oxford University Press, 1958.
  • Chosen Poems, Konkan Institute of the Arts and Sciences, 1958.
  • Howrah Bridge and Other Poems, Oxford University Press, 1961.
  • Pig Island Letters, Oxford University Press, 1966.
  • The Lion Skin, University of Otago Bibliography Room, 1967.
  • A Death Song for M. Mouldybroke, Caxton Press, 1967.
  • The Rock Woman: Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1969.
  • Jerusalem Sonnets: Poems for Colin Durning, University of Otago Bibliography Room, 1970.
  • The Junkies and the Fuzz, Wai-te-ata Press, 1970.
  • Jerusalem Daybook (poems and prose), Price Milburn, 1971.
  • Letter to Peter Olds (poem sequence), Caveman Press, 1972.
  • Four God Songs, Futuna Press, 1972.
  • Ode to Auckland and Other Poems, Caveman Press, 1972.
  • Autumn Testament (poems and prose), Price Milburn, 1972.
  • The Tree House (juvenile poetry), Price Milburn, 1973.
  • Runes, Oxford University Press, 1973.
  • Two Obscene Poems, privately printed, 1973.
  • The Labyrinth, Oxford University Press, 1974.
  • Collected Poems, edited by J.E. Weir, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1979.
  • New Selected Poems, edited by Paul Millar, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
  • Selections from The Tree House: James K. Baxter's Poems for Children, compiled and illustrated by Eleanor Fearn, limited hardcover edition, Scholastic New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand), 2002.


  • The Wide Open Cage and Jack Winter's Dream: Two Plays (contains Jack Winter's Dream, radio play broadcast in 1958, and The Wide Open Cage, produced in Wellington, New Zealand, 1959, produced in New York, 1962), Capricorn Press, 1959.
  • The Sore-Footed Man and The Temptations of Oedipus (contains The Sore-Footed Man), produced at Globe Theatre, Dunedin, New Zealand, 1967, and The Temptations of Oedipus, produced in 1968), Heinemann Educational Books, 1971.
  • The Devil and Mr. Mulcahy and The Band Rotunda (contains The Devil and Mr. Mulcahy, produced in Dunedin, 1967, and The Band Rotunda, first ' produced at Globe Theatre, Dunedin, July, 1967), Heinemann Educational Books, 1971.
  • The Silver Plate, produced in 1961.
  • Three Women and the Sea, produced in 1961.
  • The Spots of the Leopard, produced in New York, 1963.
  • Mr. Brandywine Chooses a Gravestone, produced in 1966.
  • The First Wife, produced in 1966.
  • The Bureaucrat, produced in Dunedin, 1967.
  • The Starlight in Your Eyes, produced in 1967.
  • Mr. O'Dwyer's Dancing Party, produced in 1967.
  • The Woman (mime written to precede The Sore-Footed Man), produced at Globe Theatre, Dunedin, 1967.
  • The Axe and the Mirror (mime written to precede The Bureaucrat), produced in Dunedin, 1967.
  • The Day Flanagan Died, produced in Dunedin, 1969.
  • Who Killed Sebastian, produced in 1969.
  • Collected Plays, edited by Howard McNaughton, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1982.

Also author of several plays, neither published nor produced, including The Runaway Wife, The Gentle Ones, To Catch a Hare, The Hero, The Rendezvous, and The World Is.

Also author of Collected Plays.


  • Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry, Caxton Press, 1951.
  • The Fire and the Anvil: Notes on Modern Poetry, New Zealand University Press, 1955, revised edition, Cambridge University Press, 1960.
  • The Old Earth Closet: A Tribute to Regional Poetry, privately printed, 1965.
  • Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand, Caxton Press, 1967.


  • Oil (school bulletin), School Publications, 1957.
  • The Coaster (school bulletin), School Publications, 1959.
  • The Trawler (school bulletin), School Publications, 1961.

Editor of school bulletins, Department of Education, Wellington, New Zealand.


  • An Anthology of New Zealand Verse, edited by Robert M. Chapman and J. F. Bennett, Oxford University Press, 1956.
  • Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, edited by Allen Curnow, Penguin, 1960.
  • Modern Poems for the Commonwealth, edited by Maurice Wollman and John Spencer, Harrap, 1966.
  • Commonwealth Poems of Today, edited by Howard Sergeant, J. Murray, 1967.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Landfall, Salient Literary Issue, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, Numbers, New Zealand Listener, Education, and Dominion.

Editor, Numbers magazine (Wellington, New Zealand), 1954-60.


  • (author of text) New Zealand in Colour: Photographs by Kenneth and Jean Bigwood, Reed, Volume I, 1961, Volume II, 1962, published in Australia as New Zealand in Colour, Lansdowne Press, 1963.
  • The Man on the Horse (lectures), University of Otago Press, 1967.
  • The Flowering Cross: Pastoral Articles, New Zealand Tablet Press, 1969.
  • The Six Faces of Love: Lenten Lectures, Futuna Press, 1972.
  • A Walking Stick for an Old Man, CMW Print, 1972.
  • (with Ans Westra and Tim Shadbolt) Notes on the Country I Live In, A. Taylor, 1972.
  • The Bone Chanter, edited by J.E. Weir, Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • The Holy Life and Death of Concrete Grady, edited by Weir, Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • The Essential Baxter, selected and introduced by John Weir, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1993.
  • (With Noel Ginn) Spark to a Waiting Fuse: James K. Baxter's Correspondence with Noel Ginn, 1942-46, edited and introduced by Paul Millar, Victoria University Press (Wellington, New Zealand), 2001.

Also author of A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting, Caxton Press.


Vincent O'Sullivan observed that, to Baxter, myth symbolized sanity, and that logic, or the "formally educated" mind, was too superficial: "It is only the poetic mind which works deeply enough to touch the source of order." The "poetic mind" was the part of himself that Baxter liked to call the "dinosaur's egg," noted Charles Doyle, who also described the many metamorphoses of Baxter over the years from "boy prodigy of poetry" to "alcoholic rip-roarer" to "Catholic convert" and ultimately "to the final few years when he totally rejected urban materialist society and became the figure (barefoot, long-bearded, patched and baggy) whom many saw as saintlike." In his early years he often lived at variance with his poetic convictions, becoming at the end of his life "a living and vivid example of the full practice of the life of charity, the Christian life," Doyle elaborated.

Other writers have recalled Baxter's development as an artist and as a man. Peter Olds remembered, "The whole time I knew the man he was walking on a rocky road, and like any man, he took a few wrong turnings--but the words that `belched from this rotting body' were indeed worth their weight in gold." Bill Pearson recalled Baxter reading poems in bars and discussing poetry with his bookie. Baxter himself wrote in Landfall: "In my late teens I developed the habit of throwing up a job, drinking for a week or so, writing for a month or so, then taking another job.... The best poems I have written (those in Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness) were written in this way."

Basic to an understanding of much of Baxter's poetry is a consideration of the Hero Myth, whereby fertility and springtime, personified by a Youthful Quester, are made manifest in the land by the death of the spiritually and physically dying Fisher King. Rebirth of the heretofore barren land (winter) is now possible, and the cycle of the seasons is again able to proceed. O'Sullivan pointed out that Baxter's poems abound with "the figures of regenerated return, whether as Orpheus or Antaeus or Persephone or Christ," all of whom "return not to a new world so much as the old world seen freshly." It was O'Sullivan's assessment that Baxter used the seasonal motif in conjunction with the myth of rebirth in a manner unique to modern poetry and that, when he used the Christian interpretation of the myth, he focused on the events--pain and death--preceding the subsequent resurrection. For Baxter, poetry was the true means of determining a "pattern" basic to all happenings, and his most frequent poetic device was the metaphor, which O'Sullivan labeled "the closest that natural man is going to get to truth, the golden branch which he carried as a pledge from his journey into self-knowledge/human experience/the cyclic verities." Baxter's "mythologizing is exploratory, an attempt to locate and clarify his own archetypes," wrote Doyle, who described such a dilemma as basic to the typical New Zealander who was at once part of England as well as of New Zealand.

A closely related motif is that of the city versus the wilderness. According to O'Sullivan, the "wilderness" represented to Baxter that part of him that made him different, unique, and the "City" represented "convention [and] authority." Baxter deplored the materialism of New Zealand and advocated the Maori concept of aroha, or love, as a means of creating a modern Civitate Dei "where men are valued for themselves, where the dead and the living and the unborn are accounted for in a cultural certainty, or in terms of orthodox Christianity, where the service of Christ is placed in one's fellow men," explained O'Sullivan. To this end, and following the examples of his brother, a conscientious objector, and his father, who had written a book, We Will Not Cease, about a conscientious objector in World War I, Baxter founded a Maori commune named Jerusalem on the Wanganui River in 1969, and Doyle observed the Maori influence on Baxter's writings following the establishment of Jerusalem.

Baxter's plays voiced many of the concerns of his poetry. Again and again he made use of both classical and Christian mythology to express his concepts of life in modern New Zealand. Doyle discussed the Aristotelian elements in Baxter's dramas and declared that "Baxter was well aware of the subjectivity of his plays, the likelihood that many of his characters emerged, horned or hornless, from what he once called his `menagerie of interior selves.' " Both Doyle and Harold W. Smith found similarities between Baxter's works and Eugene O'Neill's use of ancient mythology to symbolize the contemporary world. It was Doyle's feeling, however, that more important influences were Sartre and Giraudoux and, to a lesser extent, Samuel Beckett. In a discussion of Baxter's thematic devices, Smith labeled Baxter "a Catholic Christian who is both moved and terrified at the plight of man in a world from which a transcendent God has withdrawn or been driven out." Doyle provided a list of frequent themes essential to an understanding of Baxter's plays: "Free will, death, religion, drunkenness, commitment, destitution, words, love, materialism, community, the lost garden, bureaucracy, marriage, existentialism." Smith discussed Baxter's effective use of satire and declared that, while Baxter's framework was, in many of his plays, Greek, "the rhythms of the language [were] uniquely those of New Zealand."




Curnow, Allen, ed., A Book of New Zealand Verse, Caxton Press, 1945.

Doyle, Charles, James K. Baxter, Twayne, 1976.

James K. Baxter 1926-1972: A Memorial Volume, Alister Taylor, 1972.

James K. Baxter Festival: 1973: Four Plays, Victoria University Press, 1973.

Lawlor, Pat with Vincent O'Sullivan, The Two Baxters: Diary Notes, Millwood Press (Wellington, NZ), 1979.

McCormick, E. H., New Zealand Literature: A Survey, Oxford University Press, 1959.

McKay, F. M. New Zealand Poetry: An Introduction, New Zealand University Press, 1970.

McKay, Frank, The Life of James K. Baxter, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Oliver, W.H., James K. Baxter: A Portrait, G. Allen and Unwin (Sydney), 1983.

Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Penguin, 1960.

Reid, J. C. and G. A. Wilkes, The Literature of Australia and New Zealand, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968.

Smithyman, Kendrick, A Way of Saying, Collins, 1965.

Weir, J. E., The Poetry of James K. Baxter, Oxford University Press, 1970.


Islands, autumn, 1973, winter, 1973.

Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Number 4, December, 1967.

Landfall, September, 1948, autumn, 1953, March, 1959, March, 1960, December, 1960, December, 1967, March, 1968, March, 1969, March, 1971.

London Magazine, January, 1967, October, 1969.

Meanjin Papers, II, number 4, 1952.*

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000006326