Admissions of violence tarnish poet's legacy

In a new book, some letters written by James K Baxter make for uncomfortable reading, Jono Edwards finds.

Edited by John Weir
Victoria University Press

Reviewed by JONO EDWARDS

The reader gets incredible creative power with a collected volume of letters.

This is especially true in James K Baxter: Letters of a Poet, which contains 1360 pages of correspondence through which any number of narratives can be formed about one of New Zealand's literary giants.

The letters, spanning Baxter's life (1939-1972), tell the story of an intellectual honing his craft through communication with fellow creatives; a Catholic grappling with questions of spirituality; or a Pakeha drawn to Maori myth and culture.

However, it is hard to avoid a dozen or so glaring letters which tell of a man with backwards attitudes towards women who admits to raping multiple people, including his wife.

The letters in the collection range from the mundane to musings about poetry and deep discussions of theology.

After an introduction from compilation editor John Weir, a priest and poet who was a long-time friend of Baxter, the letters are left alone to tell his stories themselves.

They start with Baxter as a young man living in Dunedin excitedly sharing his poems with friend Noel Ginn.

The men compliment and critique each other's works.

He was already a prolific writer then, as he remained for most of his life, and in one letter adopts the motto ``never stop writing except when you want to''.

The social justice of his father, noted pacifist Archibald Baxter, comes out in the early letters including in some anti-war poems.

As he grows older he corresponds with famous friends including composer Douglas Lilburn, artist Colin McCahon and writer Frank Sargeson about their crafts and daily lives.

By the early 1960s his letters grow heavily religious and are dominated by debates about Catholic doctrine. As he becomes more noted, letters are sent to newspapers and magazines about his opinions on the issues of the day.

Then in 1969 he writes to his wife outlining his epiphany which directed him to the North Island settlement of Jerusalem to establish a community based on Maori spirituality and live without money and books.

For some readers, however, the whole second volume may be contaminated by admissions near the end of the first book.

In what makes for sickening reading, Baxter writes to friend Rae Munro in 1958 and admits in his past he had a "tendency to rape [his] hostesses at most parties [he] went to''.

He intertwines the admissions with discussion of his past problems with alcohol.

In later correspondence, he admits he has continued this behaviour against his wife on multiple occasions.

In a 1960 letter to friend Phyl Ferrabee he said he had "some improvements on the home sex front''. His sexual relations resumed with his wife, but that they were "achieved by rape'', he says. He goes on to comment that it was "curious that rape should win the battle where kindness, gifts, poems or persuasion never could''.

Baxter follows with a troubling description of forceful rape being the "Maori way''.

Perhaps other readers can look through these books as fans of poetry and take interest in how one of New Zealand's greatest writers formed his craft.

Maybe they will find his love of the Alcoholics Anonymous method empowering and take interest in how he uses it to guide others who went through what he did.

Baxter has all the attributes of a liberal contemporary idol from his outspoken hostility towards authorities, to several stays with drug addicts in an Auckland commune.

However I suspect there will be many readers in 2019 who will be jaded and frustrated at another legacy which has become tainted.

Jono Edwards is an ODT reporter.


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