Story: Poetry

Page 5. James K. Baxter and poets of the 1950s and 1960s

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James K. Baxter

James K. Baxter exploded onto the poetry scene in the mid-1940s. Like R. A. K. Mason, he was a teenage prodigy. But, unlike Mason, he was consistently prolific and would remain firmly in the spotlight until his well-publicised death at the age of 46.

James K. Baxter, ‘High country weather’, 1948

Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.1

Baxter’s poetic signature was the fluency of his poetry. He could be repetitive in his themes, romantically obsessed with death and the loss of childhood innocence, but his eloquence carried a great many readers with him (and nearly all readers, some of the time).

He had wide scope and a strong sense of ethical responsibility. His poems range from obscene ballads to fierce political satire, and to the strongly Catholic confessional poems of his years at Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River. In this final period he enjoyed a public profile unique for a New Zealand poet, and he used it, with considerable success, to try to make Pākehā more aware of Māori.

For many readers Baxter remains the definitive New Zealand poet. His fame reflects, not just a great gift, but a fearless commitment to his poetic vocation.

Auckland and Wellington

Baxter was among a group of younger Wellington poets who in the 1950s took up arms against Allen Curnow’s nationalism. The most gifted, after Baxter, was Alistair Campbell, a love poet of great delicacy. Fleur Adcock, who was married to Campbell for five years, spent much of her life in England, but her restrained poems about human relationships are commonly included in anthologies of New Zealand poetry. The middle-class, suburban observations of Peter Bland have also lasted well.

The younger poets in Auckland were seen to be closer to Curnow, and tensions between Auckland and Wellington were evident through the 1950s and early 1960s.

The Auckland group included Kendrick Smithyman, a formally and intellectually challenging poet, well versed in North American modernism. C. K. Stead gained academic recognition for his work on modernist poets W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. However, his own extensive body of poetry, lyrical and at times witty, is as much conversational as scholarly.

A scholar, a boilermaker

Two other new poets of the period fall outside these groupings.

Vincent O’Sullivan, who, like Stead, was a distinguished scholar, is known particularly for his work on Katherine Mansfield. As exemplified in his ‘Butcher’ poems, O’Sullivan’s work is dense and ironic.

Hone Tuwhare, ‘Haiku (1)’, 1970

your snivelling

come rain hail
and flood-water

laugh again2

Hone Tuwhare has the distinction of being the first Māori poet published in English. A boilermaker by trade, and a former communist, Tuwhare drew inspiration from R. A. K. Mason. His own work, however, is more expansive. Warm, good-humoured and full of appetite, Tuwhare’s poems have a breadth of appeal perhaps second only to Baxter’s.

  1. Allen Curnow, ed, The Penguin book of New Zealand verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 286. Back
  2. Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien, and Mark Williams, eds. An anthology of New Zealand poetry in English. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 237. Back
How to cite this page:

John Newton, 'Poetry - James K. Baxter and poets of the 1950s and 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by John Newton, published 22 Oct 2014