New-found Baxter poem likely to touch a chord

17:00, Sep 26 2014
James K Baxter
HARD ROAD: James K Baxter bemoaned the financial lot of poets to Denis Glover.

A previously unpublished poem by James K Baxter seems sure to resonate across the decades when it goes on sale next month.

The typewritten two-page Letter to Denis Glover was probably written more than 50 years ago, but its sentiments are likely to be just as keenly felt by the poets of today.

The work bemoans the financial lot of poets, even those, such as Baxter and Glover, who had already achieved some renown.

James K Baxter book
RARE TREASURE: Anthony Gallagher, head of rare books at Dunbar Sloane, with James K Baxter’s Letter to Denis Glover, an unpublished poem discovered tucked inside a book.

"One can't warm, though stoked by fame/one's backside at a mental flame," he writes.

The poem would appear to critique Allen Curnow, a poet and columnist referred to as "Uncle A---". Curnow was missing the point in his "harangue" about the difficulty of success for New Zealand poets, Baxter wrote; simply making a living was the problem.

Prime Minister Sidney Holland, the Marxist Left, and the church are then lashed by Baxter for their failure to help. The church did not care how its "dead branches" fared, "But keeps her gaze beyond the stars/On socials, gossip and bazaars".


Holland was prime minister from 1949 to 1957, which might date the poem to those years.

The pages were discovered tucked inside a nondescript book bought in a job lot by a Kapiti Coast man, according to Dunbar Sloane auction house's head of rare books, Anthony Gallagher.

"They just stumbled across it. It's absolutely amazing," he said. "These things just don't crop up."

Baxter was a celebrated Dunedin poet, who published from 1944 till his death in 1972, and Glover was a Dunedin poet and publisher who founded the literary journal Landfall.

Baxter earned himself a dubious national celebrity through his time at a commune in Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River, his bearded and shabby appearance, and his outspoken attitudes towards authorities.

"How can I live in a country where the towns are made like coffins/And the rich are eating the flesh of the poor/Without even knowing it?", he lamented not long before his death in 1972.

He often wrote poems to friends, and a new one cropped up every year or two, said Anna Blackman, curator at Otago University's Hocken Library. This one was unusual for being typewritten, and the Hocken hoped to add the poem to its archive.

It is due to be auctioned on October 15, and was expected to fetch $1500 to $3000, Gallagher said.

Despite Baxter's assertion that Kiwi poets carried the "banner of defeat" and their words were "merely noises in the head", there is already interest in the poem. Two interested buyers were circling, Gallagher said.

The Dominion Post