Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

James K. Baxter and Robert Burns: The Form of Address

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

James K. Baxter and Robert Burns: The Form of Address

Article excerpt

One central connection between the poems of Robert Burns and James K. Baxter is that a number of them take the form of letters to other people, specifically addressed. This essay considers the implications of social engagement and the aesthetics of participation in the work of these poets, as exemplified by their epistolary poems and in contrast to what might be described as a different tradition, keyed to an aesthetics of solitary perception. How does the epistolary poetic form position the reader? How does it engage with both the social context of the historical and geographical locations of Burns and Baxter, and then with their social contexts? What might this imply about their legacy as social poets working a little before, then within and, with Baxter, after the Romantic tradition (though still in its legacy)? By examining some of their letter-poems, can we establish a generic distinction in their work which has not yet been fully explored?

The epistolary novel is sufficiently familiar: it is possible to generalise confidently about its history and the purpose of its form. Significantly, in Scottish literature, the destabilising of narrative authority, the validation of plurality of perspective, motivation, and strategy is evident in key examples. Smollett's The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) describes a variety of characters in their own words, as they travel through the recently 'united' kingdom, allowing apparently national characteristics to be demonstrated and satirised. By using their own words in letters, their forms of address ironically complement the author's purpose of showing and ironising their diversity, common motivations, and various incomprehensions. Scott's Redgauntlet (1824) uses characters' letters to heighten tension and emphasise their condition of bewilderment and increasingly endangered isolation. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) uses letters, reports, eye-witness accounts to emphasise the unreliability of any single point of view, and tension works both through our discovery of events in the narrative and at another level, as we sift evidence to find truths that might help us understand these events.

What distinguishes these works and their authors, and applies acutely to Baxter as well as Burns, is their hypersensitivity to performance in two modes: the oral and the literary. Most especially, Burns, Scott, and James Hogg worked assiduously to collect oral stories and songs, to see them transformed into print. From childhood, they were intimately familiar with the practice of song and story in oral culture and the workings of oral tradition. Burns was keenly attuned to this contiguity or overlap of forms of communication and spent the latter part of his writing career devoted to the collection, shaping, and publication of songs that might otherwise have been lost.

This sensitivity to the relation between oral, voice-made, and literary, print-defined, practice was essential to both Burns and Baxter. If they were urged by the knowledge that the oral event was by definition transitory, they were also keenly conscious of the fragility of value inherent in print. Publication of the Kilmarnock Edition changed Burns's life from a local to an international provenance, and Baxter's international standing as a poet has to be complemented by his biography, the specific story of his life in the context of New Zealand society, his own family history and historical community. Of course, oral-centred and print-centred social worlds are not totally separate, but, even while contemporary, they involve different modes of practice. In both, forms of address are different. To abbreviate Walter Benjamin's formulation, the oral storyteller is in the presence of the people to whom he is speaking, whereas the novelist (or printed poet) is absent.1 Burns and Baxter knew both these 'presences' and 'absences' intensely.

To apply Benjamin, if the reader of a novel (or poem) is privately and exclusively attentive to the book being held (in a technology itself now historically changing), the listener to a story, song, or poem is more often in a company, sharing the experience with others. …

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