Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

A Game of Torn Halves: Baxter, Burns, and Biculturalism

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

A Game of Torn Halves: Baxter, Burns, and Biculturalism

Article excerpt

Perhaps it may turn out a Sang;

Perhaps, turn out a Sermon

'Hailing' is, for Althusser, what happens when ideology creates social actors; interpellation fixes subjects through the processes of institutions and discourses. This is, naturally, of a different order to hailing as shouting for a taxi, but the association with speech and address is useful and draws attention to the play between modes of address, speech patterns, form, and ideology itself.1 What audience comes to recognise and constitute itself in the course of a poem's address? Sounding Baxter's late work for its voice and tone may turn up some helpful comments on his uses, in politics as much as poetics. Something like the content of his particular form emerges through this reading, and, in tracking the 'late' works against the 'early' inspiration of Burns, a better sense of the dynamics of both may emerge. Whether this works or not is up to you to decide; my justification for it as an approach rests on the reputation the Jerusalem-era work has for its formal perfection, as late style' and as a summation of sorts of the best in Baxter, and on the fact that the most important work of Baxter criticism produced this decade-John Newton's 'trilogy' of two essays and a book on Jerusalem-is not literary criticism or analysis of poetry, or, at least, not analysis of poetry as we are trained to recognise it, and takes up its Baxter for programmatic and political projects.

Newton reads Baxter as 'our "postcolonial" contemporary like no other poet of the Sixties and Seventies', and sees in the work, both practical and poetic, of the Jerusalem era 'a fascinating episode in Aotearoa's history of grass-roots biculturalism [...] fundamental to the poet's own legacy'.2 That Baxter can be read as our contemporary-that his 'writing and example' continue to intervene around and shape the struggle over what that 'bicultural legacy' should be-indicates that the poems still work, that their energy as poems still communicates to us and with the culture which they are shaped by and shape; moreover, C. K. Stead expresses the view of many when he says of the later writing that 'the language is faultless'.3 I'm not convinced, by the faultlessness of the language or by the grass- roots biculturalism of the project, and want to press problems in the two together. A reading of the language and poetic strategies of Baxter's later work reveals, I think, a rift in Baxter's work which has implications for Newton's use of him as an exemplary 'postcolonial contemporary': that gap, I want to argue here, is in the Päkehä voice itself.

Taking up this quarrel via questions of form and voice has other uses, too. Baxter, like Burns, has left a very particular poetic legacy in the shape and feel of the Jerusalem-era sonnets. Standard Habbie was not Burns's invention, but he made it his own and, in the 'retrievals and perpetuations' he carried out around what became the 'Burns Stanza', he forged technical and imaginative insights.4 Baxter's sonnets of rhythmically loose, unrhymed couplets are near contemporaries of Robert Lowell's, but the approach is, in this country at least, his, and one that has been followed. From C. K. Stead's sonnets of the 1970s to Leigh Davis's Willy's Gazette to Jeffrey Paparoa Holman's Blackball sonnets, and many a less direct conversation in between, the 'Baxter sonnet' stands out in late twentieth-century New Zealand poetry. What the voices of Baxter's later verse sound themselves against might offer usefully complicating echoes and comments back.

Tribal gifts

Reading Baxter, with Newton, for what he says to us now is one way of pronouncing him a Bard, a poet with a diagnostic or prophetic role in our national condition. Maurice Shadbolt called Baxter 'a Bard, our only one' from the 'Celtic marae' of Dunedin, producing words for 'our tribe'.5 It's unusual now to read the term used without irony or self-consciously distancing care, but, with Baxter, it fits both self-presentation and subsequent consumption. …

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