A memo­rial to our Bax­ter

Whanganui Midweek - - NEWS -

A mere half a cen­tury ago (the sig­nif­i­cance of “mere” changes with dif­fer­ent age groups) the good cit­i­zens of Wan­ganui (as it was spelled then) demon­strated mixed feel­ings for the poet who had wan­dered among them for a while.

He had been here be­fore as a child, when he at­tended the Quaker School on St John’s Hill.

But it was a very dif­fer­ent James Keir Bax­ter who re­turned, and he be­came many dif­fer­ent things to the va­ri­ety of peo­ple who called Wan­ganui home.

To many he was a revered poet, a na­tional trea­sure, but look­ing at him as he would have seemed — un­kempt, hair long, bare­foot, bearded — many would have won­dered what had hap­pened to the man. Some, of course, blamed drugs and al­co­hol.

They were wrong, but it was a con­ve­nient judge­ment.

Some would have con­sid­ered that Bax­ter had set a course dif­fer­ent from “the es­tab­lish­ment”.

That was a real term in those days, and many re­garded “the es­tab­lish­ment” as the en­emy of free thought, per­sonal free­dom and real progress.

For them, Bax­ter, or “Hemi” as he liked to be called, was their hero.

He as­so­ci­ated with those on the fringe of so­ci­ety, lived a life­style free of fi­nan­cial en­cum­brances — mostly — and en­joyed the priv­i­leges of his fame and charisma in a form of sex­ual lib­er­a­tion.

So many as­sumed, rightly or wrongly.

And still he wrote won­der­ful po­etry.

With his in­spi­ra­tion be­ing the Whanganui River and those who lived there, James K Bax­ter wrote a new and fi­nal chap­ter in the life of a fa­mous New Zealand poet, and, along the way, dis­cov­ered a large, new and very young au­di­ence.

The love and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of po­etry lost some of its in­tel­lec­tual snob­bery and found its way into the homes and men­tal li­braries of a new gen­er­a­tion.

And they learned to ad­mire and re­spect some­one who did not ad­here to the mea­sure­ments im­posed by their par­ents.

A sharp suit, a tie, pol­ished shoes and a good job had no place in the life Bax­ter chose for him­self at Hiruharama. Rather, he dressed down and was able to re­late to the peo­ple who needed him most.

He sidestepped the main­stream, tak­ing his own in­se­cu­ri­ties and his need to help oth­ers on a new course.

Not all of Wan­ganui’s up­stand­ing cit­i­zens avoided the com­pany of the Bo­hemian poet.

Bax­ter made many friends here and was fre­quently called upon to de­liver talks and po­etry read­ings to var­i­ous dis­parate groups.

All would re­mem­ber him. Ev­ery­one who met him re­tained a long-stand­ing im­pres­sion of the man.

I was one of those peo­ple, and while I might have been a lit­tle put off by his dif­fer­ent per­sonal stan­dards, I was mes­merised by his voice, his per­fect dic­tion and his daz­zling in­sight into all things

I was cap­tured by his po­etry and some friends and I made a week­end pilgrimage to the com­mune up the river.

Un­for­tu­nately, Bax­ter was not there, but we met some of his young friends and as­sisted with shift­ing a chook house. We spent some time in the place where he wrote some of his beau­ti­ful work.

Of course there were many who could not stand the man, judg­ing him purely on su­per­fi­cial cri­te­ria and miss­ing out on a valu­able per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. Their loss.

Per­haps it is repa­ra­tion, but now this city is soon to erect a life-size bronze ef­figy of James K Bax­ter in Guy­ton St, on the spot where sculp­tor Joan Mor­rell last saw him and spoke with him.

They chat­ted, he turned and walked away to­ward Vic­to­ria Av­enue.

Joan would never see him alive again.

He would go from here to Auck­land, where he died in Oc­to­ber, 1972, aged 46.

Thanks to the Guy­ton Street Trust and their tire­less work rais­ing funds and nav­i­gat­ing bu­reau­cracy, Joan’s sculp­ture will bring Bax­ter back to Whanganui, a place where he felt at home.

It won’t be the first time James K Bax­ter has been im­mor­talised in bronze.

Be­fore his un­timely death, he sat for Joan and she cre­ated an ac­cu­rate bust of the man.

A copy of it sits in Paige’s Book Gallery.

To as­sist with the fundrais­ing, the Trust has or­gan­ised a break­fast this Fri­day, Au­gust 24, Na­tional Po­etry Day. Grand Ho­tel owner Neville Gorrie has gen­er­ously pro­vided the premises and the food for the oc­ca­sion.

There, over the first meal of the day, ticket hold­ers will hear peo­ple read se­lected works of Bax­ter.

I will be there and I will re­cite a poem.

It will be a priv­i­lege to help to bring Joan’s mem­ory of Hemi, man­i­fest in metal, to a spot out­side Paige’s Book Gallery, the shop where tick­ets to the break­fast can be bought, if there are any left.

Af­ter break­fast, there will be an auc­tion of do­nated items and ser­vices to boost the statue funds.

Whanganui peo­ple have been most gen­er­ous.

Soon, Bax­ter will be back in Whanganui, strid­ing down Guy­ton St, 46 years af­ter he was last here.

I’ll bet his re­cep­tion this time will be very dif­fer­ent.

Per­haps some­one will write a poem in his hon­our.

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