A memorial to our Baxter
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.