James K. Baxter

James Keir Baxter (29 June 1926 – 22 October 1972) was a New Zealand poet and playwright. He was also known as an activist for the preservation of Māori culture.

James Keir Baxter
Memorial plaque dedicated to James K. Baxter in Dunedin, on the Writers' Walk on the Octagon
BornJames Keir Baxter
(1926-06-29)29 June 1926
Dunedin, New Zealand
Died22 October 1972(1972-10-22) (aged 46)
Auckland, New Zealand
NationalityNew Zealander
Literary movementWellington Group


Baxter was born in Dunedin[1] to Archibald Baxter and Millicent Brown and grew up near Brighton, 20 km south of Dunedin city. He was named after James Keir Hardie, a founder of the British Labour Party. His father had been a conscientious objector during the First World War. His mother had studied Latin, French and German at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Sydney, the University of Sydney and Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

On his first day of school, Baxter burned his hand on a stove and later used this incident to represent the failure of institutional education. As a child he contrasted the social order represented by his maternal grandfather with the clan mentality of his Scottish father and frequently drew analogies between the Highland clans and the Māori tribes. Baxter stated that he began writing poetry at the age of seven, and he accumulated a large body of technically accomplished work both before and during his teenage years.

In 1944, at age eighteen he joined the University of Otago[1]and that year he published his first collection of poetry, Beyond the Palisade,[1] to much critical acclaim. His work during this time was, as with his contemporary compatriots, most notably the experimental novelist Janet Frame, largely influenced by the modernist works of Dylan Thomas. He was a member of the so-called "Wellington Group" of writers that also included Louis Johnson, W.H. Oliver and Alistair Campbell. Baxter typically wrote short lyrical poems or cycles of the same rather than longer poems; he failed to complete his course work at the University of Otago, due to increasing alcoholism[1] and was forced to take a range of odd jobs from 1945-7,[1] most notably a cleaner at Chelsea Sugar Refinery, which inspired the poem "Ballad of the Stonegut Sugar Works".

In 1948 he married Jacqueline Sturm, and his interest in Christianity culminated in his joining the Anglican church during that same year.[1] In February 1951 Baxter enrolled at Wellington Teachers’ College. In 1952 a selection of poems in a collaborative volume, Poems unpleasant, was published. Having completed his course at the teachers’ college in December, Baxter spent 1953 in full-time study at Victoria University College and published his third major collection, The fallen house.[1] In 1954 he was appointed assistant master at Epuni School, Lower Hutt and during that time joined Alcoholics Anonymous, being deeply inspired by its principles.[1] He received a BA in 1956.

By 1955 he had garnered a substantial legacy and could afford a comfortable house in Ngaio, Wellington. He left Epuni School early in 1956 to write and edit primary school bulletins for the Department of Education’s School Publications Branch. This period is likely to have influenced his writing providing material for numerous attacks on bureaucracy. In 1957 Baxter took a course in Roman Catholicism, and his collection of poems In Fires of No Return, published in 1958, was influenced by his new faith. This was his first work to be published internationally, though English critics were largely nonplussed. His wife, a committed Anglican, was dismayed by his Catholicism, and they divorced in 1957. Through the late 50s and 60s Baxter visited the Southern Star Abbey a Cistercian monastery at Kopua near Central Hawke's Bay.[2] He was received into the Catholic church in 1958.[1]

In the same year, Baxter received a UNESCO stipend and began an extended journey through Asia, and especially India, where Rabindranath Tagore's university Shantiniketan was one of the inspirations for Baxter's later community at Jerusalem. Here he was reconciled with his wife and contracted dysentery. His writing after returning from India was more overtly critical of New Zealand society.[1] In the 1960s he became a powerful and prolific writer of both poems and drama, and it was through his radio play Jack Winter's dream that he became internationally known.

The first half of the 1960s saw Baxter struggling to make ends meet on his postman's wage, having refused to take work as a schoolmaster. However, it was at this time that the collection of poems Pig Island Letters was published in which his writing found a new level of clarity. In 1966, Baxter took up the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago.[1]

In 1968 Baxter claimed that he had been instructed in a dream to 'Go to Jerusalem'. Jerusalem, New Zealand was a small Māori settlement (known by its Māori transliteration, Hiruharama) on the Whanganui River. He left his university position and a job composing catechetical material for the Catholic Education Board, with nothing but a bible. This was the culmination of a short period in which he struggled with family life and his vocation as a poet.

Baxter spent some time in Grafton, Auckland where he set up a centre for drug addicts,[1] acting on the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1969 he adopted the Māori version of his name, Hemi, and moved to Jerusalem. He lived a sparse existence and made frequent trips to the nearby cities where he worked with the poor and spoke out against what he perceived as a social order that sanctions poverty. His poems of this time have a conversational style but speak strongly of his social and political convictions.

The harsh deprivations Baxter adopted at this time took their toll on his health. By 1972 he was too ill to continue living at Jerusalem and moved to a commune near Auckland. On 22 October 1972 he suffered a coronary thrombosis in the street and died in a nearby house, aged 46. He was buried at Jerusalem on Māori land in front of "the Top House" where he had lived, in a ceremony combining Māori and Catholic traditions.[1]

Release of personal letters

In a release of personal letters by Victoria University Press in January 2019, one particular letter revealed details that Baxter confides to a friend that he raped his wife, Jacquie Sturm, after she expressed low interest in sex. The discovery has seen New Zealanders reacting with dismay to the revelations, describing them as “awful”, “terrible” and “shocking”.[3] In The Spinoff John Newton wrote that it is no longer possible to talk about Baxter without addressing how Baxter thinks and writes about women.[4]


In his critical study Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt defines Baxter's 'Jacobean consonantal rhetoric'.[5] Schmidt has claimed that Baxter was 'one of the most precocious poets of the century' whose neglect outside of New Zealand is baffling.[6] His writing was affected by his alcoholism. His work drew upon Dylan Thomas and Yeats; then on MacNeice and Lowell. Michael Schmidt identifies 'an amalgam of Hopkins, Thomas and native atavisms' in Baxter's Prelude N.Z..[7]

Books (selected)

  • Beyond the Palisade, 1944
  • Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness, 1948
  • Hart Crane; a poem, 1948
  • Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry, 1951
  • Poems Unpleasant, 1952 (with Louis Johnson and Anton Vogt)
  • Rapunzel: a Fantasia for Six Voices, 1953
  • The Fallen House, 1953
  • The Fire and the Anvil, 1955
  • Traveller’s Litany, 1956
  • The Iron Breadboard: Studies in New Zealand Writing, 1950
  • The Night Shift: Poems on Aspects of Love, 1957 (with Charles Doyle, Louis Johnson and Kendrick Smithyman)
  • In Fires of No Return, 1958
  • Chosen Poems, 1958
  • Two Plays: The Wide Open Cage and Jack Winter's Dream, 1959
  • The Ballad of Calvary Street, 1960
  • Howrah Bridge and Other Poems, 1961
  • Three Women and the Sea, 1961
  • The Spots of the Leopard, 1962
  • The Ballad of the Soap Powder Lock-Out, 1963
  • A Selection of Poetry, 1964
  • Pig Island Letters, 1966
  • Aspects of Poetry in New Zealand, 1967
  • The Lion Skin, 1967.
  • The Man on the Horse, 1967
  • The Bureaucrat, 1968 (prod.)
  • The Rock Woman: Selected Poems, 1969
  • Jerusalem Sonnets: Poems for Colin Durning, 1970
  • The Flowering Cross, 1970
  • The Devil and Mr Mulcahy, and The Band Rotunda, 1971 (plays)
  • Jerusalem Daybook, 1971
  • The Sore-Footed Man, and The Temptations of Oedipus, 1971 (plays)
  • Ode to Auckland and Other Poems, 1972
  • Autumn Testament, 1972 (reissued in 1998, edited by Paul Millar)
  • Four God Songs, 1972
  • Letter to Peter Olds, 1972

Posthumously published

  • Runes, 1973.
  • Two Obscene Poems, 1974.
  • Barney Flanagan and Other Poems, read by James K. Baxter (record), 1973.
  • The Labyrinth: Some Uncollected Poems 1944–72, 1974.
  • The Tree House and Other Poems for Children, 1974.
  • The Bone Chanter, edited and introduced by John Weir, 1976.
  • The Holy Life and Death of Concrete Grady, edited and introduced by John Weir, 1976.
  • Baxter Basics, 1979
  • Collected Poems, edited by John Weir, 1979 (reissued in 1995 and 2004).
  • Collected Plays, edited by Howard McNaughton, 1982.
  • Selected Poems, edited by John Weir, 1982.
  • Horse: a Novel, 1985.
  • The Essential Baxter, selected and introduced by John Weir, 1993.
  • Cold Spring: Baxter's Unpublished Early Collection, edited and introduced by Paul Millar, 1996.
  • James K. Baxter: Poems, selected and introduced by Sam Hunt, 2009.
  • Poems to a Glass Woman, with introductory essay by John Weir, 2012.
  • James K. Baxter: Complete Prose, four volume set edited by John Weir, 2015 (Victoria University Press)


  1. Carcanet profile
  2. Matthews, Richard (1995) James K. Baxter and Kopua, Journal of New Zealand Literature: JNZL, No. 13, pp. 257–265
  3. Roy, Eleanor Ainge (15 February 2019). "James K Baxter: venerated poet's letters about marital rape rock New Zealand". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  4. Newton, John (14 February 2019). "James K Baxter, rapist". The Spinoff. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  5. Schmidt, Michael: Lives of the Poets, p 833, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007, ISBN 9780297840145.
  6. Schmidt, Michael: Lives of the Poets, page 835. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
  7. Schmidt, Michael: Lives of the Poets, p 836. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.
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