The Snake-Haired Muse: James K. Baxter and Classical Myth, by GeoffreyMiles, John Davidson and Paul Millar, (Victoria University Press, 2011), 380 pp., $50.00.
Surely, it is the Orphic quest: three literary scholars descend to the realm of dead reputations, intent on reviving that haunting incommensurability, the sad remains of James K. Baxter’s myth-eaten verse. And we, who once sang with Curnow et al. that Old Romantic NZ was dead and gone, with Jimmy in the grave, might once more find ourselves returning to the Collected Poems with a renewed liveliness of mind—and a Penguin edition of the writings of Carl Jung.
The Snake-Haired Muse is this revisionist descent. The problem of Baxter and myth, as the authors point out, has long occasioned embarrassed side-steps by a roll call of local critics at his anachronistic, even elitist, affectation, thoroughly incongruous with that most pressing of poetics, reality ‘special and local’. These latter-day Orphic critics have now arrived to argue that, ‘Baxter’s use of classical myth […] lies close to the heart of his poetic project; […] the criticisms made of it often rest on assumptions about poetry in New Zealand — what it is and what it should be — that are positively unhelpful in dealing with the kind of poetry that Baxter was trying to write’ (18).
What makes this endeavour so successful is that (unlike Orpheus) it achieves its quiet yet determined revisionism by means of a long, hard scholarly look backwards, back into the turgid yet quite consistent introspection of the adolescent Baxter, and looking back, too, to take in the full scope of his classical baggage in unpublished as well as published works.
Beginning with the modest aspiration of offering a specialist guide to classical myth in Baxter’s poetry, Geoffrey Miles, John Davidson and Paul Millar expected ‘that the substantial strand of early classical myth poems would thin, at times break, and eventually interweave with Christian belief and Maori tikanga to produce a more twentieth-century, New Zealand-sourced kit of mythic themes. […T]his isn’t what we discovered’ (248). In other words, this level-headed, convivial piece of revisionary criticism is no poetry anthology introduction; its case for Baxter as ‘unapologetically mythic, enduringly Romantic, and idiosyncratically religious’ rests on meticulous scholarship, painstakingly re-contextualising the published poetry alongside the swags of unpublished material in the archives. Brief indulgences of literary obsession (Miles’s regret over our not knowing whether Baxter read of Jason or Ulysses first; Davidson delighting in a bit of detective work over Baxter’s knowledge of a painting by Exekias) are guarantees of such.
What the scholarship reveals is not just the scope of Baxter’s engagement with the classics, but also the consistency of his recourse to myth, and the way in which it was impelled by personal exigencies: by a kind of enduring need for existential order that began in his adolescence. It is Millar’s chapter on Baxter’s adolescent use of myth that puts paid to the old charge that Baxter’s mythic material is an elitist affectation, showing how the poet’s idiosyncratic, appropriating mythic method, ‘initiated at sixteen and continuing throughout his remaining lifetime of writing, is a habit of mind essential for an understanding of Baxter’ (54). The mythic matter, then, confronts us with the poet’s habitual method: Baxter’s ‘lifelong habit of plucking from every system of thought he encountered only those that meshed with his personal convictions’ (41).
At best, habits are sustaining, improvisatory patterns; no surprise then that in his last days Baxter wrote some of his finest myth poems — ‘The Tiredness of Me and Herakles’, is a sequence that is emotionally complete, and un-schematic in its idiosyncratic appropriation of the classics. But then, habits of mind are also fickle things, more fickle, perhaps, than those of the absent-minded hand, for they frequently combine instinctive reaction with reasoned justification, the personal urge to scratch a mental itch with a well-plotted, but often specious rationale.
The revelation that Baxter’s regular recourse to the classics is thoroughly habitual not only highlights its importance for understanding his poetics, but also suggests why the results were so uneven. Certainly, as O’Sullivan made clear decades back, Baxter’s mythologizing is more than merely egotistical; still, it seems clear that Baxter’s myth-habit began and ended with personal need, and was finally less about connecting to the collective unconsciousness of mainstream 1950s New Zealand than it was about his long-standing need to get a fix — a psycho-spiritual fix, that is — on himself. When confronted with such heady classical fusions as herring-bone Jimmy’s ‘Snake-Haired Muse’, what strikes one is not only their hyper-schematic nature, but also the way in which such universalised projections of the troubled self leave so little room for the reader. When, as in Baxter’s binary and somewhat infantile preoccupation with rising Venus and the infernal feminine, the exigencies of the personal drama are forced through the Jungian schema (or at least justified by such afterwards), the poetry — and our pleasure — suffer. Viewed one way, then, to take in the scope and character of Baxter’s myth-habit can be to find oneself playing a bit-part in a personal drama that is either overbearing in its impelling neediness, or emotionally truncated by the myth-mapping of late modernity.
In taking such matters personally, the most useful response may well be to pursue the opportunity this book makes possible: to contextualise more thoroughly and then evaluate the late modern religious aspiration of what Millar describes as Baxter’s ‘lifelong production of intricate, relatively consistent structures of meaning’ (61). As Miles suggests, the basic problem that Baxter’s response to the classics presents us with ‘is not “phoniness” or “disingenuousness” so much as a passionate belief in the power of myth to communicate on a deep, unconscious level’ (20). Baxter’s habit of mind has — after Jung — a doctrinaire rationale; myth is the collective repository of humankind across time and space, the point of union of body and mind; in poetic practice, it is the reconciliation and liberation of the authentic self in its conflicted manifestations (Baxter’s preference for Jung has to do with the fact that, as he sees it, the Jungian sponsors a psychological rejoinder to the caricature of Calvinism that Baxter loves to hate: the prospect that ‘my subconscious mind might contain sources of peace and wisdom’).
This use of myth addresses the post-Christian conditions of belief, offering — as a locus of the pre-rational and natural — a way out of the epistemological reductiveness of late Enlightenment rationalism while still aspiring to some total, fundamental schema; it is in other words a systematic method of reconciling the romantic and organic orientation of Baxter’s early formation with the late modern milieu.
‘[P]assionate belief’ has it right, then. And one thinks immediately of the more elaborate and idiosyncratic constructions of Robert Graves and William Butler Yeats — Baxter was mercifully spared their near-fundamentalist mythologies by Jung’s psychological focus, his own temperament, and the Holy Spirit. In this respect it is unfortunate that the identification of that basic ‘problem’ does not lead to fuller consideration of why — as I think it can be — Baxter’s myth-eaten recourse to ‘structures of meaning’ is a problem. More generally, the comprehensive detail of this project — pitched largely as descriptive and contextualising — asks to be followed up by fuller consideration of the relationship of Baxter’s modern catholicising myth-habit, his Catholic faith, and his poetry. If, as Millar suggests, ‘Baxter’s own myth-making […] embodies the Blakean principle, ‘I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s’ (66), then in what ways did such systematics distort his poetry, not least in the conflict it implies between prevenient Grace and the epistemic immanence of constructivism. To put it another way, if the anthropocentric constructs of myth are glossed religiously as ‘the discovery of a sacred pattern in natural events’ (as Baxter seems to do in ‘Notes on the Education of a New Zealand Poet’), where does that leave the sacramental imagination? Recall ‘The Ikons’:
the darkness I call God,
The darkness I call Te Whaea, how can they translate
The blue calm evening sky that a plane tunnels through
Like a little wasp, or the bucket in my hand,
Into something else?
In light of Baxter’s life-long mythic habit of mind, could it be that in this poem Baxter arrives at the nadir T.S. Eliot did in ‘Ash Wednesday’: ‘consequently I rejoice having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice’?
There is, too, the fact that Baxter — wilfully and unconcernedly, or so it seems, at least — syncretised Jungian psychology and Maoritanga with Catholic theology, in keeping with his habitual appropriation of useful existential and metaphysical tropes and tricks. And then, as our authors are keen to point out, the allusions to classical myth do not entirelydry up when Baxter heads north to Hiruharama (although here, too, a more satisfactory explanation than the one given is needed).
Whatever the case, in this accomplished collaboration Miles, Davidson and Millar — all established authorities on Baxter and myth — have pooled their enthusiasm and scholarly exactitude to produce a compelling argument for the centrality of classical myth to Baxter’s development, poetics and poetry, and have laid down a comprehensive foundation for further work.
JOHN DENNISON is a literary scholar specialising in contemporary poetry and poetics. His PhD, from the University of St Andrews, is a study of the prose poetics of Irish poet Seamus Heaney; he previously studied English and Theology at the University of Otago, and English and Classics at Victoria University. He currently teaches at Victoria University of Wellington.