James K. Baxter and the Art of Anger

Ever since the Elizabethan Age, satiric poets have moved and profoundly transformed their readers with the intensity of their ideas and the techniques used to amplify them. People often report having their thinking altered by the likes of John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. In New Zealand, these satirical poets have a more recent equal in Dunedin-born James K. Baxter. Like the great poets who preceded him, Baxter ably employs both form and content to increase the power and impact of his satire. Whether exposing power’s corruption, racism, sexism, or even the injustice of the justice system, Baxter gets the form his poems take to work for him. He then puts to work the usual weapons of the satirist: understatement, contrast, parody etc. Baxter’s primary weapon, however, is the savage expression of militant irony. Lurking behind almost every phrase spoken by one of the many characters inhabiting Baxter’s satiric ‘dialogues’ there is an exactly opposite meaning or implication. These blasting ironies are not written for shock value alone. Baxter wants change – real, meaningful social change. He desires nothing less than that his readers all be profoundly transformed by what he has to say. Baxter wants his readers to move, to get up onto their feet, to march out into the street, to change society. Given the improvements in New Zealand society since Baxter’s day, it looks like his satiric techniques gave his ideas the amplification they needed.

While the satires of Dryden, Swift and Pope take no definitive form, this is not true of the scathing poetic attacks of James K. Baxter. Each of his mid-career socio-political satires takes the shape of a ‘dramatic dialogue’. These poems, like the dramatic monologues of the Victorian Period a century before, are narrated through assumed voices, the personas or characters of the pieces. The poet himself offers no overt commentary or analysis. He simply allows such characters as Harry Fat and Keith Holyoake to speak (apparently unaware that anyone is listening).  The advantages of this poetic form are many: it engages the reader’s critical reasoning; it forces him to sift through the characters’ words for interpretation; it allows for several layers of meaning.  The Private Conference of Harry Fat gives a wonderful example of this. In the poem, rich businessman Harry Fat speaks to Keith Holyoake, Prime Minister of New Zealand. After the briefest of compliments, Harry Fat gets down to business:

Said Harry Fat, ‘I’ve read about
A doll who liked to sing,
And when you tapped his wooden head
His little bell would ring.
I like the kind of country where
The little man is king.’

‘I quite agree,’ said Holyoake,
‘It is a splendid thing.’

Initially Harry Fat’s description of the ‘doll’ seems unrelated chit-chat. Soon, however, it dawns upon the reader that Fat is laying out to Holyoake the terms of their relationship. The rich are the puppet-masters; the politicians are the dolls who must ‘sing’ on command. ‘Wooden head’ Holyoake is not so dumb that he doesn’t realise this. The implication clearly is that Holyoake ‘quite agree(s)’ to it. He accepts his status as puppet ‘king’ for Harry Fat and the rich. In shaping his poem in such a way, Baxter forces his readers to reflect on this stark reality of modern political life. He insists that this reflection be a transformative one.

Characters such as Harry Fat and Keith Holyoake may deal in harsh – if hidden – realities, but this doesn’t prevent Baxter from revealing how silly and rediculous they are. Throughout his ‘dramatic dialogues’, Baxter mocks and parodies the rich and powerful, showing them to be ignorant, greedy, weak, and worthy of nothing but scorn. In several, they are shown to be almost laughably stupid. In Harry Fat and Uncle Sam, the symbol of America thinks “it’s great the way your island/ Keeps afloat there Down Below”. He obviously doesn’t know geography, or even the law of gravity.  Keith Holyoake, as already shown, also appears as stupid – a “wooden head”, a dumb, willing lackey. Baxter presents Holyoake as motivated by greed. This presentation is reinforced in The Grand Tour when Holyoake says to a vicious South Vietnamese dictator, “I much admire the way/ Your landlords have grown fat/ By feeding off the peasants”. Clearly, Holyoake would like to grow fat himself. Baxter’s satires don’t just focus upon the ignorance and greed of his targets, however. They also point out their moral and political weakness. Three poems – Harry Fat and Uncle Sam, A Bucket of Blood for a Dollar and The Grand Tour – have a New Zealander surrendering to the will of America.  In the former, Harry Fat says, “Bring dollars in  . . ./ And you can call the tune.” In the latter it is Uncle Sam who says, “Just name your price . . ./ And leave the rest to me.” In every case the vital interests of the people of New Zealand are sacrificed. The nation’s leaders don’t even have the character or political skill to keep New Zealand safe from more powerful states like America or Britain. They just cave in, resorting to bribes or alcohol or both to cope with what they’ve done.

It was this anger over the abandonment of New Zealanders’ vital interests that motivated James K. Baxter to write his mid-career attacks on politics in the first place. He felt a kind of righteous indignation, and shaped his poems in the form of dramatic dialogues (to fill with biting, excoriating satire) in order to inflame his readers, anger them, and move them to political action. The most important technique that Baxter uses to increase the power and impact of his poetry is what is called ‘militant irony’. Militant irony is irony that makes people militant. It militarises them. It makes them so angry that they get involved. They fight. In several of Baxter’s poems, militant irony appears in so naked and vicious a form that it actually brings tears of rage to the reader’s eyes. When Harry Fat declares to Keith Holyoake, in The Private Conference of Harry Fat, exactly what he thinks of Asians, the revelation of racism and ignorance is so striking it causes a whole cascade of thoughts:

Said Harry Fat, ‘I call the man
Who digs my garden, “Bert”.
He has his place and I have mine,
His job’s to shovel dirt.
But I’ll have no truck with a Chinese ape
Who wears a peasant shirt.’

‘Except with guns,’ said Holyoake –
‘The message then is curt.’

There is so much that is offensive about the attitude and values of the above characters that it causes one to question — of what else are men like Harry Fat and Keith Holyoake guilty? The answer is racism, sexual abuse of women, mass murder of innocents and even children, genocide, theft on a global scale, prostitution, gleeful torture, and constant unalloyed lying. Why then are these characters allowed to hold positions of trust and responsibility? The answer is that it is too much trouble for most people to make certain their leaders are doing an honest job of things. Baxter seeks, through his use of militant irony, to change that calculation. He wants to force us to realize that it is actually less, far less, trouble to get out there and change things for the better. All that is required is a small transformation in thinking.

This revolution in thinking must have appeared frustratingly remote to Baxter as he looked out at New Zealand during the last half-decade of his life, say from 1967 to 1972. Most of his fellow citizens read little, thought less, and if they got active at all their actions had mostly to do with meaningless pleasure-seeking – sport, entertainment, and outdoor recreation. It is little wonder then that Baxter seemed to despair in his final years. However, if he had hung on for another decade, New Zealand’s premier poet would have witnessed huge changes in New Zealand society. He would have seen the Maori social justice movement and the Land Claims Tribunal that came about as a result. He would have watched as New Zealand ran counter to the wishes of the United States and declared itself a nuclear free zone. He would have observed his fellow citizens on their feet and in the street with regard to the Springbok Tour. Baxter would have noted how the GE Free Movement, the anti-domestic violence effort, the educational reform drive, and many other citizen-led movements like these have transformed the nation. Each of these owe at least a little something to the mid-career political satires of James K. Baxter. His use of dramatic dialogue, parody, understatement, and militant irony exposed his countrymen to the realities of modern political and economic life. It piqued their interest. It ignited their involvement. Our country is different today as a result – different, but not ideal (for there is still work to be done). That is why reading James K. Baxter is so important for young New Zealanders today. The way Baxter writes poetry, the techniques he uses, makes his ideas so powerful that it helps each new generation get motivated and active in the political arena. It has certainly helped me.

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