Liam McIlvanney is a writer
I have wanted an article from for the pages of Robert Burns Lives!
for quite some time now. My dream has come true, and today I present the
following piece by Professor McIlvanney. I have had it in my possession for
several months but was asked to hold off on printing since it had first been
promised to the Journal of New Zealand
Literature. Our time has come, and it is an honor to welcome Liam
to our pages and hopefully look forward to another editorial in the future.
After I purchased the book
Burns the Radical written in 2002 by Professor McIlvanney, it became
an oft-referenced publication for me when the subject of Burns and his
radical nature was on the table. It is a book that I recommend any student
of Burns should have and, yes, it is still available on the market and is
most worthy of your money and time.
In response to
an invitation for him to speak to our Burns Club of Atlanta when he next
visits the States, he brought up another Burns connection: “I'll always be
grateful to the Burns Club of Atlanta for helping me to stay on in Columbia
to do some research in the Thomas Cooper Library following the Burns
conference at USC in 1996. (Indeed, I'm pretty sure I credit the Burns Club
of Atlanta in my acknowledgments to Burns the Radical.).” And in
checking, he did indeed, beginning with the second sentence of the
Acknowledgements page of his book.
He goes on to
say, “I've attached a copy of my most recent piece on Burns. Let me know if
this fits the bill. It's on the Burnsian echoes and allusions in a poem by
the twentieth-century NZ poet, James K. Baxter. It touches on the bawdy side
of things (both with Baxter and Burns) and does contain a fairly robust
bawdy poem at the end, so you may be looking for something a little less
heady! Anyway, if you do think this would suit your website, could I ask you
to hold off putting it online until the forthcoming issue of the Journal
of New Zealand Literature is published?”
Liam is also a
novelist with several books to his credit.
Below is some
biographical information about Professor McIlvanney from the website of the
University of Otago, New Zealand, that I took the liberty of borrowing for
this article. (FRS: 5.29.13)
Professor Liam McIlvanney
Stuart Chair in Scottish Studies
Scottish literature and culture since 1707, including: Robert Burns;
Scottish vernacular poetry; the Glasgow Novel; Ulster-Scots poetry;
contemporary Scottish writing; Irish-Scottish literary connections;
literature of the Scottish Diaspora.
I am happy to supervise in any of the
areas listed above. Prospective postgraduate students should visit the
on the Scottish Studies website.
recently co-edited (with Ray I recently co Ryan) a collection of essays on
The Good of the Novel
(Faber, 2011), co-edited (with Gerard Carruthers) The Cambridge Companion to Scottish
Literature (CUP, 2012), and co-edited (with Dougal McNeill) a
special ‘Baxter and Burns’ number of the Journal of New Zealand Literature
(2012). I am currently completing two articles on Scottish poetry in
colonial New Zealand. My second novel,
Where the Dead Men Go, will be published by Faber in September
Where the Dead Men Go
(London: Faber, 2013)
The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature,
ed. by Gerard Carruthers and Liam McIlvanney (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2012)
The Good of the Novel,
ed. by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan (London: Faber, 2011)
All the Colours of the Town
(London: Faber, 2009).
Ireland and Scotland: Culture and Society, 1700-2000,
ed. by Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005)
Burns the Radical: Poetry and Politics in Late
(East Linton: Tuckwell Press
Poems Like Hand Grenades:
Baxter, Burns and Bawdry
By Liam McIlvanney
In 1966, after twenty years
wandering, James K. Baxter came home to Dunedin to take up the Robert Burns
Fellowship at the University of Otago. The man who depicted Odysseus’s
homecoming as ‘both a humiliating failure and a triumphant completion of his
quest,’ was similarly ambivalent about his own return to Ithaca.
From one point of view, Baxter had reached his ‘home base’ in triumph.
The young man who flunked out of Otago in 1945, having failed to propitiate
the ‘goddess of good manners and examination passes’, was returning as the
The award of the Burns Fellowship – previously held by Duggan, Mason,
Shadbolt and Frame – was a significant accolade, a recognition of Baxter’s
standing as a leading New Zealand writer.
It was also a practical boon. Baxter would enjoy leisure to read and write –
no longer having to ‘steal’ time from his wife and kids in order to write
his poems – and would avail himself of such unaccustomed luxuries as ‘fresh
percolated coffee’, a flat with a ‘flash red kitchen table’ and a Varsity
But Baxter’s return was also,
in some sense, a ‘humiliating failure’, at least in his own eyes. In
accepting the Fellowship, Baxter was making his peace with academia, with
the ‘puritanism’ of New Zealand bureaucracy and the accidie of respectable
domesticity – in short, with the gorgons he’d slain in order to become a
poet in the first place. Throughout his career, Baxter held, with an almost
superstitious intensity, to the belief that a poet’s power comes from his
readiness to articulate scandalous and socially dangerous truths, and that
the acceptance of ‘posts and pensions’ would compromise this vital function.
If Baxter came to regard the Fellowship ‘more as a hair shirt than a
it was because he saw it as a devil’s bargain, offering ‘money and status’
at the cost of compromising his art: ‘the Muse...does not smile on
Fellowship holders. Our good morals seem to bore her’.
And though the Muse did smile on Baxter during his Fellowship years – by the
end of the second varsity term of 1966 he had written thirty-five poems, as
he acknowledged when applying for an extension of his tenure – Baxter
remained peculiarly alive to the danger of being ‘bought’, of becoming a
kind of poetic functionary, like those American poets-in-residence who
‘wander round the campuses like tame bespectacled sheep’.
For a poet who held that the
‘greatest check to good writing’ was not poverty or lack of leisure but
rather ‘a too complete surrender to the local climate of opinion’, the award
of a prestigious, well-remunerated fellowship posed a potential threat to
his hard-won integrity.
Baxter’s response to this threat was threefold. First, he determined to
conduct himself, as Burns Fellow, in the spirit of the poet for whom his
fellowship was named, the ‘ranting rhymer bawdy in a tavern’: Robert Burns.
More than any other holder, before or since, Baxter actively honoured the
Burns connection, accepting the Fellowship as a gift ‘from the ironic ghost
of Burns’, and exploring his own relationship with the Scottish poet in a
series of lectures and poems, some of them published in The Man on the Horse
Baxter’s second line of
defence against encroaching respectability was a decidedly Burnsian one: the
practice of bawdry. Indeed, even before he took up the Burns Fellowship,
Baxter had decided that bawdry was the weapon to wield against Otago’s
emasculating academics. He wrote to Kevin Ireland in 1965: ‘The only way to
stuff them is to speak bawdy on all occasions, on and off the stage…’.
As W. H. Oliver observes, Baxter ‘quite seriously believed in the magical
effect of obscene words’, and wrote a ‘great quantity’ of bawdry – not least
during his tenure of the Burns Fellowship – though few of these works have
seen the light of day.
There may therefore have been a talismanic significance to the copy of The
Merry Muses of Caledonia that was among the few books Baxter kept on the
shelves of his Varsity office.
A collection of bawdy poems and songs, some of them written or collected by
Robert Burns, the Merry Muses led a kind of underground existence,
circulating in manuscript, until an edition was published in 1799.
The edition Baxter kept on his shelves was presumably the one published by
W. H. Allen in 1965, edited by James Barke and the great New
Zealand-Scottish poet, Sydney Goodsir Smith. For Baxter, bawdry is in some
sense synonymous with Burns, who stands as the only modern exponent of
authentic bawdy verse: ‘Burns is alone among the post-Reformation poets in
his capacity for genuine bawdry’. Baxter even speculates that it is Burns’s
‘unfractured view of sex’ – forming a welcome antidote to the repressive
Calvinism of the Kirk – that explains ‘the exceptional love that many
Scotsmen have felt towards Burns’.
The third means by which the
1966 and 1967 Burns Fellow vindicated his independence of mind was via
polemical interventions on matters of public controversy. There is something
almost touching in Baxter’s earnest desire to provoke and offend by his
public pronouncements. In the latter part of 1966, a somewhat nervous Baxter
mounted a ‘mild endorsement of sexual freedom and soft drugs’ at a student
arts festival in Palmerston North.
He also joined a Vietnam ‘teach-in’ at Invercargill, and addressed an
anti-war rally in Dunedin’s Otagon, assuring the crowds that Robert Burns
would have supported their cause.
He became, in his own words, an ‘addict’ of the correspondence pages of the
New Zealand Listener where he intervened in debates on teenage pregnancy and
homosexual law reform.
In a newspaper article written towards the end of his first year as Burns
Fellow, Baxter declares that he has ‘made a particular point’ of expressing
his ‘strong opinions’ about social and political issues, so as to ensure
that he ‘had in no way been bought’ by the award of the Fellowship. Airing
provocative views was a means of publicly flouting the standards of decorum
expected of a Fellowship holder: ‘If this direct expression of opinion
happened to be incongruous with the view which this person or that might
have of the way a Burns Fellow should conduct himself, so much the better’.
Burns, bawdry and
belligerence: these were to be Baxter’s watchwords during his tenure of the
Burns Fellowship. He would model himself on the riotous Robert Burns; he
would read, write and speak bawdy; he would vent his contentious opinions at
every turn. In the winter of 1967 a controversy at the University of Otago
gave Baxter the chance to combine all three strategies in the writing and
dissemination of the ‘poem for which his tenure of the Burns Fellowship is
still best remembered’, namely, ‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting, Elicited by
the decision of the Otago University authorities to forbid this practice
Although Baxter would invoke
the shade of Robert Burns in his poetic vindication of the mixed flatters,
the controversy itself owed more to the legacy of the Scottish poet’s
nephew. A Free Kirk minister and co-founder of the Otago settlement, the
Reverend Thomas Burns was an orthodox Scottish Calvinist and a towering
figure in the new colony where he served as minister of Dunedin’s First
Church and (from 1869) foundation Chancellor of the University of Otago. If
Burns’s brand of Free Kirk Presbyterianism ‘dominated the settlement’s
social and moral life’, it proved similarly influential on the life of the
Burns was by no means the last Presbyterian cleric to hold a senior
management position at Otago. The Free Kirk endowed a number of
professorships at the University and these ‘Presbyterian’ chairs were ‘not
relinquished until 1945’. From 1909, Knox College, a residential college of
the University, housed New Zealand’s principal Presbyterian seminary. One of
the key providers of student accommodation from the 1940s onwards – the
Stuart Halls Council – maintained strong informal connections to the
Presbyterian church, while some of the University’s Presbyterian halls of
residence attempted to enforce student attendance at chapel into the late
1940s. This ‘considerable Presbyterian influence’ inevitably shaped the
University’s approach to student accommodation. A paternalistic University
management saw it as its duty to ‘protect’ the sizeable contingent of female
students by segregating the sexes in lectures until the late 1930s and, of
course, by insisting on segregated accommodation.
‘Presbyterian’ approach to student accommodation provoked strong opposition
in the 1960s, when protest against established authority swept the campuses
of the Western world, and when a doubling of Otago’s student numbers (from
2,666 to 5,235 over the course of the decade) impugned the prohibition on
mixed flatting from a practical as well as a moral standpoint.
When controversy erupted in July 1967, the catalyst was a letter from a
member of the public to the University’s accommodation officer, identifying
a mixed student flat in the city’s Union Street and demanding to know
whether the University authorities approved of this arrangement. While
University regulations did not expressly forbid mixed flatting (students
were simply banned from residing in premises ‘of which the Council upon such
grounds as it thinks fit disapproves’), and though the domicile in question
was hardly the first or only mixed flat at Otago, the letter required an
The recently appointed Vice-Chancellor, Dr Robert Williams, with the support
of the University Council, took a firm stand. He ordered a final-year male
psychology student – described by Baxter as an ‘innocent and hard-working
young man’ – to leave the Union St flat he shared with three women, two of
Then, when the student’s plight was revealed in a campus paper, the
Vice-Chancellor issued a statement declaring that mixed flatting was ‘not
acceptable’, since the practice brought ‘discredit’ on the university and
tended to impose unhelpful peer pressure on those students who ‘want to lead
a decent and well-ordered life’.
A prohibition that had previously been ‘unofficial, enforced by public
opinion’ had now become explicit University policy.
The response from the student
body was energetic and immediate. Students staged a mixed ‘sleep-in’ at the
Student Union, and in a welter of press releases and pamphlets – with titles
like Belt Up, Muse and Falus – they pilloried, protested and satirized the
However, contrary to the insinuations of their opponents, the students’
campaign was not an endorsement of free love – or even, necessarily, of
mixed flatting. Rather, it was an assertion of moral agency and autonomy, a
protest against the intrusive paternalism of the University authorities. An
editorial in the student newspaper Critic declares that ‘t]he issue at stake
is not free love’ but the University’s attempt at ‘moral regulation’.
A pamphlet distributed in the Student Union on 5 July asserts that the
students are demanding, not special privileges but simply the rights enjoyed
by all other citizens, while reiterating that this is an issue of moral
agency rather than sexual mores: ‘In registering your protest on thursday
you are not expressing an opinion on the desirability of mixed flats. You
will be emphasising that if a particular man and woman choose to live
together, it is not your concern, and it is not the Vice-Chancellors (sic)
As Baxter puts it, ‘the students felt that they were not being treated as
At a time when a change to age of majority was being widely debated, the
University’s insistence on acting in loco parentis was particularly irksome
Having been ‘tumultuously
received’ when Baxter read it at a meeting in the University Union, ‘A Small
Ode on Mixed Flatting’ was published in July 1967 in the short-lived student
Conceived as a counterblast to Critic (the official Otago University
Students Association paper), Falus had first appeared around 1965 and proved
controversial, the University authorities banning it from the Student Union.
It was then ‘resurrected’ in July 1967 around the time of the mixed flatting
controversy, when it ran for seven numbers, winning instant notoriety when
its first issue was publicly burnt by the Lady Vice-President of the
Students Association. Announcing itself as the organ of ‘Hippies, weirdies,
Anarchists, Nihilists, Pot-smokers and THE PRESBYTERIAN LAYMAN’S ASSN!’,
Falus was sedulously scurrilous.
 ‘We all thought we were being
terribly progressive,’ recalls one of the magazine’s founders, ‘and would
churn out lengthy doggerel in rhyming couplets about the Vietnam war and
other matters of moment. Bad (and sexually explicit) language abounded: that
being the progressive thing to do in those days’.
Despite its edgy, outsider
image, the magazine was not above seeking ‘respectable’ allies. As the mixed
flatting controversy developed, one of the editors mooted the idea of
soliciting a contribution from the current Burns Fellow. As John Robson
The rest of us were dubious
but to our astonishment (and joy) he agreed on the spot and in a very short
space of time, handed over the ‘Ode to Mixed Flatting’. I don’t think Baxter
would have had any high opinions of the literary merit of ‘Fallus’ (sic.)
but I seem to recall that he had been shocked at the treatment meted out to
the first edition. I have no idea whether Baxter had already written the
poem, or was in the throes of starting something anyway, but I’m fairly sure
that the ‘Ode’ appeared in the mixed flatting issue of ‘Falus’ and have
always entertained the personal myth that the poem was, in effect, a
commissioned work for our funny wee publication.
If the staff of Falus wanted
Baxter on board to demonstrate their ‘respectability’, Baxter was eager to
contribute for the opposite reason. In endorsing this ‘underground’ paper –
as well as the ‘Small Ode’, Baxter contributed an otherwise unpublished (and
fairly undistinguished) piece of bawdry entitled ‘Treasure Song’ and a short
essay on ‘The Puritan Devil’ – Baxter was not only supporting the students
against the University authorities; he was supporting the more radical
elements of the student body against a staid and conformist Students
Association. And above all he was atoning for the life of guilty sufficiency
he was leading as Burns Fellow: ‘And I thought – “Mate, you’ve had a long
enough holiday, resting in the shade of the university english department;
it’s time you started telling the truth again” – so I wrote the following
poem, a small ode on mixed flatting...’.
‘A Small Ode’ took up the entire first two pages of the ‘mixed flatting’
issue of Falus.
The context and provenance of
the poem may explain why ‘A Small Ode’ has received only cursory notice in
the monographs on Baxter. It is easy to dismiss the ode as a minor
occasional work (McKay calls it a ‘squib’), a disposable intervention in a
And yet, as the kirk satires of Burns attest, ephemeral disputes can
occasion poems of lasting significance. Richly and complexly allusive,
masterful in tone and technique, ‘A Small Ode’ serves as a test case for
Baxter’s poetics of bawdry, and conducts a deep and subtle dialogue with the
work of a poet who preoccupied Baxter throughout his career and not just
throughout his tenure of the Fellowship that bears his name.
The Burnsian influence is
evident in the poem’s very metre. ‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’ is written
in octosyllabic couplets, a form Baxter had deployed to notable effect in
his 1963 ‘Letter to Robert Burns’. It is, indeed, a Burnsian signature. It
is the metre of Baxter’s favourite Burns poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, that
superlative verse narrative in which a stolid family man becomes enamoured
of a young, short-skirted witch, a poem Baxter knew by heart from the age of
It is also the metre of some of Burns’s most pointed and mordant satires,
poems like the ‘Address of Beelzebub’ or ‘A Dedication to Gavin Hamilton
Esq.’, in which Burns slyly burlesques the viewpoint of his targets. Baxter
had both of these models – ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and the satires – in his eye
while composing his ‘Small Ode’.
Like ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, and
like many Scottish vernacular poems, ‘A Small Ode’ opens on a stormy winter
Dunedin nights are often cold
it as I grow old);
The south wind scourging from the Pole
Drives every rat to his own hole,
Lashing the drunks who wear thin shirts
And little girls in mini-skirts.
These relentless rhymes – the
long ‘o’ sustained over four successive lines – and the violent trochaic
openings of lines four and five drive home the vision of a bleak,
inhospitable city. If the passage evokes Antarctic barrenness – ‘scourge’
can mean not simply to beat or punish but to ‘exhaust the fertility of’ – it
also recalls Dunedin’s cultural vacancy as posited in these lines from a
poem of the previous year:
is any culture here
It comes from the black south wind
Howling above the factories
A handsbreadth from Antarctica...
Baxter establishes Dunedin as
a city of polar bleakness. But these opening lines are also in sly dialogue
with ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. When Burns counterpoints the stormy Ayrshire night
(‘The storm without might rair and rustle’) with the warm and friendly pub
(‘Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely’), he is drawing on the convention in
Scottish vernacular poetry whereby a poem’s opening sets up a contrast
between a wild, wintry scene and a cozy, firelit interior.
The locus classicus here is Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, but
Burns employs this device in ‘Love and Liberty’ and ‘The Cotter’s Saturday
Night’ as well as in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Baxter’s innovation in ‘A Small Ode’,
by which he indicts the inhumanity of the University authorities, is to
offer only the stormy exterior. There is no cozy interior because the
authorities have forbidden the young lovers to share accommodation, leaving
them to suffer the violence of the storm.
Indeed, it is perhaps
Henryson more than Burns that Baxter has in his eye at this stage of the
poem. In the opening stanzas of The Testament of Cresseid, the aging speaker
seeks refuge from polar winds (‘the blastis bitterly / Fra Pole Artick come
quhisling loud and schill’) in his comfortable study. Having been prevented
by the intense cold from praying to ‘Venus, luifis quene’ (a Goddess invoked
in Baxter’s poem), the speaker stokes his fire and seeks to recruit his
waning vigour by reading a love story.
In a similar gambit, Baxter’s aging speaker turns, not, as in Henryson’s
poem, to Troilus and Cressida, but to the stirring tale of Hero and Leander:
that Greek lad, was bold
To swim the Hellespont raging cold
To visit Hero in her tower
Just for an amorous
And lay his wet brine-tangled head
Upon her pillow...
However, just as the speaker
begins to get caught up in his vignette of Hero and Leander, relishing the
sensual details (‘his wet brine-tangled head’) and zooming in for a close-up
of the bed, he pulls back, censors himself, and turns for moral support to
thoughts of the city’s stolid puritan pioneers:
– Hush! The dead
Can get good housing – Thomas Bracken,
Smellie, McLeod, McColl, McCracken,
A thousand founding fathers
Well roofed against the howling sky
In mixed accommodation – Hush!
It is the living make us blush...
Five early Dunedin settlers
are mentioned – two Irishmen and three Scots. Thomas Bracken (1843-1898) was
a newspaper proprietor, Member of Parliament and author of the national
anthem, ‘God Defend New Zealand’.
John Horne Smellie (1854-1908) was the Scots-born co-founder of the Otago
Iron Rolling Mills Co. and came from Lanarkshire Covenanting stock.
The Dunedin firm of McLeod Bros was, for a century from 1869, a leading New
Zealand manufacturer of soap and candles.
Sam McCracken (1864-1937), an Irishman and a ‘staunch Methodist’, ran a
prominent general store in the South Dunedin suburb of Caversham.
I have not identified a plausible candidate for ‘McColl’, but Baxter may be
referring here to the Argyllshire branch of his own Scottish forbears.
In any case, the tenor of this couplet is clear: these men are stalwart
establishment figures, God-fearing local businessmen and politicians. They
are the respectable counterparts of the outlaw forefathers whose graves
Baxter venerates in ‘Conversation with an Ancestor’.
But the speaker’s appeal to
pioneer virtue backfires. His train of thought leads him once more onto
dangerous ground when he reflects that the dead are ‘Well roofed’ in their
graves and mausoleums and, unlike the Heros and Leanders on Dunedin’s stormy
streets, possess the advantage of ‘mixed accommodation’. Far from spinning
in their graves at the behaviour of young Dunedinites, the city’s puritan
pioneers enjoy the freedoms denied by their successors to the students of
Otago. Once again, the speaker is obliged to change tack and hurriedly
censors himself – ‘Hush!’ – before his train of thought can lead him further
This dynamic – the mock
moralizing speaker who unwittingly gets caught up in the action only to pull
up short and recover his propriety – is taken from ‘Tam o’ Shanter, where
Burns’s narrator identifies with drunken Tam’s voyeurism (‘Now, Tam, O Tam!
had thae been queans, / A’ plump and strapping in their teens’), before
catching himself up and wagging his finger at his errant hero (Ah, Tam! Ah,
Tam! thou’ll get thy fairin! / In hell they’ll roast thee like a herrin!),
swinging between breathless empathy and harrumphing remonstration.
It is here that ‘A Small Ode’ shows its indebtedness to Burns’s satires as
well as to ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Instead of earnestly inveighing against the
soulless, bureaucratic Puritanism of the authorities – as he does at
wearisome length in his expository prose – Baxter spryly ventriloquizes his
opponents (‘Ah, Dr Williams, I agree / We need more walls at the Varsity’)
and travesties their viewpoint: ‘The moral mainstay of the nation / Is
careful, private masturbation’.
The central action of ‘Tam o’
Shanter’ takes place in a disused churchyard, and something of a graveyard
ambience pervades ‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’, with its evocation of
dead forefathers, chaste corpses and well-roofed graves. It’s worth
recalling here Baxter’s contention that ‘To accept a fellowship is to enter
Universities themselves often seem like cemeteries to Baxter: in his ‘Essay
on the Higher Learning’, he compares the ‘peculiar schizoid calm’ of
University life to ‘the calm of a populous graveyard’.
But graveyards are not merely the resort of the dead, whether buried or not.
They are, as F. Marian McNeill argues in The Silver Bough, and as Burns’s
‘Tam o’ Shanter’ confirms, important sites of folk festivity and
carnivalesque resistance to the powers-that-be.
It is in Alloway kirkyard – the spot where Burns’s own father is buried –
that Tam spies on the dancing, half-naked witches, ogling the nubile Nanny
while Auld Nick plays the pipes. It’s fitting, therefore, that the war
between strictness and sensuality in ‘A Small Ode’ is waged by two dead men:
John Calvin in his grave and Robert Burns on his stony plinth:
Calvin in his grave will smile
To know we know that man is vile;
But Robert Burns, that sad old rip
From whom I got my Fellowship
Will grunt upon his rain-washed stone
Above the empty Octagon,
And say – ‘O that I had the strength
To slip yon lassie half a length!
Apollo! Venus! Bless my ballocks!
Where are the games, the hugs, the frolics?
Are all you bastards melancholics?
Have you forgotten that your city
Was founded well in bastardry
And half your elders (God be thankit)
Were born the wrong side of the blanket?
You scholars, throw away your books
And learn your songs from lasses’ looks
As I did once – ’ Ah, well; it’s grim;
But I will have to censor him.
He liked to call a spade a spade
And toss among the glum and staid
A poem like a hand grenade.
The French theologian and the
Scottish Bard seem to contend for the soul of a city described by Baxter
both as ‘Calvin’s town’ and ‘the home town of Burns’.
Baxter’s thumb, of course, is on the scale: while Calvin is permitted a
silent smile, Burns gets a dozen lines in which to expose the carnal
appetites of the city’s pious founders, and extol the sexual impulse as the
fount of his own explosive poetry.
‘A poem like a hand grenade’:
this metaphor of detonation is a favourite of Baxter’s. He writes of ‘ideas
like bombs’ (‘Pig Island Letters, 1’), and jokes that the Mayor of
Palmerston North and the Chancellor of Massey University had ‘taken a bomb
into their hands’ by inviting him to deliver a public address.
In The Fire and the Anvil (1955), Baxter cites approvingly Allen Curnow’s
contention that a true poem should ‘change the imagination’ of its reader,
adding that this can best happen if the poem has a ‘detonator’ – some
element that can jolt readers out of their complacency. Sometimes that
detonator is a shocking, anti-social sentiment, as when Louis MacNeice
expresses his glee at the wartime blitzing of London’s buildings in ‘Brother
Fire’. At other times the detonator could be an obscene word or a sexual
image, which is why Baxter places such a premium on Robert Burns’s bawdry,
and why he believes that the ‘greatest latitude should be allowed a poet in
the use of coarse language and sexual imagery’.
What is most surprising, in
relation to ‘A Small Ode’, is how gentle are its detonators, in terms both
of ‘coarse language’ (‘sad old rip’, ‘ballocks’, ‘bastardry’, ‘dip my wick’)
and, even more, of ‘sexual imagery’. In its treatment of sex, ‘A Small Ode’
is curiously decorous, even prim. There is a reference to the paraphernalia
of masturbation (‘A vaseline jar or a candle’); there is a reference to
swollen ‘private parts’; and there is Burns’s unfulfilled desire to ‘slip
yon lassie half a length’. And while this was enough to alarm some of
Baxter’s Catholic coreligionists, it is rather weak beer when set against
the strenuously frank and graphic bawdry of The Merry Muses.
Of course, the comparative tameness of ‘A Small Ode’ stems in part from the
fact that, like Burns in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, Baxter constructs an ironically
moralizing speaker who not only cuts short the Scottish Bard’s lascivious
reminiscence (‘Ah well; it’s grim; / But I will have to censor him’), but
carefully censors himself (‘Hush!...Hush!’) when he looks like straying onto
dangerous ground. And even when Baxter speaks in his ‘own’ voice (‘But now,
at nearly forty-two, / An inmate of the social zoo’), he plays up his
respectable credentials (‘Married, baptized, well heeled, well shod, /
Almost on speaking terms with God’), ranging himself ironically on the side
of the repressors: ‘I intend to save my moral bacon / By fencing the young
However, there is also the
possibility that Baxter – in this poem as elsewhere – is less of a libertine
than he liked to pretend or than he is sometimes made to appear. Bill
Manhire, recalling Baxter’s tenure as Burns Fellow, reflects that ‘even at
the time there was an obvious contradiction between his preaching of free
love and his views on the evils of contraception’.
But perhaps the contradiction is illusory and the problem lies in the
perception of Baxter as an enthusiastic advocate of free love. Towards the
end of ‘A Small Ode’, Baxter invokes the apparently incongruous figure of St
Francis of Assisi:
it seems, the other day,
When Francis threw his coat away
And stood under the palace light
Naked in the Bishop’s sight
To marry Lady Poverty
In folly and virginity,
The angels laughed – do they then weep
Tears of blood if two should sleep
Together and keep the cradle warm?
What connects these two
images? What unites the nakedness of Saint Francis with the nakedness of the
mixed flatters, the saint’s celibacy with the flatters’ fornication? As
Baxter explains, these lines refer to the incident in which Francis
‘appeared naked before his Bishop when he decided that he was going to obey
God rather than his merchant father who wanted him to live a life of
Francis was making an act of commitment, placing the love of God ahead of
personal advancement and material success. By implication, the lovers in
Baxter’s poem are making a similar commitment, placing love for each other,
and perhaps also for their unborn child (‘keep the cradle warm’), ahead of
worldly concerns for exams and careers and the ‘climate of local opinion’.
In so doing, the lovers – like Saint Francis – win the laughing approval of
While the tenor of these
lines may be open to debate, it would seem somewhat willful to detect a
‘preaching of free love’ here. As W. H. Oliver remarks of ‘A Small Ode’, the
poem’s ‘moral standpoint is obscure, but it is never libertarian’.
Instead, Baxter’s position in the poem – insofar as one can infer a position
in a work of art – seems congruous with his Landfall response to the 1954
Mazengarb Report into juvenile delinquency, where Baxter endorses ‘mild
promiscuity’ while noting that he has ‘observed (and who has not?) the
disfigurement of personality which accompanies sexual activity divorced from
tenderness, care, and mutual trust’.
It is these qualities of tenderness, care and mutual trust – not so much
free love as aroha – that Baxter chooses to celebrate in ‘A Small Ode’.
Baxter did write at least one
other poetic response to the mixed flatting row, one that aspires rather
more overtly to the status of ‘poem like a hand grenade’. ‘The Horse’ is
from Baxter’s Notebook XXVIII in the Hocken archive:
This prodigy at 41 –
Coming out of the Student Union Building,
I saw above the wet leaves, the puddled streets,
A fiery cunt in the sky
Rose-red and bushlike,
gyrating – and I thought –
‘Blessed be whatever is! It will not be
Death by burning, death by drowning,
Death by a dull meticulous old age,
‘But death by fucking!’ Then
one great erection
Stood up like a [illegible], then turned itself into a horse
That dug its black hooves into the asphalt;
Sprouted wings, and carried me towards the stars.
The references to the Student
Union (scene of the mixed ‘sleep-in’) and to the speaker’s age (at
‘forty-one’, congruent with the ‘nearly forty-two’ of ‘A Small Ode’) suggest
that the poem is another response to the mixed flatting row. The title
aligns the poem not merely with Horse (1985), Baxter’s bawdy,
posthumously-published campus novel, but with ‘The Man on the Horse’,
Baxter’s meditation on Burns’s ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. In that essay, Baxter
proposes that Nannie, the young witch in the short dress, is Burns’s ‘only
‘The Horse’ is another poem about the Muse, one in which various elements
from ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ – the gyrating ‘tail’ exposed by Nannie’s short shift,
the horse that becomes a kind of Pegasus – are combined. The giant erection
that transforms into a horse is perhaps a reversal of the passage at the end
of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ when Maggie loses her tail, an incident that Baxter
reads as a symbolic ‘mock-castration’.
For all that, ‘The Horse’ is hardly the most significant addition to the
Baxter corpus. Its vision of a cosmic, apocalyptic bout of sexual congress
is purely conceptual and carries no emotional or imaginative conviction. The
final stanza seems constructed principally so that Baxter may burlesque the
University of Otago’s motto, Per ardua as astra, and the whole poem recalls
Bill Manhire’s description of the bawdy Baxter as ‘a bit embarrassing,
trying very hard to shock the world in which he came to consciousness’.
In ‘The Man on the Horse’,
Baxter observes that the element of bawdry ‘lies just under the surface of
much of Burns’s poetry, and comes into the open in some of his ballads’.
In Baxter’s own case, bawdry functions best when it ‘lies just under the
surface of his poetry’ and is subdued to the wider economy of a poem, as in
‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting’. When Baxter’s bawdry ‘comes into the open’,
becoming an end in itself, the results – as in ‘The Horse’ – can seem
laboured and programmatic. While Baxter articulates a coherent poetics of
bawdry, his own practice lacks the ‘free and broad’ handling that Whitman
praised in Burns’s erotic verse.
Baxter, for all his defiance of ‘the Puritan devil’, remained deeply in
thrall to his Calvinist heritage, so that the writing of bawdy verse was
never the easy indulgence of a natural impulse, but always the anxious
infraction of a feared and hated creed. Twenty years before he took up the
Burns Fellowship, Baxter decided that ‘Burns was a rebel, his rebellion
undermined by his own unresolved guilt’.
As was usually the case when discussing the Scottish bard, Baxter was really
talking about himself.
 I am happy
to acknowledge the support of a University of Otago Research Grant
and the research assistance of Sharon Matthews in the preparation of
Miles, John Davidson and Paul Millar, The Snake-Haired Muse: James
K. Baxter and Classical Myth (Wellington: Victoria University Press,
2011), p. 30.
Returns to Home Town’, Otago Daily Times, 12 January 1966.
 James K.
Baxter, ‘Essay on the Higher Learning’, The Spike (1961), 61-64 (p.
 Nurse to
the Imagination: 50 Years of the Robert Burns Fellowship, ed. by
Lawrence Jones (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2008).
Possessing the Burns Fellowship 1966’, The Collected Poems of James
K. Baxter, ed. by John Weir, rev edn (Melbourne: Oxford University
Press, 1981), p. 335.
 See James
K. Baxter, The Fire and the Anvil: Notes on Modern Poetry
(Wellington: New Zealand University Press, 1955), pp. 21-23, 32-3.
 James K.
Baxter, ‘Conversation with an Ancestor’ (‘A’ Draft), Hocken Library,
MS – 0739/006, p. 4.
McKay, The Life of James K. Baxter (Auckland: Oxford University
Press, 1990), p. 209.
 G. Ross
Roy, Robert Burns and “The Merry Muses” (Columbia: University of
South Carolina Press, 1999); Liam McIlvanney, Burns the Radical:
Poetry and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (East
Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002), pp. 165-85.
 ‘The Man
on the Horse’, pp. 96-7. In arguing thus, Baxter is echoing Sydney
Goodsir Smith, who identifies Burns’s ‘undisguised enjoyment of
bawdry’ as the ‘quality that has given Burns his peculiarly
affectionate fame among the Scots’; see ‘Merry Muses Introductory’,
in The Merry Muses of Caledonia, ed. by James Barke and Sydney
Goodsir Smith (London: W. H. Allen, 1965), pp. 37-42 (p. 42).
Zealand Listener, 21 July 1967. For examples of Baxter’s
correspondence to the NZ Listener see the issues of 10 March 1967
and 25 August 1967.
 James K.
Baxter, ‘On Returning to Dunedin’, Otago Daily Times, 22 September
p. 107; Baxter, Collected Poems, pp. 396-99.
Olssen, A History of Otago (Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1984), p. 47.
Wilson, ‘Mixed Flatting and the Student Revolt Against Paternalism:
Issues in Accommodation at the University of Otago, 1945-1975’
(unpublished master’s thesis, University of Otago, 1994), pp. 1-4,
6, 25, 42-3.
 One of
these skits, a mock movie poster, alludes to the recent
gender-segregated showings of Joseph Strick’s movie version of
Joyce’s Ulysses, and lampoons Vice-Chancellor Dr Williams and
University accommodation officer Alfred Hogg: ‘The CIA (Auckland
Bureau) Presents MEIN KAMPUS, In Monocolour Narrowvision Starring
Herr Doktor Willyums and Guest Star Adolf Hogg as Little Hitler...
Sexregated Audiences Only’ (Hocken MS – 95-097).
 The Age
of Majority Act (1970) lowered the age of majority in New Zealand
from 21 to 20; see Kerryn Pollok, ‘Childhood – Defining childhood’,
Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 22-Mar-11 URL:
http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/childhood/1, accessed 11 April 2012.
 I have
not attempted to give issue and page numbers in my references to
Falus. Although it is possible from internal evidence to deduce the
sequence of some of the issues, the issues are undated and for the
most part unnumbered and unpaginated, although two different issues
are headed ‘No. 5’.
Robson, Letter to Jocelyn Harris, 20 August 1994, Hocken MS 94-116.
 ‘A Small
Ode’ never appeared in book form in Baxter’s lifetime. Following the
Falus printing, and an elegant Caxton Press printing (both 1967),
the poem appeared in: James K. Baxter: A Memorial Volume
(Wellington: Alister Taylor, 1972), pp. 116-18; the NZPPTA Journal,
21.11 (November, 1973), p. 33; a special New Zealand number of the
US poetry magazine Second Coming, 3.1/2 (1974), pp. 18-21, where it
featured alongside polemical poems like ‘Ode to Auckland’ and ‘A
Rope for Harry Fat’, in a selection designed to present Baxter as a
poet with an ‘interest in opposing the social order of injustice’;
and The Holy Life and Death of Concrete Grade: Various Uncollected
and Unpublished Poems, ed. by J. E. Weir (Wellington: Oxford
University Press, 1976), pp. 87-90.
 I am
grateful to Professor Tony Ballantyne of the University of Otago,
and to Seán Brosnahan of the Otago Settlers Museum, for their help
in identifying the ‘founding fathers’ named in these lines.
 James K.
Baxter, ‘Essay on the Higher Learning’, The Spike (1961), pp. 61-64
 F. Marian
McNeill, The Silver Bough: A Four-Volume Study of the National and
Local Festivals of Scotland, Volume Three, A Calendar of Scottish
National Festivals: Halloween to Yule (1961; repr. Glasgow: Stuart,
1990), p. 16; see also Ian Duncan, ‘’Walter Scott, James Hogg and
Scottish Gothic’, in A Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 70-80.
 James K.
Baxter, Pig Island Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1966),
p 5; ‘Horatian Ode: On the Banishment of Beer’, in James K. Baxter,
New Selected Poems, ed. by Paul Millar (Auckland: Oxford University
Press, 2001), pp. 173-75.
Island Letters, p. 3; ‘Thoughts of an Old Alligator’, p. 1.
 James K.
Baxter, The Fire and the Anvil: Notes on Modern Poetry (Wellington:
University of New Zealand Press, 1955), pp. 21, 28, 32-33.
Lawlor, The Two Baxters (Wellington: Millwood Press, 1979), pp.
Manhire, ‘Stranger at the Ranchslider’, Journal of New Zealand
Literature, 13 (1995), 11-22 (p. 13).
advances this interpretation a full thirty years before Robert
Crawford’s controversial reading of the incident as a ‘kind of
joke-castration’; see ‘Robert Fergusson’s Robert Burns’, in Robert
Burns and Cultural Authority, ed. by Robert Crawford (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp. 1-22 (p. 19).
 In fact,
the motto of the University of Otago is Sapere aude, though in his
‘Essay on the Higher Learning’, The Spike (1961), pp. 61-64, Baxter
declares that ‘Per ardua ad astra is the motto of Otago University’
(p. 62); Manhire, p. 18.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.