New book sparks debate on iconic poet's work

26 July 2011

A University of Canterbury academic has helped shed new light on the work of iconic New Zealand poet James K Baxter.

New book sparks debate on iconic poet's work - Imported from Legacy News system

Associate Professor Paul Millar with a copy of "The Snake-Haired Muse: James K Baxter and Classical Myth".

A University of Canterbury academic has helped shed new light on the work of iconic New Zealand poet James K Baxter.

English programme co-ordinator Associate Professor Paul Millar (Humanities), working with Dr Geoff Miles and Emeritus Professor John Davidson from Victoria University of Wellington, has uncovered the central role played in Baxter’s work by classical Greek and Roman myth.

In a newly published book, The Snake-Haired Muse: James K Baxter and Classical Myth, the three authors suggest that while Baxter’s use of classical myth has been dismissed by some critics as pseudo-intellectual, it is actually a key component of his work.

“This is the first time anyone has gone through both Baxter’s published and unpublished corpus, right back to when he started writing, to find all the references to classical myth to discover why and how he used it,” said Professor Millar.

“What we found is that Baxter tended to focus on classical characters that were somewhat flawed – he wasn’t interested in heroes. He was interested in characters like Sisyphus, who was made to push a boulder up a hill as punishment only to watch it roll down again, or Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and was cruelly tortured. Such figures tend to mirror the types of damaged individuals populating many of Baxter’s poems.”

“We also discovered that the general belief among critics that Baxter matured away from classical myth isn’t true. He didn’t grow out of it, he continued writing myth-themed poems, apparently just for his personal satisfaction because he stopped trying to publish them. There are a lot of such unpublished poems among his later poetry that haven’t been examined before.”

Professor Millar said these findings challenged the idea that Baxter was a mainstream New Zealand poet.

“This book revealed Baxter as a different kind of poet - as coming from a mythic mold, and thus quite different to most of his fellow New Zealand realist poets. Baxter doesn’t comfortably fit into the New Zealand mainstream. He wrote first and foremost in a Romantic tradition, which wasn’t usual for a 20th century New Zealand poet. He emulated such Romantic poets as Keats, Shelley and Blake, as well as the great balladeers like Robbie Burns and Henry Lawson. He wasn’t that interested in New Zealand social realist poetry but was interested in stories about the human condition and about human struggle, which are of course at the heart of most mythologies.”

The Snake-Haired Muse looks at why Baxter’s use of classical myth has been neglected, his first encounters with and use of myth, and the implications of the book for Baxter’s place in New Zealand literature. It also looks at some of the mythic figures and stories Baxter used, and provides an extensive mythological who’s who of classical figures referred to in all Baxter’s works - published and unpublished.

Professor Millar said The Snake-Haired Muse is one of the first sustained studies of Baxter’s entire corpus of work, and that producing it was tremendously satisfying academically.

“We all brought something different to the project. I’ve been studying Baxter since 1991, while Geoff Miles and John Davidson are fantastically knowledgeable about classical mythology. Our various areas of expertise have produced a book that is a true collaboration. There have been excellent studies of Baxter but they’ve focused primarily on his published work. This is the first attempt to investigate his entire corpus using one particular theme. We’re really interested to see what people will make of it.”

The book also includes a cover image and illustrations by Christchurch artist Marian Maguire.

“Marian is perhaps the only other New Zealand artist to have engaged as seriously with classical mythology in a New Zealand context as Baxter” said Professor Millar.

“The lithograph she produced for the cover, ‘James K. Baxter Orates Homer to Odysseus’ is both a beautiful work of art and a wryly witty commentary on Baxter’s relationship to classical myth.”

      • The Snake-Haired Muse: James K Baxter and Classical Myth by Geoff Miles, John Davidson and Paul Millar, published by Victoria University Press, 2011, RRP NZ$50, ISBN 978-086473-658-1.


For more information please contact:
Associate Professor Paul Millar
School of Humanities
University of Canterbury
Ph: 364-2987 ext 6313


Stacey Doornenbal
Communications Officer
University of Canterbury
Ph: 027 284 2408

UC Young New Zealander of the Year

2023 UC Young New Zealander of the Year announced

Shaneel Lal was named 2023 Te Mātātahi o te Tau | University of Canterbury Young New Zealander of the Year for leading the way to a more inclusive ...

Margaret and Jack Austin

UC awards honorary doctorate to Margaret Austin

The University of Canterbury is bestowing an honorary doctorate on educator, politician, scientist and passionate community advocate, Margaret Austin.