James K Baxter Biography: New Zealand Poet

James K Baxter

James K. Baxter was one of New Zealand's best known and best loved poets. In his short life he produced a huge number of poems, as well as plays, literary criticism, and social and religious commentary. A hugely influential figure, Baxter was as well known for his life as for his writing.

Baxter was born in Dunedin in 1926, the younger son of the well-known conscientious objector Archibald Baxter. He took an interest in poetry from an early age, writing his first poem at seven and composing three or four a week by the time he was in his teens. His first collection of poems was published in 1944 when he was only 18, and a new collection was published every few years thereafter. He was soon regarded as the pre-eminent poet of his generation.


One of New Zealand’s finest poets and most controversial figures, James K Baxter (1926–72) was often at odds with a society unable to face its disturbing reflection in his work. As a dramatist, literary critic and social commentator, Baxter often judged New Zealand society harshly, yet always from the perspective of one intimately involved in the social process. Baxter was legendary for his appearance – barefoot and bearded – and for establishing a spiritual commune at Jerusalem, near Wanganui. Baxter died in 1972 and in a rare honour for a Pākehā he received a full Māori tangi, attended by hundreds of people from the many walks of life with which Baxter’s intersected.

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