James K Baxter

I discovered James K Baxter as part of a challenge I did on Writing.com (although growing up in New Zealand, I’d certainly heard the name before).

James was born in New Zealand in 1926. He was a prolific poet, and very opinionated. He referred to Auckland (where I live) as a ‘great arsehole’ and Wellington (our capital city) as ‘a sterile whore of a thousand bureaucrats’. *Laugh* He went to India in 1959 and when he came back to New Zealand, he started looking more closely at poverty and inequalities here. He took a particular interest in how Maori were treated by society and the unfair treatment they received. He started using a Maori name, Hemi. He died in 1972.

Te Whiu was too young to vote,
The prison records show.
Some thought he was too young to hang;
Legality said No.
Who knows what fear the raupo hides
Or where the wild duck flies?
“A trapdoor and a rope is best,”
Says Harry Fat the wise.

Though many a time he rolled his coat
And on the bare boards lay,
He lies in heavy concrete now
Until the Reckoning Day.
In linen sheet or granite aisle
Sleep Ministers of State.
“We cannot help the idle poor,”
Says Harry Fat the great.
~ From A Rope for Harry Fat by James K Baxter

This poem is quite long, but worth the read. I think it’s quite clever the way the poet uses the last line in each stanza to group the lines together and keep the flow of the poem.

It’s about the death of a young Maori boy for stealing and the rich lazy men judging him as a scoundrel who would rather steal than work, when the truth is almost the opposite of that. For me, it’s irrelevant whether the young man was Maori or not, although I’m sure it mattered to the poet. But that kind of judgement, that the poor are just lazy and worthless, from rich, lazy gluttons, is quite hard to accept, even as I’m sure it’s incredibly commonplace. If you haven’t been poor enough to consider stealing, you’re not in any place to judge those who do. I’ve never had to steal to eat, but I do remember one week where we couldn’t afford any food and we survived on ‘soup’ made from old potatoes and powdered chicken stock, and free bread from the bakery where Steve worked. If he hadn’t worked at a bakery, it would have been even more pathetic than it was. And he had a job. Some don’t even have that. Our social system in New Zealand is quite good, I think, but too many are still homeless and too poor to be able to afford the necessities.

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