Some poets – T. S. Eliot is a perfect example – publish only their very best work. The rest goes in the bin where, to be frank, most of it almost certainly belonged. Other poets – Robert Graves and Stephen Spender for instance – seem to publish everything. In order to find the gems, the poor reader has to wade through page after page of poems that can only be described as mediocre.
One such was James K. Baxter of New Zealand. I have here his “Selected Poems”, published by Oxford University Press. It contains 200 poems, which are presumably the ones the editor considered Baxter’s best work. (The “Collected Poems” apparently contains 600 poems!) Of the 200, no more than a dozen “make your hair stand on end” (Emily Dickinson) – the dozen that make Baxter a great poet – and there are another twenty or thirty I would read again. The other 150? Already forgotten. But all that wasted time … No wonder people prefer to buy anthologies which present the reader with only the best of each poet.
Of course, none of the above applies to poets such as George Barker, whose separate collections were usually sequences and complete works in themselves, indivisible. A single poem from a collection such as Villa Stellar, Anno Domini or In Memory of David Archer, is lost when uprooted and planted out in an anthology among other quite different poems and poets.
Anyway, here is James K. Baxter at his inimitable best in Tomcat.
This tomcat cuts across the
zones of the respectable
through fences, walls, following
other routes, his own. I see
the sad whiskered skull-mouth fall
wide, complainingly, asking
to be picked up and fed, when
I thump up the steps through bush
at 4 p.m. He has no
dignity, thank God! has grown
older, scruffier, the ash-
black coat sporting one or two
flowers like round stars, badges
of bouts and fights. The snake head
is seamed on top with rough scars:
old Samurai! He lodges
in cellars, and the tight furred
scrotum drives him into wars
as if mad, yet tumbling on
the rug looks female, Turkish-
trousered. His bagpipe shriek at
sluggish dawn dragged me out in
pyjamas to comb the bush
(he being under the vet
for septic bites): the old fool
stood, body hard as a board,
heart thudding, hair on end, at
the house corner, terrible,
yelling at something. They said,
‘Get him doctored.’ I think not.