James K Baxter is an influential New Zealand Poet who wrote in 1950’s and 60’s. In this time he enjoyed writing poetry to express his non-conformist ideas. Two examples of these poems are The Maori Jesus and Tomcat. In these poems, Baxter uses character as a tool to express his ideas. This is done through careful manipulation and development of the audience’s understanding of the two characters, then “Maori Jesus” and the “Tomcat”. The Maori Jesus “wore blue dungarees, his beard and hair was long”, this introduction to the appearance of the Maori Jesus is in the first stanza of the poem and provides the audiences first impression.
This is combative imagery which makes the audience think if a working class man in “blue dungarees”, therefore associating this Jesus figure as one of the people as opposed to the traditional Jesus figure. The audience opinion of the Maori Jesus is further developed when Baxter states “when he smiled it looked like the down/when he broke wind little fishes trembled”, this is balanced syntax which develops the balance the Maori Jesus has between spiritual power and natural connection. However, it also makes the audience look more fondly upon this alternative figure through the use of humour.
This is important for James K Baxter’s purpose as he is encouraging the audience to look past appearances and respect figures even or perhaps move so if they appear scruffy or from a minority such as Maoris who were disrespected at the time (1950’s). To further develop his expression of how he dislikes the treatment of minority groups, James K Baxter changes the tone of the poem The Maori Jesus drastically with the last stanza stating “the brain of god was cut in half”. This is shocking imagery for the audience and not an acceptable idea.
This also contrasts with the Biblical allusions and the formal structure of the poem. This develops the character of Maori Jesus through both his natural connection and spiritual power. The audience is upset by the seeming death of this localised character they now think well of, despite appearances and also through the emotion of shock and anger they fell when “the brain of god (is) cut in half” where they unknowingly accept the Maori Jesus is God and that a figure from a minority can hold such spiritual power.
At this point Baxter has been successful with The Maori Jesus as he wanted the audience to sympathise with and re-think their treatment of minority groups. This is an idea very important to Baxter himself and one he expressed through his life as well for example when he set up a communal home for drug addicts and other down trodden people in Grafton in the late 1950’s. Another of James K Baxter poems Tomcat has a protagonist of an equally non-conformist nature and appearance.
Tomcat is “older, scruffier” and also with a “snake head / seamed on top with scars”. This descriptive language and also metaphor “snake head” introduces the character of tomcat to the audience as a wild and individual character that “cuts across the zones of the respectable” and in no way conforms to society’s direction. This specifically because “snake head” is a wild if not somewhat dangerous image of an un-tamed animal which is straight away related to the Tomcat.
Then, however, Baxter develops the understanding of what kind character Tomcat is with “old samurai”, this metaphor is important because Tomcat is now being likened to warrior of respect and honour from ancient times. This is a positive comparison and makes the audience respect the Tomcat instead of being disillusioned by his scruffy appearance. This is important because, similar to The Maori Jesus, Baxter is encouraging the audience to look past appearances, but this time with a more personal charge because the Tomcat is described in anthropomorphic language.
He is a symbol for Baxter himself, who at the time was growing “older, scruffier” and wanted himself and the people of similar appearance to be respected. James K Baxter develops the character of the tomcat throughout Tomcat. Especially noteworthy is the development in understanding of Tomcat the audience gains from the last line; “get him doctored, I think not”. This direct speech is a technique used by Baxter because encourages the audience to agree, by the end of the poem the Tomcat despite his non-conformist nature and do not want his freedom restrained.
At this point the audience understands, also, that this old “samurai” Tomcat is so free in his life path that he is to be respected, and also that he could only become such a character by not having social restrictions such as neutering forced upon him. Baxter wanted the audience to come to this conclusion to they would re-evaluate how they / society treat the downtrodden and think that perhaps these behaviours are not necessary on helpful so change their ways. It is also related to Baxter’s value of matewa that everything has a soul and this is more important than the materialism which is right.
He sees, and wants the audience to see, the inner soul of such scruffy figures. James K Baxter very clearly makes his points about conformity and the downtrodden while developing the characters of the two main title characters in The Maori Jesus and Tomcat. He uses language techniques that make the audience understand their non-conformist characters and through this manipulates then and re-think society’s treatment of the downtrodden and look past appearances, as per Baxter’s key life values.