James K. Baxter was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in June of 1926. His parents were particularly interesting, in that his father was a conscientious objector in World War I and his mother studied a number of languages, including Latin, in university. Baxter began writing poetry at the age of seven, and was able to accumulate a large body of work before he even reached adulthood. This allowed him to experiment with numerous techniques and come to know his own voice as a writer.
As a boy he learned to resent institutional education, but he began attending the University of Otago in 1944 at the age of eighteen. It was in that same year that he published his first collection of poetry, Beyond the Palisade. It was received extremely well by critics and was seen to be greatly influenced by the writer Dylan Thomas. While in school he became a member of the “Wellington Group,” alongside other writers such as Alistair Campbell.
His writing career was starting well, especially considering his age, but he was unable to finish school due to an addiction to alcohol that impaired his work. After leaving university, he took on a number of intermittent jobs over the next two years. He got married in 1948 at the same time that his religious beliefs were growing and developing.
It was in 1952 that Baxter published his collection of verse, Poems Unpleasant. He would soon find work as an assistant master at Epuni School in Lower Hutt. It was around this same period that his third volume, The Fallen House, was released. After attending a teacher’s college, and studying at Victoria University, he received his BA in 1956. This was in part due to his new affiliation with Alcoholics Anonymous.
By the mid-1950s his work had provided him with a solid reputation that allowed him to leave Epuni School and white for the Department of Education. By the end of the decade he had released, In Fires of No Return, which was deeply influenced by his faith. Although his Catholicism improved his mental and emotional stability, his wife, who was Anglican, was upset by it. The couple got a divorce in 1957.
The next decade was a struggle for the writer. He returned to his odd jobs, but was still able to publish work. By the end of the ‘60s the poet had started helping fellow addicts. He helped set up a drug centre and moved out to Jerusalem, New Zealand where he lived in self-imposed dereliction. His health began to fail in the early ‘70s and he died in October of 1972 from a coronary thrombosis. He was 46 years old.