University is about to start back across the country; somewhere in Dunedin a father will be cursing his daughter’s queen size bed, while he slides it across carpet still damp from last year’s winter. A mother, standing by, will be wondering why her daughter needs a queen bed at all.
Or, perhaps, she won’t. One of the joys of literature is discovering that one’s parent’s generation, now jaded and conservative after years spent attaining power and money, in fact engaged in the precise activities that now move them into the paroxysms of moral panic. The Elysian, morally pure past they imagine didn’t exist; literature proves it. Nostalgia, after all, is memory with the pain removed.
James K. Baxter’s ‘A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting‘* (1967) is a response to a moral panic. When the University of Otago attempted to outlaw the practice of male-female mixed flatting, Baxter wrote his ‘poem like a hand grenade’: distributed as a pamphlet around the University, his muscular and at times bawdy verse satirizes the puritanical authorities who were attempting to control their unruly students, leaving him to rail against conformity in all its guises.
It is a simple and accessible piece, one that connects to a tradition of public, political verse. This is writing that can be recited in bars and coffee houses rather than in libraries and lecture halls. Interestingly, for a literary critic, in a poem that responds to the institution of power, Baxter employs the teaching of literature as a metaphor for the puritanical caging of desire behind unshakeable moral codes. He saw the teaching of literature, as it was undertaken then, as a de-politicized, dishonest bourgeois activity, one in direct opposition to the masculine, working-class verse of the pubs and working men’s clubs. Excoriating and disdainful, he wryly comments,
The Golden Age will come again -
Those tall asthenic bird-like men
With spectacles and lecture notes,
Those girls with wool around their throats
Studying till their eyes are yellow
A new corrupt text of Othello,
Vaguely agnostic, rationalist,
A green banana in each fist
To signify the purity
Of educational ecstasy -
And, if they marry, they will live
By the Cardinal Imperative!
A car, a fridge, a radiogram,
A clean well-fitted diaphragm,
Two-and-a-half children per
Family ; to keep out thunder
Insurance policies for each;
A sad glad fortnight at the beach
Each year, when Mum and Dad will bitch
From some half-forgotten itch -
Turn on the lights! – or else the gas!
The ‘tall, asthenic bird-like men’ are the generation of New Critics who, through formal textual strategies, sealed texts off from the outside world, from politics or the muddy world of sexual desire: for Baxter, they made literature boring. The women with the wool around their throats — however sexist this formation may be — are repressed, caged in the study of the very literature of sublimated and forbidden sexual drives, Othello, that they are now converting into bleached out universalized myths. Sexuality is codified and restrained; a ‘clean, well-fitted diaphragm’ holds the uncertainties and messiness of desire at some distance, safely mediated so that primary reality will never be experienced. This denial of visceral, corporeal humanity reaches its nadir in the certainties of bourgeois social climbing — ‘a sad glad fortnight at the beach’ — where one is left bitching about some ‘half-forgotten itch’, dreaming of either inspiration, or failing that, suicide.
Baxter does not locate purity history and myth; rather, he finds evidence of sexual transgression. He begins the poem in the voice of a Scottish bard–he was writing during his time as a Burns Fellow, after all–reflecting on the harsh environment and rejecting stultifying conformity:
Visceral Greek myth here is an alternative tradition, an antidote to the repression of Presbyterian social codes: Leander and Hero’s love, even if only for an amorous half-hour, keeps the cold, in every sense, at bay. Literature and classical myth is used here not to civilize but to celebrate illicit sex.
He mercilessly attacks the puritancial moral urgency of the University officials who could not countenance irreverence; the spectre of young people enjoying themselves through drink and sex. He imagines Robbie Burns grunting,
…upon his rain-washed stone
Above the empty Octagon,
And say[ing] – ‘O that I had the strength
To slip yon lassie half a length!
Apollo! Venus! Bless my ballocks!
Where are the games, the hugs, the frolics?
Are all you bastards melancholics?
Have you forgotten that your city
Was founded well in bastardry
And half your elders (God be thankit)
Were born the wrong side of the blanket?
You scholars, throw away your books
And learn your songs from lasse’s looks
As I did once.
Baxter is forced to,
…censor [Robbie Burns].
He liked to call a spade a spade
And toss among the glum and staid
A poem like a hand grenade -
And I remember clearly how
(Truth is the only poets vow)
When my spare tyre was half this size,
With drumming veins and bloodshot eyes
I blundered through the rain and sleet
To dip my wick in Castle street.
Baxter’s alternative history rejects the nostalgia of the ‘melancholics’: Robbie Burns, a celebrated icon in Dunedin, is reintroduced to the world of sexuality, pubs and carousing with which he was intimately familiar. Rather than a city on a hill–which Dunedin literally is–the sin which has flowed through its history is highlighted; it is a city ‘founded well in bastardry’. This hand grenade of a poem explodes in the face of moralizing city-fathers who imagine that they can prescribe the sexual relations of those who have ‘wicked hearts/And blood to swell their private parts.’
As an older man looking back, Baxter stands outside both the world of the students and the world of the city fathers; he is able to satirize the moralizing of Dr Williams with the dark humour of one who has seen and experienced it all:
But now, at nearly forty-two,
An inmate of the social zoo,
Married, baptized, well heeled, well shod,
Almost on speaking terms with God,
I intend to save my moral bacon
By fencing the young from fornication!
Ah, Dr Williams, I agree
We need more walls at the Varsity;
The students who go double-flatting
With their she-catting and tom-catting
Won’t ever get a pass in Latin;
The moral mainstay of the nation
Is careful, private masturbation;
A vaseline jar or a candle
Will drive away the stink of scandal!
Have we heard this anywhere before? Are not the very students who wanted to continue their ‘she-catting’ and ‘tom-catting’ in freedom now telling us to keep our baser instincts under control; are not morally superior baby boomers now imagining that the country’s moral and economic success was based upon self-denial, upon traditional learning and most of all upon ‘careful private masturbation’ rather than double-flatting and fornication?
This is one of the joys of this poem. It feels like it could have been written yesterday; this is an era, after all, during which social codes have increasingly solidified under the conservatism of the baby boomers who have now risen into power. They, too, have strategically forgotten that they once walked the streets of Castle Street on cold winter nights, full of booze and desire.
*The link is to an unauthorized reprint of the poem. While I’m sure Baxter wouldn’t have minded, I’m not game enough to republish it on this blog. But it is a hard poem to find.