James K Baxter – ‘The Bay’
James Baxter lived most of his fairly short life (1926-1972) in New Zealand, and much of his poetry concerns the countryside and people of these islands, though never sentimentally or uncritically – he once said of his own writing that what “happens is either meaningless to me, or else it is mythology”, and it may be that something of this uncertainty can be seen in ‘The Bay’.
At first sight, the poem appears to be simply a description of a childhood memory, of the bay where “we bathed at times” and where “we raced boats”; the memory seems to be nostalgic and even wistful. Once looked at more carefully, however, the memory is perhaps not quite so straightforward; the road to the bay leads the poet to think of “how many roads we take that lead to Nowhere”, surely a sense of how often in life we make wrong decisions (an echo possibly of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’?). And the final line of the opening stanza may also suggest that the memory he has is not in fact of an Eden, “that veritable garden where everything comes easy”.
The second stanza again opens with what seem to be simple and happy memories, but it is worth noting some of the words towards its end – “autumnal”, “cold”, “amber”, “the taniwha” – all hinting surely at a lack of warmth and happiness. The image of the threatening taniwha is quite a powerful and ominous conclusion to the stanza.
The third stanza opens with poisonous spiders, and despite the recurringly strong images of the cliffs and the surf the poem ends with a curiously hypnotic sense that the poet is transfixed by his memories, but also with an awareness that they are false – “the bay that never was”. Is he perhaps saying that we do our best as humans to make our lives happier than they really are, that we hide behind happy memories?
Some points for classroom discussion
Look at the way the poet treats the theme of memory and our attitude to memories. There is a lengthy article about James Baxter on this website:
Norman MacCaig: ‘Summer Farm ‘