The return of Mark Young
Not everyone was impressed by Baxter's physical transformation in the late '60s. In his entertaining autobiography, Keith Sinclair remembers being disturbed by the passage in The Jerusalem Sonnets where Baxter praised the lice which had taken up residence in his burgeoning beard. Sinclair was used to greeting his old friend with a hug whenever they encountered one another, but after The Jerusalem Sonnets he decided that a handshake was more appropriate.
The poets posing with Baxter in this photo don't appear to suffer from Sinclair's hangups. At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies David Mitchell and Mark Young - Mitchell is the one with the tie - regularly shared the stage with Baxter at poetry readings, and presumably shared a smoke or two with the great man off-stage.
Mitchell and Young were members of a new literary generation which seemed, in both its lifestyle and its writing, to embody a release from the conformity and formality that Baxter had identified with post-war New Zealand society in polemics like his poem-sequence Pig Island Letters. Young had grown up in the isolated West Coast town of Hokitika, writing poems of unnerving originality, before migrating to Auckland and meeting Mitchell, who was already firmly ensconced in the makeshift Bohemia of the city's crumbling inner suburbs. Both men celebrated the counterculture of the late sixties in their work, and took stands against New Zealand's involvement in the Vietnam War.
At the time of Baxter's premature death in 1972, Mitchell and Young were sucessful young poets, popular with pub audiences, with the readers of the little magazines thrown up by the counterculture, and with the older, more conservative generation that still controlled journals like Landfall. Mitchell's debut volume Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby had sold thousands of copies, and his live performances had led to offers of movie roles. Young was only slightly less prominent. Both men could have been expected to play a leading role in New Zealand literature for decades, and yet both soon disappeared from the literary scene.
Despite or because of the success of Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, Mitchell refused to publish another book. His live appearances became sporadic and eccentric, and literary journals stopped receiving his work. By the time I was taking an undergraduate interest in the Auckland literary scene in the mid-90s, Mitchell had become a sort of ghost - a stooped figure glimpsed at the edge of poetry readings, running a shaking hand through a shock of white hair. Once, at a reading held at the Shakespeare Tavern, I saw Mitchell turn up and volunteer to perform. After being introduced to the audience with much fanfare - the MC had, like most of those present, read one of the dogeared copies of the long out of print Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby which floated through Auckland's secondhand bookshops - the legendary poet rummaged around in the ripped pockets of his duffel coat for at least a minute, produced a tattered blank page of paper and, with a look of satisfaction, held the page aloft in a shaking hand. We applauded uneasily, and Mitchell left the stage.
The other man in the photograph fell into an obscurity more complete than that of David Mitchell. By the mid-seventies Mark Young had become addicted to drugs, and had emigrated to Australia. For a decade he read nothing, and for another decade he wrote nothing. In the late nineties, after being contacted by scholars enthusiastic about his early work and after discovering the literary potential of the internet, Young resumed his career. Young's resurrection is documented in Pelican Dreaming, the extensive selection of his poems which I have just surveyed at the Scoop Review of Books.
The hundreds of poems Young has written over the last decade are anything but echoes of the work he produced to such acclaim in his youth. Unlike the many 'sixties survivors' who seem happy to trade on nostalgia, Young has developed his art, so that his poems can deal with twenty-first century subjects like digital technology and the 'War on Terror' in a manner that is wholly credible.
As well as celebrating the return of Mark Young, my review at Scoop notes the arrival of the first chapbook of poems from Ross Brighton, a bold but lyrical experimenter from Christchurch.