No New Zealand poet so consistently defied expectations as Allen Curnow. Over his long and deeply influential career, Curnow traversed a huge terrain of poetic voices and concerns, and won many awards and other forms of recognition. He was made a CBE in 1986 and received the Order of New Zealand in 1990, and was awarded the A.W. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. In his Collected Poems 1933–73, Curnow wrote: ‘I had to get past the severities, not to say rigidities, of our New Zealand anti-myth: away from questions which present themselves as public and answerable, towards the questions which are always private and unanswerable.’ A critic and anthologiser of New Zealand poetry, Curnow’s observations throughout his lifetime shaped the direction and debates — often controversial — about poetry in this country.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Curnow, Allen (1911– 2001) was born in Timaru, where his father—a fourth-generation New Zealander—was an Anglican clergyman; his mother was English-born. During his childhood Curnow lived in a succession of Anglican vicarages in Canterbury, at Belfast, Malvern, Lyttelton and New Brighton. He was educated at Christchurch BHS and the universities of Canterbury and Auckland. He worked for the Christchurch Sun in 1929–30, before moving to Auckland to prepare for the Anglican ministry at St John’s Theological College, 1931–33. His earliest poems appeared in the university periodicals Kiwi in 1931 and Phoenix (he was a member of the editorial committee) in 1932–33. Several Phoenix contributors, including the founding editor James Bertram, R.A.K. Mason, A.R.D. Fairburn and J.C. Beaglehole became friends (he later edited Mason’s Collected Poems, 1962). His first collection of poems Valley of Decision (1933)—printed, like Kiwi and Phoenix, by R.W. Lowry—reflected a crisis of religious vocation pointing towards his decision not to be ordained, taken the following year. Biblical imagery and language remained an important element in all his writing.
In 1934 Curnow returned to the South Island. During a brief period on a South Canterbury farm he corresponded with Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde) and Alan Mulgan at the Auckland Star. He then found a job on the Christchurch Press. In Christchurch he quickly established a lifelong friendship and collaboration with Denis Glover and began contributing to Caxton Press publications, such as New Poems (1934) and Another Argo (1935). Three Poems and a brief prose manifesto, Poetry and Language, were published by Caxton in 1935. He also contributed verse and prose to the radical periodical Tomorrow (1934–40), often under the pseudonyms ‘Amen’ and ‘Julian’. A shift in his poetic manner is observable in Enemies: Poems 1934–36 (Caxton, 1937), which reveals an awareness of contemporary English poetry (including Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden, Day Lewis, Spender, MacNeice, Dylan Thomas and William Empson—some of these influences came in a bit later) and a sharper consciousness of the New Zealand scene, both social and physical. These tendencies continued in his next three books, Not in Narrow Seas (Caxton, 1939), Island Time (Caxton, 1941) and Sailing or Drowning (Progressive Publishing Society, 1943), which demonstrate growing technical mastery and a progressive widening of thematic scope. These books display a tight focus on details of New Zealand’s landscape and history and on its situation as a small island nation in the wider world—a consciousness further accentuated by the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, and the widening of the conflict to the Pacific from late 1941. From the mid-1930s Curnow contributed frequent reviews and articles to the literary pages of the Press, and, after 1941, to the Caxton miscellany Book. A Present for Hitler, the first of several volumes of topical satirical verses—most of them originally printed in the Press (and from 1952 also the New Zealand Herald) under the pseudonym ‘Whim-Wham’—appeared in 1940.
During the war years, Curnow—who by this time had a young family—spent his nights sub-editing foreign news at the Press and his days working on The Axe, a verse play with a Pacific setting (performed on stage 1948, 1953, published Caxton, 1949) and an anthology, eventually published as A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–45 (Caxton, 1945). This seminal anthology included the work of sixteen poets, most of whom (Ursula Bethell, J.R. Hervey, D’Arcy Cresswell, Beaglehole, Fairburn, Mason, Glover, Hyde, Charles Brasch, Basil Dowling, Anton Vogt, James K. Baxter and Curnow himself) had been published by Caxton during the previous decade. The selection, together with Curnow’s forty-page introduction, provided the first coherent and substantial representation and analysis of New Zealand poetry and has remained a landmark publication. The introduction was most noteworthy for his identification of recurring elements among the themes and images of the poets, in which he saw evidence of ‘some common problem of the imagination’ particular to the New Zealander’s situation. The notion that there are circumstances reflected in the poetry which are ‘peculiarly New Zealand’s’ (‘Attitudes for a New Zealand Poet’ iii) was perhaps the most influential and controversial of his critical ideas in that it engages with the complex and much debated question of ‘nationalism’, a keyword of the Curnow era though one he seldom used himself. An expanded edition of the anthology, including several poets who had emerged in the post-war period up to 1950, such as Ruth Dallas, Keith Sinclair, Kendrick Smithyman and Charles Spear, was published in 1951.
During and after the war Curnow’s own poetry gradually became less preoccupied with issues of history and national identity and moved towards more personal and universal themes (for example, ‘At Dead Low Water’, 1945). As he wrote in the Author’s Note to Collected Poems 1933–73 (1974): ‘I had to get past the severities, not to say rigidities, of our New Zealand anti-myth: away from questions which present themselves as public and answerable, towards the questions which are always private and unanswerable. The geographical anxieties didn’t disappear; but I began to find a personal and poetic use for them, rather than let them use me up’ (p. xiii). Reflective of this tendency were the collections Jack Without Magic (Caxton, 1946) and At Dead Low Water and Sonnets (Caxton, 1949).
In 1949 Curnow was awarded a grant from the newly established Literary Fund to travel abroad for the first time. He spent much of that year in the UK, supplementing the grant by employment on the News Chronicle, and with occasional work for the BBC. He spent a week with Dylan and Caitlin Thomas (then living at Laugharne village), having met the Welsh poet through the BBC; they were to see more of each other the following year in New York City, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and San Francisco. After a brief return to Christchurch and the Press in 1950, he and his family moved to Auckland; he took up a position in the English department at the University of Auckland where he worked from 1951 to 1976, retiring as associate professor. He received the university’s LittD degree, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Canterbury. Throughout the 1950s, Curnow—by this time recognised as one of the country’s leading writers—continued to write verse (Poems 1949–57, 1957), including a second verse play ‘Moon Section’ which was professionally toured through the North Island, but he was disappointed in it, and gave up thoughts of revising it for the stage, or for print. His Four Plays (1972) were all produced on radio, commissioned by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation: The Axe, revised with sound images by Douglas Lilburn (1961); The Overseas Expert (1962); The Duke’s Miracle (1967); and Resident of Nowhere (1969). In Joseph Hirsal’s translation The Duke’s Miracle was broadcast by Prague Radio several times in the 1968–69 Czechoslovak Radio Festival of Foreign Plays; later productions were from BBC World Service and Australian Broadcasting Commission; in Italo Verri’s Italian, it was published as Il Miracolo del Duca (Ferrara 1993).
In the 1950s and 1960s Curnow got caught up in intergenerational and interregional conflicts with the younger Wellington-based writers Louis Johnson and Baxter, especially in connection with his reviews in Here Now of the early issues of Johnson’s New Zealand Poetry Yearbook (1951–52) and then the contents of his own second anthology, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), the publication of which was delayed by disputes about his selections and introduction.
Curnow has written about this episode: ‘My critical positions, as understood from my reviews and anthologies, inevitably came under some fire: whether from an older generation who thought me unjust to respected poets of their time, or from writers younger than myself who believed themselves underrated, and who interpreted any emphasis on a New Zealand particularity or "common problem" as a restrictive desideratum—so to speak, a charge for admission to my anthologies which they were not prepared to pay. Such challenges came to a head in 1957–58, when a second anthology The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) was on the point of publication in the United Kingdom. A set of galley-proofs fell into the hands of young Wellington poets employed in the School Publications Branch of the Education Department. Letters were rushed off to England threatening a concerted withdrawal by several poets the threatened walk-out didn’t eventuate. But publication was delayed two years. Invited to undertake a sequel to the 1960 Penguin, I refused.’
Debate about the contents of the anthology and its fifty-page introduction (a key document in New Zealand criticism) figured prominently in literary discussion in the 1960s. One passage in particular—‘Reality must be local and special at the point where we pick up the traces: as manifold as the signs we follow and the routes we take. Whatever is true vision belongs, here, uniquely to the islands of New Zealand. The best of our verse is marked or moulded everywhere by peculiar pressures—pressures arising from the isolation of the country, its physical character, and its history’—became celebrated, seen by some as an important truth memorably expressed, while others—usually younger—took it as prescriptively nationalistic. There were clarifications and elaborations of Curnow’s views in the lectures ‘New Zealand Literature: The Case for a Working Definition’ (1963) and ‘Distraction and Definition: Centripetal Directions in New Zealand Poetry’ (1968). These lectures, the anthology introductions and other miscellaneous pieces were eventually collected in Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935–1984, edited by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, 1987).
After A Small Room with Large Windows (Oxford University Press, 1962)—a selected poems published in the UK which contained only two previously uncollected poems—Curnow published no further verse collection until Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects appeared in 1972. From the perspective of the end of the 1990s it is apparent that this brilliant sequence of eighteen poems initiated a new phase of his poetic career. The increasingly elaborate and highly wrought texture of poems of the 1950s, such as ‘Spectacular Blossom’ and ‘A Small Room with Large Windows’, gave way to a more openly textured verse, often vividly colloquial, imagistic, and idiomatic in expression while still precisely calculated in its effects. Also with this book a new landscape made a forceful entry into the poetry—that of the bush-clad hills and wild beaches of Auckland’s west coast, in particular Lone Kauri Road and Karekare Beach; as Curnow explained in a note in Selected Poems 1940–1989 (1990): ‘I have spent most of my summers and weekends there since 1961.’
If this beach-and-bush locale represents a kind of ‘fixed foot’ in the universe of Curnow’s later poetry, the other ‘foot’ has continued to roam widely through time and space, drawing in experiences from overseas travel in Europe (including a spell as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton) and the United States, and also exploring personal and family history to a much greater extent than before. American settings are especially important in Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, in which Washington DC serves with Lone Kauri Road as coordinates by which the sequence is mapped, so to speak. Family history figures especially prominently in the title poem of An Abominable Temper & Other Poems (1973), a ten-part sequence in which the poet adopts the persona of his great-grandfather, H.A.H. Monro, to create a portrait of his father, Peter Monro—the man with ‘an abominable temper’, the poet’s great-great-grandfather —who settled in the Hokianga in the early nineteenth century. In An Incorrigible Music (1979), another book-length sequence, Karekare again provides the ‘home’ coordinate (as in, e.g., ‘Canst Thou Draw Out Leviathan with an Hook?’—the title is from the Book of Job) while Italian settings both historical and contemporary provide the ‘away’ coordinate, notably in two powerful multi-part poems, ‘In the Duomo’ (the account of a murder in Renaissance Florence) and ‘Moro Assassinato’ (which takes its subject from the assassination by terrorists of a contemporary Italian statesman, Aldo Moro). You Will Know When You Get There: Poems 1979–81 (1982) is a more various sequence containing a number of outstanding short lyrics, some of which appear to focus on the imminence of death, as, for instance, in the title piece and ‘The Parakeets at Karekare’, while the suburban Auckland of the poet’s city residence figures in such poems as ‘The Weather in Tohunga Crescent’. In ‘A Fellow Being’, a further ten-part sequence, the poet explored his coincidental connection to an Aucklander of an earlier time, the entrepreneurial American dentist and feller of kauri forests, Dr F.J. Rayner.
Increasingly through the 1980s and 1990s, Curnow began making poems out of incidents from his Canterbury childhood. While there were isolated earlier poems of childhood reminiscence, e.g. ‘Country School’ from 1941, such poems became much more prominent in The Loop in Lone Kauri Road: Poems 1983–1985 (1986), and in the previously uncollected poems in Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972–1988 (1988)— which brought together five books from the 1970s and 1980s—and Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941–1997 (1997). Between poems with Karekare settings and the poems with childhood Canterbury settings an elaborate pattern of contrasts and oppositions is implicitly established: youth and age, south and north, Canterbury and Auckland, east and west, Pacific and Tasman, plain and bush. An example of such patterning is the implied connection between two late ‘car’ poems, ‘Early Days Yet’—in part a recollection of travelling the long dusty roads of rural Canterbury with his clergyman father in a model-T Ford—and ‘The Game of Tag’, a poetic fiction (in the Wallace Stevens sense of imaginative construct) in which an old Falcon is driven ‘like a bat / out of Hell’ around the twisting corners of Lone Kauri Road by the poet’s ‘spray- / gun-toting rival’ whose death note is the spray-painted roadside graffito ‘THANKS FOR THE TAG’.
In Selected Poems 1940–1989 Curnow replaced the chronological arrangement of earlier collections with a broadly thematic sequence, so as to make a single poem, as it were, out of the poems of a lifetime, as if in demonstration of the statement in the Author’s Note to Collected Poems 1933–1973 (1974): ‘the poetry is all one book’. Early Days Yet also eschews conventional practice by organising the poems in reverse chronological sequence (also adopted in Continuum), an arrangement in part explained by the volume’s epigraph from Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (a fertile source text for Curnow), which begins: ‘The Erewhonians say that we are drawn through life backwards; or again that we go onwards into the future as into a dark corridor.’ No poet has so consistently defied expectations as to what his future will reveal as Allen Curnow; but as his career has unfolded it has revealed a logic as inevitable as it has been unpredictable. His most recent poem at the time of writing is ‘Ten Steps to the Sea’ (London Review of Books, 1 Jan. 1998).
Curnow’s long and distinguished career has been marked by many awards and other forms of recognition. He received the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry on six occasions, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1988, a Cholmondley Award in 1992, and in 1989 was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
He was made a CBE in 1986 and received the Order of New Zealand in 1990. PS
Allen Curnow received three New Zealand Book Awards for Poetry: for An Incorrigible Music (1980), You Will Know When You Get There (1983), and The Loop in the Lone Kauri Road (1987).
He was the 1983 recipient of the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. One of New Zealand's most long-standing and prestigious literary awards, the fellowship is offered annually to enable a New Zealand writer to work in Menton, France.
He was awarded the A. W. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
The Bells of Saint Babel's (2001) received the Montana Award for Poetry at the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Allen Curnow died suddenly in Auckland on Sunday 23rd September 2001.
In 2005, Random House NZ released Whim Wham's New Zealand : The Best of Whim Wham 1937-1988, a posthumous collection of Curnow's poetry under the pseudonym 'Whim-Wham', edited by Terry Sturm.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- Early Days Yet, a documentary about Curnow, free to view on NZ on Screen website
Updated February 2022.