Allen Curnow: The poet who helped define New Zealand

by Sally Blundell / 21 October, 2017
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Allen Curnow in 2001. Photo/Jane Ussher

A new literary biography takes the measure of poet Allen Curnow, whose work helped define New Zealand’s voice.

“Strictly speaking,” wrote poet, playwright, anthologist and columnist Allen Curnow in 1945, “New Zealand doesn’t exist yet. It remains to be created – should I say invented – by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help.”

Some 40 years later, he qualified his youthful pronouncement: “I suppose there’s nothing special about the idea (or delusion) that one makes the world by looking at it,” he wrote in a note to his friend, colleague and neighbour Karl Stead, “but if the world unmakes itself, where’s the onlooker then?”

In “making” his distinctly New Zealand world as a young poet in the 1930s, Curnow rejected the colonial dream of New Zealand as a kind of “better Britain”, using a sharp but eloquent satirical scalpel to expose the psychic reverberations of a settler experience shaped not by pastoral England but by a raw, rugged and impossibly remote island nation. “It was something different,” we are told in his poem The Unhistoric Story, “something/Nobody counted on.”

In the seminal 1942 Landfall in Unknown Seas, commissioned by the Department of Internal Affairs to mark the tercentenary of Abel Tasman’s visit and later put to music by his friend Douglas Lilburn, “we are reminded of the stain of blood that writes an island story”. This was history stripped of drum rolls and triumphalism, a story of failed transplantation and dislocation. As he famously concluded in The Skeleton of the Great Moa: “Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year/Will learn the trick of standing upright here.”

But for the seven decades of his working life, Curnow did stand upright. Long after abandoning his plans to follow his father into the clergy, Curnow stood at the pulpit of New Zealand literature, articulating through his own work and as editor of three poetry anthologies (Caxton Press 1945 and 1951; Penguin, 1960) a modernist voice unique to this country. Speaking at Curnow’s funeral on September 27, 2001, Sir Paul Reeves described the poet as “one of us, yet he wrote of things on the edge of our vision and he made them clearer for us. What can we say in return?”

The university teacher at home in Takapuna in the early 1950s.

In Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, the late Terry Sturm, writer, academic and a former student of Curnow’s, answers that question. The hefty (700-page) overview of the poet’s career takes its title from the opening line of Landfall in Unknown Seas and, published in conjunction with a beautifully presented collection of Curnow’s poetry co-edited by Sturm and Elizabeth Caffin, has been almost 20 years in the making.

By the time Sturm died, in May 2008, he had completed a 465,000-word first draft. Over the following eight years his widow and literary executor, publisher Linda Cassells, trimmed it down to 295,000 words – approaching the length of one of Dickens’s bigger works, but a justifiable tribute, Cassells argues, to a “towering presence” in New Zealand letters.

“Curnow is a hugely significant literary figure. There is a tendency in our history to keep Allen in the early years, but he is not stuck in the past. He was a poet on the move right up to the very end.”

Sturm’s book tracks those moves, through a close analysis of his poetry, plays, reviews, essays, anthologies, satirical columns and personal correspondence.

It begins with his childhood. The son of an Anglican clergyman with a “head full of poetry”, young Allen moved from vicarage to Canterbury vicarage – Belfast, Sheffield, Lyttelton, all of which are revisited in later poems. After a brief stint as a copyholder at the Christchurch Sun, he went to Auckland to train for the ministry at St John’s Theological College, where he fell in with the University of Auckland literary crowd, grouped around the Phoenix literary journal.

Curnow with Denis Glover, his longest-standing literary and personal friend.

Curnow with Denis Glover, his longest-standing literary and personal friend.

Back in Christchurch, he eventually gave up on his plan for a future in the clergy, taking a job at the Press as a journalist and subeditor and became enmeshed in what Auckland writer Peter Simpson describes as “Bloomsbury South” – the radical group of writers, musicians, artists and publishers developing a uniquely New Zealand vernacular in art and, through Denis Glover’s Caxton Press, poetry.

Curnow wrote in 1937, and would continue to argue throughout his life, that this was no flag-waving nationalism – practising artists, he said, “do not belong among the foundations of national culture” – but was driven by a need to clear the cultural decks of an ill-fitting colonial model so a New Zealand voice could emerge.

“Curnow was always exasperated when in later years people called him a nationalist,” says Simpson. “He hated the word and he never espoused that kind of vulgar nationalism, which he identified with a kind of shallow breast-beating. He was interested in New Zealand history, he was interested in colonialism and for a period he focused on the condition of being a New Zealander. But he didn’t want that to be identified with nationalism.”

Honeymooning at Anawhata, 1937.

John Newton notes in his new book Hard Frost, the first volume of a forthcoming trilogy examining New Zealand literature in the 20th century, that as early as 1943, Curnow noted the sound of a “strange new speech of poetry” emerging in his country. By the time he edited Caxton’s Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 two years later, Curnow, writes Newton, “will have established himself as the arbiter and interpreter-in-chief of that ‘strange new speech’.” Although his project will be widely and sometimes wilfully misinterpreted, “he devises a framing of national identity that, in the settler world at least, appears entirely unparalleled. It’s here, in the language of modernist disenchantment, that Curnow finds the makings of a viable nationalist subject, an anti-hero and anti-prophet to front his critical anti-myth.”

By the time Curnow returned to Auckland in 1951 to take a university teaching position, a younger generation, including James K Baxter, Alistair Campbell and Louis Johnson, were rebelling against what they saw as an overly prescriptive nationalism and an unwarranted control over who was, and who wasn’t, deserving of inclusion in the literary canon. This culminated in a near-boycott of Curnow’s 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, described by Johnson in a letter to Curnow as “your vanity bag anthology”.

Curnow’s “project”, says Associate Professor Alex Calder, a New Zealand literature specialist at the University of Auckland, “was misconceived by Baxter, Johnson and co as some kind of narrow geographical determinism that, unless you were writing big poems about the landscape, the hills and the mountains and the seas, you weren’t doing proper New Zealand work. That completely misrepresents Curnow’s argument.”

Curnow with freshly caught snapper.

For the next generation – that of poets Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire – says Calder, “it is almost as if Curnow is the famous person in the museum, the author of three or four of the best-known poems. He seems Establishment.”

Manhire said as a student he viewed Curnow as “a wise, remote person who had decided what New Zealand poetry should be, through the Penguin anthology particularly. We were all to read Landfall in Unknown Seas and fall to our knees in front of great poetry because that was what we were taught.”

Curnow’s poetic output declined considerably throughout the 1960s, but he was, as Sturm points out, still working, still writing plays, still, as Whim Wham, penning his popular weekly satirical poems for the Press and the New Zealand Herald.

Then, in 1972, Glover’s Catspaw Press published Curnow’s new poetic sequence Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, “and suddenly he was a contemporary poet”, says Manhire. “There are two generations between me and him, but as he said, ‘I’m still running with the fast pack’. And he sort of was.”

Two years later, Curnow wrote: “I had to get past the severities, not to say rigidities, of our New Zealand anti-myth: away from questions [that] present themselves as public and answerable, towards questions [that] 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.”

En route to England, 1949.

Some of these uses continued to challenge readers. An Incorrigible Music (1979), a poetic sequence about violence in human nature and in history, writes Sturm, puts Curnow’s earlier description of the “blood that writes an island story” into a starker, more contemporary context. Dichtung und Wahrheit was an inexplicably violent and hurtful pastiche of novelist and departmental colleague MK Joseph’s book A Soldier’s Tale.

Moro Assassinato, about the 1978 execution by Red Brigades terrorists of Italy’s former Christian Democracy Prime Minister Aldo Moro, introduces a chilling alignment of sex with bloody violence.

These gave way to kinder, more relaxed, more nostalgic sequences, steeped in evocations of childhood and the landscapes of the Waitakere Ranges and Karekare, the beach settlement on Auckland’s west coast where the poet and his second wife, Jenifer Tole, had a bach on the Lone Kauri Rd that gave a 1986 collection its name. 

“I know,” says Wellington writer and poet Gregory O’Brien, “I wasn’t the only reader to greet these very late poems with relief.”

In providing a context for these and earlier poems, Sturm keeps his biographer’s eyes firmly and faithfully on the literary ball. As Cassells says, Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is a literary biography, “and that was how it was conceived. Terry didn’t set out to do a personal biography.”

The book charts the various landmarks of Curnow’s career, the subtlety of his writing, the intelligence of his criticism and his enduring interests in British and American modernism, in history, mythology and philosophy. We see the twists and trends of the writerly imagination, the enduring themes of history, time, memory and the idea of the “oceanic” – a dynamic arena, writes Sturm, “of change, transformation, the flow of memory and history, the mysterious source of life and receptacle of the dead”.

With Jeny at their Parnell home, 1983. Photo/Bruce Connew

With Jeny at their Parnell home, 1983. Photo/Bruce Connew

Curnow’s measured evocation of these themes earned him a growing international reputation. Sturm charts the many reviews in the English quarterly PN Review and the London Review of Books; the overseas publications; the swag of awards, including several New Zealand Book Awards, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry; interviews and readings on the BBC; public appearances with British and American writers; and a rapport with Dylan Thomas. In 1986, at the age of 75, Curnow was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and, in 1990, a member of the Order of New Zealand.

This literary approach, however, denies us more intimate access to Curnow himself – his close friendship with Glover after the Caxton years, his relationship with his first wife, Betty Le Cren, the seven-year lead-up to his 1965 marriage to Tole, his harboured grudges, his hurts. All are managed with swift and mannered discretion. Rather, Sturm keeps his focus on a poet absorbed, he says, in questions “about the nature and purpose of poetry”.

Is he to New Zealand literature what McCahon is to New Zealand art? A New Zealand Yeats? Teachers of New Zealand literature today may find Curnow, and Baxter, a hard sell. Their work does not have the charm, the fluidity, the nonchalance of much contemporary poetry; the poet is no longer expected to lead the reader from the pulpit. As Manhire says, “Poetry today doesn’t quite have the capital P it did.”

“What he contributed to the country is phenomenal,” says O’Brien. “But he is a writer’s writer. People find [his poems] dry, like sherry, with a perfectly modulated tone of voice and complexity. With Baxter and Janet Frame, you feel the language is taking them into the unknown and the unexpected, whereas Curnow knows exactly where his poems are going to go.

Receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in London in 1990. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Receiving the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in London in 1990. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

“That is a great virtue, but possibly closes down the accidents and surprises that give poetry a life – that warmth, that vulnerability you get in Frame, Baxter and McCahon. Curnow probably was full of doubt and vulnerability, but he dealt with it through a kind of decorum.

“He was the straight guy in New Zealand poetry, lighting up the pipe and putting on a tweed coat and having a good think about it before opening his mouth, while everyone else is firing off.”

Behind the pipe smoke, Curnow’s legacy – his poetry, his criticism, his sheer faith in, as he wrote of ARD Fairburn, “sustained utterance by an artist who has mastered his material” – is undeniable.

As Sturm wrote in his application for a Marsden Fund grant to research the biography, Curnow “was one of New Zealand’s most eminent and influential writers and among the finest English-language poets of his generation worldwide”. It was Curnow, he later writes, who single-handedly invented literary criticism in New Zealand, who introduced modernist agendas into our writing, who pursued “with utmost seriousness the project of transforming critical discourse about the literature of the country”.

SIMPLY BY SAILING IN A NEW DIRECTION by Terry Sturm, ed. Linda Cassells (AUP, $69.99)

ALLEN CURNOW: SELECTED POEMS ed. Elizabeth Caffin and Terry Sturm (AUP, $59.99) Limited edition boxed set, $125

HARD FROST: STRUCTURES OF FEELING IN NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE, 1908-1945 by John Newton (VUP, $40) (Available October 12)

This article was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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