In 1941 Allen Curnow published a poem about the effect of Canterbury's wild winds on the iron roofs of settler houses and sheds. Rather like W.H. Auden's “Night Mail” (1935), “Wild Iron” is a poem delighting in the sounds its subject generates. But it is also a poem about the effects of place on the mind (“Thoughts go wild, wild with the sound/Of iron on the old shed swinging, clanging”). This is a subject close to the centre of Curnow's concerns throughout an extraordinarily long and rich career in poetry, from early work where place torments and excites consciousness with its difference from the world where language and thought once had their home, to the late work where the observed world “looks back” at the viewer, driving language to exasperated contortions as it strives to describe what is seen:
Baldachin, black umbrella, bucket with a hole,
drizzled horizon, sleazy drape,
it hardly mattered which, or as much
what cometing bitchcraft, rocketed shitbags,
charred cherubim pocked and pitted the iceface
of space in time, the black traveller.
Everything was backing away.
“Lone Kauri Road”, from Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, I (1972)
Curnow died in 2001, New Zealand's most distinguished poet, both respected and resisted for his eminence and his role in articulating the key ideas informing the nation's literature. New Zealand is unusual in that much of its literary history has been written by, focused through, or produced in reaction to a single writer. In the range of kinds of literary activity he engaged in, the exactness of his execution, the consistency with which he produced work of the highest order, and the energy with which he dismissed rival competencies, Curnow has been the dominant figure throughout much of the history of New Zealand writing. As editor, anthologist and critic, he established the parameters of discourse about literature, culture and nationalism between 1935 and 1960. His efforts to order the field of New Zealand poetry produced the most trenchant judgements and sparked the most vigorous and ongoing debates. Publication of his 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse was delayed for two years by a dispute with Wellington poets who objected to his editorial opinions and selections. Yet even those who have opposed his power have been obliged to start from his words.
According to the narrative he helped construct, Curnow “invented” New Zealand poetry in the 1930s. Wresting New Zealand poetry from precursors he painted as Victorian versifiers and colonial myth-peddlers, he insisted it attend strenuously to the world to hand and employ a modern, clean language, attuned to the local. The poet's task, as he memorably put in the introduction to his 1960 Penguin Book, was to adventure in search of a reality that was “local and special at the point where we pick up the traces”. One's grasp of the real must not be imported, borrowed or second hand but the result of detailed, specific and immediate noticing. Hence, poetry exists in a condition of obligation to the nation still in the process of being formed: “Whatever is true vision belongs, here, uniquely to the islands of New Zealand”.
Curnow began to put this programme into effect in the early 1930s as part of a group of like-minded literary reformers – Denis Glover, A.R.D. Fairburn and R.A.K. Mason – centred on the undergraduate literary magazine Phoenix at Auckland University and the left-wing Christchurch magazine, Tomorrow. Later the Caxton Press in Christchurch would consolidate the prestige and power of this group and Curnow's poetry anthologies for Caxton in 1945 and Penguin in 1960 would sort out the major figures in the new literary order. “Cultural Nationalism” is the somewhat negative term currently used to describe this movement and Curnow's poetic principles, enunciated chiefly in the introductions to his anthologies. It is a term associated with another modernising movement that appeared in the 1980s around another literary magazine at Auckland University, AND, this time with a programme of poststructuralist critique. Much effort was expended in deconstructing Curnow's stress on realism, nationalism and the New Zealand referent.
Curnow certainly did conflate a specific kind of attention to the local with seriousness in poetry, and his anthologies tend to favour those poets who suited his case. Yet there is nothing inward-looking or nationalistic about his sense of the writer's debts. He was consistently cautious about announcing the arrival of a local tradition, far less a canon. His determination that poets must attend to the actual without romanticism or homesickness was prompted less by the doctrine that geography determines consciousness than by a powerful reaction, widely shared, to the governing international crisis of his young manhood, the Depression, which made pressing the redundancy of colonial habits of thought. Curnow's struggle against colonial writing, moreover, is a struggle with his own childhood in a household where his Anglican vicar father encouraged reading of the Victorian poets, wrote verse himself, and knew the local poets and editors. The figure of the father in the poems – his head cupped like an egg above the pulpit while delivering a sermon in “A Raised Voice” (1986) or recalled leading the boy across the mudflats in “At Dead Low Water” (1949) – signals a continuity with the son, who modernised but did not wholly reject the dilemmas of a late-colonial childhood.
The problem, as with all colonial stories, is where to start. Curnow's authoritative statements led literary historians to date the beginnings of a serious New Zealand poetry with him and those he favoured, casting aside the colonial patriots of “Maoriland” who at best produced false dawns. Yet the view that Curnow interposed an unbridgeable chasm between the Victorian-colonial twilight and a modern national literature is not wholly accurate. Curnow's poetry begins with the eminently Victorian subject of faith and its painful loss. Curnow himself trained for the Anglican priesthood and his early work dramatises his decision not to proceed. In “Valley of Decision” from the 1933 volume of the same name, the speaker looks both backwards to belief and forwards to unbelief. In their readiness to embrace faithlessness whilst clinging to images of belief, the poems remind us of the debt that Curnow owes to the Victorians. God's absence reverberates through Curnow's poetry in terms so strong that they indicate the force of the loss. The language of Christianity and the Bible turns inside his most complex metaphors and images. In a splendid late poem, “You Will Know When You Get There” (1982), Christ, as the “fisher” of men, and perhaps the father in his sacerdotal black “serge”, lie submerged within the death imagery of the concluding couplet: “A door/slams, a heavy wave, a door, the sea-floor shudders./Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure”. [This is ably discussed by Vincent O'Sullivan in The Poet's Voice (Salzburg), new ser. vol. 2 no. 1 (June 1995), p. 28].
Similarly, the struggle with colonial poetry reveals, at this distance, not only rupture but also unacknowledged continuities. Curnow eschewed Maori myth and sublime vistas, but he didn't so much abandon the problems informing colonial poetry – the new place and how to figure it, the evolution of national identity, language and distance – as put them to new work. For Curnow, the problem with colonial writing was not that it lacked copious reference to New Zealand but that the terms of that figuration represented a “recoil” from local realities. All the markers of the native – birds, flowers, mountains, Maori maidens – with which colonial verse is laden, signalled, for him, the effort to make the actual acceptable by not sufficiently addressing its difference. Prettiness simply disguised an underlying unassimilability of world to thought. What he wanted was greater intensity in the representation, a more attentive noticing, producing a sense of necessary disengagement from convention as the mind grasps the strangeness of the actual in a radical act of seeing and responding. New Zealand flowers and trees are not expelled from Curnow's work; they literally detonate in the poetry. In “Spectacular Blossom” (1949) “woody tumours burst in scarlet spray”, the dying flowers “ejaculate their bloom”. In “There Is a Pleasure in the Pathless Woods” (1972) the kauri cone “explodes” in a silvan orgasm. Why this almost hallucinogenic concentration on nature and its particulars? It is a function not of certainty about the reality of the world signified but of doubt about whether linguistic or conceptual tools yet exist to represent it; it represents a way of focusing on that which eludes the viewer because the categories with which to describe it are inherently unstable (“Botany”, the poet acknowledges in “There Is a Pleasure”, “is panic of another description”). None of this was news to the Victorian-colonial poets who frequently made the lack of fit between world and word the subject of their verse. If their “recoil” into myth has been replaced by Curnow's unblinking attention to the facts, still the sense of distance remains.
Just as we are learning to see echoes of the Victorians in modernism, so perhaps we should learn to see Curnow as conducting a dialogue with the sources of his own poetic vocation and constructing a continuity between his early and his late verse and, thus, between the main phases of New Zealand literary history from the late colonial to the postmodern. The trick is to see that his hard positions, his seeming certainties, rest on ambivalence. Curnow is, for example, both a poet of the real and a cartographer of what he calls in “A Balanced Bait in Handy Pellet Form” (1979) the “word-world”. It is not that Curnow ever repudiated the view that poetry engages with place or that an experience of self lies behind poetic language, but he never simplified the difficulties of attaching words to things. In his later poetry the word play becomes more and more self-conscious. The world to be represented by language is also in language. In “A Passion for Travel” (1982) an absent-minded proof-reader replaces a word by another word and unleashes promiscuous couplings of sense: “Discrepant/signs, absurd similitudes/touch one another, couple promiscuously”.
Even in the poems of the “cultural nationalist” phase, for all their colloquial vigour, their plain representations of things as they are, language is making the world – or registering its making – rather than passively reflecting it. In a celebrated poem “House and Land” (1941), the land of settlers has “never a soul at home”, phrasing which calls attention to the bleak colonial condition. The poem's use of abutting registers of language – hieratic and demotic – indicates a country passing out of its colonial past in the process of becoming “something different, something/nobody counted on” (as Curnow famously puts it in “The Unhistoric Story”, 1941). The old lady, Mrs Wilson, in “House and Land” speaks the high nostalgia of those who came trailing memories of “Home” and never adjusted to life in the colony; the restless farm-workers have already absconded, not just from her and her attitude of colonial deference but from her way of saying: “The cowman, home from the shed, went drinking/With the rabbiter home from the hill”. Yet there is an echo of a famous couplet from Robert Louis Stevenson's “Requiem” (1887) in these lines that indicates this is no simple assertion of cultural nationalism (especially as Stevenson's poem was written in Samoa).
Curnow's earliest published poetry places the speaker on a cliff edge between faith and doubt; his earliest criticism places a gulf between the colonial mindscape and the bracing exigencies of the present. Yet the poet himself increasingly asserted the continuities within his work. Even the mysterious gap in his poetic career between A Small Room with Large Windows (1962) and Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects (1972) in which scarcely any new poetry appeared is one of those pauses that produce not rupture but completion. The splendid sequence of eighteen poems in Trees, Effigies has been described by Peter Simpson as a move away from the “increasingly elaborate and highly wrought texture” of the poetry of the 1950s. Yet there is no relaxation, as in Robert Lowell's move from modernist intensity to Life Studies; the voice of Curnow's late poetry builds on the early work, broadening its internal complexities, setting high and low registers even more vertiginously together.
Curnow is best read not chronologically by moving through the slim volumes that issued over the years. He himself indicates how he should be encountered in Continuum (1988), where the poems are ordered as a synchronous world of verbal artefacts making up a single complex voice. It is a voice high and authoritative but not monologic. It contains many voices worked by discordance into its complex wholeness. And the conflicts are not resolved in a journey towards “maturity”. They are as present in the early as the latest work in the sense of tentativeness about the enterprise of making worlds – local or universal – out of words, coupled with the imperative to go on making them as exactly as possible. In his own words “the poetry is all one book”.
The biography of Curnow, written by Terry Sturm and edited by Linda Cassells that appeared from Auckland UP in 2017, is a fitting tribute to the force and extensiveness of his life, writing, thought and presence over ninety years. We encounter in the book a consistently more complex and nuanced figure than the images generated by sixty years of literary life involving great accomplishment and vigorous controversy. The ‘nationalist’ ideologue is here a citizen of both New Zealand and the world, keenly attuned to the literary advantages of travel and international connections yet profoundly embedded in particular places. He is skeptical of literary and critical fashion from the dubious category ‘Commonwealth literature’ to the Derridean enthusiasm of the 1980s, yet intrigued by the Southern Fugitives. Above all, his judgements and pronouncements are grounded in fastidious and hard reading of poetry in English through the waves of modernism and beyond, of critical writing from Britain and especially America, of New Zealand verse from the colonial period on, of philosophy, and (albeit somewhat in the spirit in which the Church Fathers read the Gnostics) of deconstructive literary theory.
Some of the familiar disputes are neatly defanged, as when it is observed that James K. Baxter’s address at the Christchurch writers’ Festival in 1951 was received positively, even enthusiastically, by the older poet. Against the view of Curnow as one of the male bullies of cultural nationalism, it is pleasing to note that he did not share Fairburn’s homophobia. The anthology wars—too often represented in the good/bad terms of youthful uprisings against aged male power—are rehearsed with necessary distance, so that one sees his bafflement in the face of opposition from younger poets, notably Baxter, and frustration at having to deal with the elderly and obstinate Eileen Duggan. The book, while properly favourable to its subject, does not always take Curnow’s side, as on anthology decisions such as the absence of Mary Stanley while D’Arcy Cresswell remained.
Curnow’s politics are rather high—what remains of Anglicanism is felt in his dislike of the increasing gap between rich and poor under Rogernomics, his concern for Maori, and his antagonism to South African racism. In spite of his moving with the literary left in the 1930s, he is lofty in the distance he maintains from the welfare state with its emphasis on material need and neglect of the spiritual and artistic. Nor was he going to be conscripted into the levelling programme of other New Zealand poets regarding anthology fees. He dislikes conformism and complacency. Curnow’s politics are often expressed in his poetry as righteous indignation.
The crucial source of the mystery in so many of the late poems is memorably described by Sturm, noting Curnow’s response to Douglas Lilburn in the 1980s: "perhaps on the edge of an acknowledgement that it reached back deeply into his own abandonment of the church, and to the unconscious, still-active sense of the power over him of what he has rejected, even if it survives simply as a 'sudden shiver'". Indeed, the presence—or echoing—of religious reference in Curnow’s poetry observed in this biography is such that the opposition between the terms religious and post-religious is destabilised. Perhaps religious thinkers have always existed in a state of uncertainty and Curnow reaches the same state from the other side of belief, even allowing occasional ambiguity about how far over he has travelled. It is the liveness of his religious sensibility after belief that makes death so immediate for the reader of his great late poems, experienced as an existential confrontation. And it is this refusal wholly to close a door on the afterlife of religion that distances him from C.K. Stead, whose atheistic certainty is brusquely untroubled: ‘There is no God/We do not answer for our violences, not even our sense of beauty’. For Curnow, our ‘spiritual range’ is in the here and now not the transcendent, but that range is remarkably broad, intense and productive of existential shivers.
Terry Sturm, Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: Allen
Curnow: A Biography, edited by Linda Cassells (Auckland:
Auckland University Press, 2017).
James K. Baxter, Recent Trends in New Zealand Poetry (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1951).
Citation: Williams, Mark. "Allen Curnow". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 January 2003; last revised 05 September 2018. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1099, accessed 07 August 2022.]