Allen Curnow

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Thomas Allen Monro Curnow, poet: born Timaru, New Zealand 17 June 1911; Lecturer in English, University of Auckland, Associate Professor of English 1967-76; CBE 1986; Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry 1989; ONZ 1990; married 1936 Betty LeCren (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1965), 1965 Jenifer Tole; died Auckland, New Zealand 23 September 2001.

There are two markers after which a New Zealand literature as distinct from items of literature written in New Zealand is commonly agreed to be discussable. One is the fiction Frank Sargeson wrote in the 1930s and 1940s, in which he did for New Zealand what Mark Twain had done for America and Henry Lawson for Australia, using the spoken language to give the new literature a flavour as distinct as the landscape and people it described. The other is Allen Curnow's 1948 anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse, with its long critical introduction, an assertion of literary nationalism which at the same time re-enacted in local terms the rebellion of Moderns against Georgians.

Born in 1911, the son of an Anglican clergyman, grandson of a Judge of the Land Court, great-grandson of a settler who arrived in Hokianga in 1835, Thomas Allen Monro Curnow was also the son of an English mother who was never quite comfortable or at ease in the colony; and it was one of the many ambiguities the poet's subtle and complex mind exploited throughout his career that he was at once deeply loyal to New Zealand, and yet with strong intellectual and emotional attachments to a Britain he never saw until the age of 38.

Curnow was the product of an education system which had remained solidly British, and of a household in which the ear was schooled by English poetry, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The father, the Rev Tremayne Curnow, was an amateur poet with a command of a wide range of verse forms which the son inherited. After school at Christchurch Boys' High, Curnow entered St John's Theological College in Auckland, completed a BA and his training for the Anglican ministry, and was on the night ferry crossing Cook Strait on his way home to Christchurch when the scepticism that had already begun to show itself in his poems won some kind of victory. The curate-in-prospect changed his mind. His vocation was poetry, not the Church.

Throughout the social, political and military upheavals of the Thirties and Forties he worked as a journalist on the Christchurch Press. It was an age of semi-public poetry, and Auden was for a time a considerable influence. Unfit for war service because of bad eyesight, Curnow wrote poems merging local anxieties of identity with the anxieties of war, and exhibiting one particularly British kind of self-definition – the kind that dwells especially scrupulously on negatives. Ours was "a land of settlers / With never a soul at home". We were at "the world's end / Where wonders cease". We had come to these shores in pursuit of the "pilgrim dream" which, "pricked by a cold dawn", had died. On our history of discovery and nation-building fell only "the half-light of a diffident glory". On the day of Abel Tasman's landfall in 1642 blood had been shed, and it was not "the self-important celebration" but rather "the stain of blood" that would "[write] an island story".

As for the poet, he would only say of himself, rounding off a sonnet about the moa, the giant bird which had not survived the first human habitation of the islands now called New Zealand –

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year

Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

The formal aspects of these poems were masterly. His negatives were less significantly "state of the nation" statements (though they were that) than vehicles for local details and stories which subtly glamorised the country and the history he was telling us were unsatisfactory, inglorious, unromantic. These were curiously exciting poems, affirmative without seeming to be – a sophisticated kind of nationalism that could be entertained without shame or embarrassment.

Curnow was at that time a poet of Christchurch, of the Canterbury region with its spacious plains overlooked by the Southern Alps, and his lines are full of the colours, the climate, the crystal air, the light. It was as if no one had quite seen New Zealand in the English language until Curnow saw it. He blessed it with a vision of itself and, in that, liberated others.

The next marked change came when he moved to Auckland in 1951 to take up a university lectureship in English. The phase when a national identity seemed to need asserting had passed with the end of the Second World War, the dissolution of Empire into Commonwealth and the subsequent entry of Britain into the EC. Curnow as poet became less a nationalist than a regional poet, but the region had shifted north.

It took some time for the new scene to be fully absorbed and then, particularly in a group of poems written in 1955, there is a sudden rich sense of the Auckland isthmus with its two harbours, its humid climate, white weatherboard houses and red-painted iron roofs, a green landscape running always down, east or west, to a "tousled sunny-mouthed sandy-legged coast" with beaches, mangrove estuaries, headlands and islands.

But, in Curnow, nothing is simple. This was a landscape of summer, of new love, but also of inner danger and pain. There was now in the poems an undertone that might be called "philosophical", having to do with the human craving for the ideal, and the curative properties of the real.

From the late 1950s through to 1972 Curnow wrote no new poems, a period of silence he was subsequently unwilling to speak about or even to acknowledge, and which could in part have been a result of blows to his pride delivered in the course of literary battles engendered by the critical preferences declared and defended in his anthologies. There had also been damning reviews in 1959 of productions of two plays he wrote at this time; and although Curnow was a witty and fearless literary debater, showing little sign of vulnerability, his was in fact a sensitive and even self-protective ego, a quality which showed in later life by the care he took in managing his public image.

When he emerged from this silence which had lasted from his late forties into his early sixties, it was what one critic (thinking, no doubt, of the breath of inspiration) has called a "second wind". Poetic form now was something intuitive, dictated from within the material itself. Curnow wrote slowly, painfully, never sure where he was going, feeling his way towards something that was always evolving, through many drafts, until the poem declared itself finished, or the impulse was exhausted. This way he wrote three or four, sometimes five, very rarely six, poems a year for the remainder of his life.

Previously the influences at work on him had been evident, even though the work had been unmistakably his. Now the wit, vividness, strangeness and originality of the poems, their dark, almost brutal realism about human affairs, their sense of the nearness and richness of the physical world, and of the divine only as a great Absence – all of this made for a poetry which was not for the faint-hearted or the occasional reader, but which earned him a literary pre-eminence in New Zealand no one any longer disputed.

The awards, at first local, then international, came with an almost predictable regularity. He won the New Zealand Book Award for poetry, or as it became later under corporate sponsorship, the Montana Award, on numbers of occasions. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Canterbury in 1975, appointment as CBE in 1986, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1988, the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1989; and was made one of the 20-member Order of New Zealand in 1990.

Curnow retired from university teaching in 1976 and continued writing for the remaining 25 years of his life. He travelled abroad but only wrote at home, dividing his time between a quiet suburban street close to central Auckland, with views over the last unreclaimed mangrove inlet on the town side of the harbour, and his "bach" (holiday cottage) 30 miles away in thick rainforest overlooking the west-coast surf beach of Karekare – the beach, incidentally, where Jane Campion's The Piano was filmed.

There is an extraordinary tidiness and completeness about Curnow's final year of life, in which he gave a solo reading at the Auckland International Writers festival, published his last book, The Bells of Saint Babel's, turned 90 (an unwelcome number which he refused to celebrate or acknowledge publicly), won the Montana Book Award, and was present with his wife, Jenifer, at the first showing of the hour-long movie made by Shirley Horrocks about his life, Early Days Yet – the title borrowed from that of his 1997 collection, Early Days Yet: new and collected poems, 1941-1997.

C. K. Stead