Allen Curnow Essay - Critical Essays

Curnow, (Thomas) Allen (Monro)


(Thomas) Allen (Monro) Curnow 1911-2001

Twentieth-century New Zealand poet, essayist, dramatist, anthologist, editor, and critic; also wrote light verse under pseudonym “Whim-Wham.”

The following entry includes criticism from 1963 to 2001 that discusses Curnow's poetry and career.

Curnow is regarded by many as New Zealand's greatest poet. During a period spanning over seventy years and twenty volumes of poetry, Curnow helped define a New Zealand literary identity through verse that explored the landscapes and cultures of his homeland, and expressed an abiding interest in historical, ontological, and eschatological issues. Curnow was a poet, dramatist, and a literary critic whose anthologies of New Zealand verse provided the first coherent and substantial representations and analyses of New Zealand poetry.

Biographical Information

Curnow was born in Timaru, New Zealand, on June 17, 1911. His father, Tremayne Munro Curnow, a fourth-generation New Zealander, was an Anglican clergyman who published light verse in the local newspaper; his mother, Jessamine Towler (Gambling) Curnow, was born in England and could trace her ancestry to the Romantic poet George Crabbe. Educated at the universities of Canterbury and Auckland, Curnow studied to be an Anglican priest in 1931-33 before becoming a journalist. Curnow's first collection of poems, Valley of Decision (1933), reflects his crisis of religious vocation. In 1935, Caxton Press published Curnow's Three Poems and the short manifesto Poetry and Language. He married Elizabeth LeCren in 1936, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. During the years of WWII, Curnow worked for the Caxton Press, wrote a verse play, The Axe (1949), and edited a seminal anthology, A Book of New Zealand Verse, 1923-45 (1945), which provided the first substantial representation and coherent analysis of New Zealand poetry. In 1949, a grant allowed Curnow to travel to London, where he spent a week with Dylan Thomas and worked for the News Chronicle and the BBC. In 1951, Curnow, now recognized as one of New Zealand's leading writers, joined the staff of the English Department at the University of Auckland, a position he held for twenty-five years. In the 1950s and 1960s, Curnow had a public dispute with poets Louis Johnson and James K. Baxter, who took issue with his reviews of their work and with his second anthology, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), which they deemed too narrowly nationalistic in its scope. In 1965, Curnow divorced Elizabeth and married Jenifer Tole. A prolific writer, Curnow published into his nineties—his last book, The Bells of Saint Babels (2001), was published the year of his death at age 90. Throughout Curnow's long and distinguished career, he received many awards, including the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry on six occasions, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1988, the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1989, the Cholmondley Award in 1992, and the A. W. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. He was knighted in 1986 and appointed to the Order of New Zealand in 1990.

Major Works

A humane optimism and a particularity of place and time run through Curnow's poetic career. Valley of Decision reflects a concern with spirituality that remains central throughout his writing. Enemies: Poems 1934-36 (1937), Not in Narrow Seas (1939), Island and Time (1941), and Sailing or Drowning (1943) reveal a developing modernist poetry and a consciousness of New Zealand's landscape, history, and situation as a small island nation in a wider world that was at war. Some poems from this period include “The Unhistoric Story,” “The Victim,” and “Landfall in Unknown Seas,” which develop what Curnow terms “the anti-myth” about the discovery of New Zealand by Europeans. As Curnow's work became less preoccupied with history and national identity and moved toward personal and universal themes in the 1940s and 1950s, it also became less stylistically formal and more conversational. As he wrote in Collected Poems, 1933-73 (1974): “I had to get past the severities, not to say rigidities, of New Zealand's anti-myth, away from questions which present themselves as public and answerable, toward questions which are always private and unanswerable.” Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects (1972) and An Incorrigible Music (1979) feature colloquial, imagistic, and idiomatic language that juxtapose Lone Kauri Road and Karekare Beach with Washington, D.C. in the 1960s and Italy in the fifteenth century. Family history figures prominently in the title poem of An Abominable Temper, and Other Poems (1973), in which the poet creates a portrait of his great-great-grandfather. In the 1980s and 1990s, Curnow began drawing upon childhood incidents, especially in The Loop in Lone Kauri Road: Poems, 1983-85 (1986), Continuum: New and Later Poems, 1972-1988 (1988), 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, plains and bush. In Selected Poems, 1940-1989 (1990), Curnow replaced the chronological arrangement of earlier collections with broadly thematic sequences in order to make a single poem that spanned his poetic lifetime.

Critical Reception

In his long and distinguished career, Curnow received many awards and is regarded as one of New Zealand's finest poets. Chris Wallace-Crabbe praises Curnow's later poetry for its “excited intelligence” and “its joy in rootedness,” while Trevor James, lauding the “sense of unity and interrelatedness” of the seemingly disparate poems in An Incorrigible Music, finds that the “submerged urgency” of those poems “makes them a moving testament to a mind which is chillingly honest and courageous.” As early as 1963, C. K. Stead wrote of A Small Room with Large Windows (1962): “Mr. Curnow's poetry has already achieved the fullness and coherence of a major work. Each new poem has been, not merely an addition to, but an extension and enrichment of what preceded it: the early poems are enlarged by their successors; the later gain in significance as their connexions with the earlier are established.” Although some critics have found Curnow to be cold and abstract—an “intensely cerebral poet”—he has been most criticized for his vision of a national literature as represented in his anthologies of New Zealand poetry. In the 1960s, the Wellington group of poets, lead by Louis Johnson and James K. Baxter, criticized Curnow's anthologies as too prescriptively nationalistic; in the late 1960s and early 1970s, poets affiliated with the journal Freed, who were influenced by the Beats and Black Mountain poets, lambasted Curnow's poetry as hegemonic and conservative, and more recently feminist and Maori critics have suggested that Curnow's modernist, primarily European, male vision of a national literature is exclusionary and out-of-date. Despite the datedness of the anthologies, as C. K. Stead noted in 1989, Curnow “has been a major voice at every stage of his career, knowing what he is about, moving at his own pace, inventive, unpredictable, writing poetry which strikes me, as it has done serially over the years, as unsurpassed by the work of any other poet at present writing in English.”

Principal Works

Valley of Decision 1933

Three Poems 1935

Enemies: Poems, 1934-36 1937

Not in Narrow Seas 1939

Island and Time 1941

Recent Poems [with A. R. D. Fairburn, Denis Glover, and R. A. K. Mason] 1941

Verses [as Whim-Wham] 1942

Sailing or Drowning 1943

Jack Without Magic 1946

At Dead Low Water, and Sonnets 1949

Poems, 1949-1957 1957

The Best of Whim-Wham [as Whim-Wham] 1959

A Small Room with Large Windows 1962

Whim-Wham Land [as Whim-Wham] 1967

Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects: A Sequence of Poems 1972

An Abominable Temper, and Other Poems 1973

Collected Poems, 1933-1973 1974

An Incorrigible Music: A Sequence of Poems 1979

You Will Know When You Get There: Poems, 1979-81 1982

The Loop in Lone Kauri Road: Poems, 1983-1985 1986

Continuum: New and Later Poems, 1972-1988 1988

Selected Poems, 1940-1989 1990

Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-1997 1997

The Bells of Saint Babel's: Poems, 1997-2000 2001

Poetry and Language (manifesto) 1935

A Book of New Zealand Verse, 1923-45 [editor] (anthology) 1945; revised as A Book of New Zealand Verse, 1923-50 1951

The Axe: A Verse Tragedy (verse play) 1949

Moon Section (play) 1959

The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (anthology) 1960

Doctor Pom (play) 1964

*Four Plays (plays) 1972

Look Back Harder: Critical Writings, 1935-84 (essays) 1987

*This collection includes a revised version of The Axe and three radio plays, The Overseas Expert (1961), The Duke's Miracle (1967), and Resident of Nowhere (1969).


C. K. Stead (essay date March 1963)

SOURCE: Stead, C. K. “Allen Curnow's Poetry: Notes Towards a Criticism.” In Essays on New Zealand Literature, edited by Wystan Curnow, pp. 54-70. Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973.

[In the following essay, first published as a review of Curnow's A Small Room with Large Windows in Landfill 65 (March 1963), the author suggests that Curnow's poems are preoccupied with the conflict between what he calls “Imagination, which comprehends, encompasses, and reconciles,” and “Rational Will, which creates or destroys blindly, and which understands only by exclusion and simplification.”]

A Small Room with Large Windows...

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Chris Wallace-Crabbe (essay date October 1985)

SOURCE: Wallace-Crabbe, Chris. “That Second Body: An Australian View of Allen Curnow's Progress.” Ariel 16, no. 4 (October 1985): 67-75.

[In the following essay, Wallace-Crabbe provides an overview of Curnow's development as a poet—and of the author as a reader—noting the poetry's “excited intelligence” and “joy in rootedness.”]

It is easy for me to remember when and where I first saw a poem by Allen Curnow. After my father came back from the War, back from his years in Asia early in 1946, he bought several copies of John Lehmann's Penguin New Writing: unusual objects in a household—flat-hold, rather—starved of modern poetry except for the...

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Trevor James (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: James, Trevor. “‘Errors and Omissions Excepted’: Allen Curnow's Philosophical Scepticism.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 22, no. 1 (1987): 55-72.

[In the following essay, James evaluates the tension between skepticism and hope in the spiritual themes of Curnow's An Incorrigible Music and You Will Know When You Get There.]


… the question of my country was, for me at that time, an intensely personal one. There is indeed a claptrap of the subject, we have heard enough of ‘national identity’, but this doesn't mean that it will go away.1

This cryptic...

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Stuart Murray (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Murray, Stuart. “Writing an Island's Story: The 1930s Poetry of Allen Curnow.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 30, no. 2 (1995): 25-43.

[In the following essay, Murray notes that in the 1930s Curnow was primarily interested in definition, and the author explores Curnow's position as a “founding father” of a national literature of New Zealand.]

In 1935 Allen Curnow published a small booklet entitled Poetry and Language, limited to 150 copies and overseen by the Caxton Club Press, the forerunner to the Caxton Press, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The booklet is a collection of eight sections, largely a series of notes, that seeks to outline...

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Philip Armstrong (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Armstrong, Philip. “Dis/Coveries: Allen Curnow's Later Poetry.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 34, no. 1 (1999): 7-26.

[In the following essay, Armstrong analyzes Continuum: New and Later Poems, 1972-1988, and considers how in Curnow's later poems, “the ordinary poses an extraordinary threat, the familiar returns in unfamiliar guise and the everyday turns into the last day.”]

“Allen Curnow's Later Poems”—not his last. The incomplete comparative remains necessary, because Curnow himself remains very much with us: last year, 1998, he turned eighty-seven, and published several new poems.

No doubt the protracted...

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Peter Robinson (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Robinson, Peter. “Allen Curnow Travels.” English: The Journal of the English Association 49 (spring 2000): 39-63.

[In the following essay, Robinson draws mostly on poems from Curnow's Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, examining the specificity of place and moment in Curnow's poetry.]


‘I'm a stranger here myself’ expresses a solidarity between people from somewhere else who meet on the grounds of a similarity in different foreignnesses. Allen Curnow likes the phrase, employing a variation in ‘Friendship Heights’ from 1972, ‘I am absently walking in another summer / a stranger here myself’ (156),1 and he...

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Michael Faherty (essay date July 2000)

SOURCE: Faherty, Michael. “Knowing Your Katholou from Your Hekasta: The Practical Poetics of Allen Curnow and Ezra Pound.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 31, no. 3 (July 2000): 53-74.

[In the following essay, Faherty explores Ezra Pound's influence on Curnow, focusing on philosophical and poetic affinities between Pound's The Pisan Cantos and Curnow's “Do Not Touch the Exhibits” and “A Fellow Being.”]

Even though Ezra Pound spent a dozen or so of the most energetic years of his life in London trying to slap some sense, and the occasional bit of nonsense, into English poetry, he left Britain almost as if he had never been there....

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Trevor James (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: James, Trevor. “‘Pitched at the Farthest Edge’: Religious Presence and the Landscape in Contemporary New Zealand Poetry.” In Mapping the Sacred: Relgion, Geography, and Postcolonial Literatures, edited by Jamie S. Scott and Paul Simpson-Housley, pp. 131-152. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, James reflects on the relationship between landscape and spirituality in Curnow's poem “Dialogue With Four Rocks.”]


‘Landscape’ is neither a secure term nor a simple concept. When one uses the word, it is easy to forget that it is a technical term originating in the graphic arts and, as...

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Further Reading


Davie, Donald. “Postmodernism and Allen Curnow.” Poetry Nation Review 17, no. 3 (1991): 31-34.

Examines Curnow's relationship to modernism and postmodernism, comparing Curnow with Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens.

Evans, Patrick. The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin Books, 1990, 287 p.

Contains a substantial essay on Curnow's 1945 Book of New Zealand Verse, and devotes sections to “Landfall in Unknown Seas” and to a public feud between Curnow and the publishers of The New Zealand Poetry Yearbook in the 1950s and 1960s.


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