Allen Curnow Critical Essays

Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

(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.”