Curnow, Allen

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Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Timuru, 17 June 1911. Education: Christchurch Boys' High School, 1924–28; University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 1929–30; University of Auckland, 1931–33,B.A. 1938; St. John's College (Anglican theological), Auckland, 1931–33. Family: Married 1) Elizabeth J. LeCren in 1936 (divorced 1965), three children; 2) Jenifer Mary Tole in 1965. Career: Cadet journalist, Christchurch Sun, 1929–30; reporter and sub-editor, 1935–48, and dramatic critic, 1945–47, The Press, Christchurch; reporter and sub-editor, News Chronicle, London, 1949. Lecturer in English, 1951–66, and associate professor of English, 1967–76, University of Auckland. Awards: New Zealand Literary Fund travel award, 1949; British Council grant, 1949; Carnegie grant, 1950; New Zealand Book award, 1958, 1963, 1975, 1980, 1983, 1987; Fulbright grant, 1961; Library of Congress Whittall Fund award, 1966, 1974; Katherine Mansfield memorial fellowship, 1983; Commonwealth Poetry Prize, 1989; Queen's Gold Medal, 1989. Litt.D.: University of Auckland, 1966; University of Canterbury, 1975. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1986; O.N.Z. (Order of New Zealand), 1990. Agent: Curtis Brown (Australia) Pty. Ltd., P.O. Box 19 Paddington, New South Wales 2021, Australia. Address: 62 Tohunga Crescent, Parnell, Auckland 1, New Zealand.



Valley of Decision. Auckland, University College Press, 1933.

Three Poems. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1935.

Another Argo, with Denis Glover and A.R.D. Fairburn. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1935.

Enemies: Poems 1934–36. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1937.

Not in Narrow Seas. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1939.

A Present for Hitler and Other Verses (as Whim-Wham). Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1940.

Recent Poems, with others. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1941.

Island and Time. Chirstchurch, Caxton Press, 1941.

Verses, 1941–42 (as Whim-Wham). Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1942.

Verses 1943 (as Whim-Wham). Wellington, Progressive, 1943(?).

Sailing or Drowning. Wellington, Progressive, 1943.

Jack Without Magic. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1946.

At Dead Low Water, and Sonnets. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1949.

Poems 1949–57. Wellington, Mermaid Press, 1957.

The Hucksters and the University. Auckland, Pilgrim Press, 1957.

Mr. Huckster of 1958. Auckland, Pilgrim Press, 1958.

The Best of Whim-Wham. Hamilton, Paul's Book Arcade, 1959.

A Small Room with Large Windows: Selected Poems. Oxford, Oxford

University Press, 1962.

Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects: A Sequence of Poems. Wellington, Catspaw Press, 1972.

An Abominable Temper and Other Poems. Wellington, Catspaw

Press, 1973.

Collected Poems 1933–73. Wellington, Reed, 1974.

An Incorrigible Music: A Sequence of Poems. Auckland, Auckland

University Press-Oxford University Press, 1979; Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.

You Will Know When You Get There: Poems 1979–81. Auckland, Auckland University Press-Oxford University Press, 1982.

Selected Poems. Auckland, Penguin, 1982.

The Loop in the Lone Kauri Road: Poems 1983–1985. Auckland, Auckland University Press, and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972–1988. Auckland, Auckland

University Press, 1988.

Selected Poems. London, Viking, 1990.


The Axe: A Verse Tragedy (produced Christchurch, 1948). Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1949.

Moon Section (produced Auckland, 1959).

The Overseas Expert (broadcast, 1961). Included in Four Plays,


Doctor Pom (produced Auckland, 1964).

The Duke's Miracle (broadcast, 1967). Included in Four Plays, 1972.

Resident of Nowhere (broadcast, 1969). Included in Four Plays, 1972.

Four Plays (includes The Axe, The Overseas Expert, The Duke's Miracle, and Resident of Nowhere). Wellington, Reed, 1972.

Radio Plays: The Overseas Expert, 1961; The Duke's Miracle, 1967;

Resident of Nowhere, 1969.


New Zealand Through the Arts, with Sir Tosswill Woollaston and Witi Ihimaera. Wellington, Friends of the Turnbull Library, 1982.

Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935–1984, edited by Peter Simpson. Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1987.

Editor, A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–45. Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1945; revised edition, 1951.

Editor, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. London, Penguin, 1960.


Manuscript Collection: Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Critical Studies: "Allen Curnow's Poetry (Notes towards a Criticism)" by C.K. Stead, in Landfall (Christchurch), March 1963; "Conversation with Allen Curnow" by MacDonald P. Jackson, in Islands (Auckland), winter 1973; "Allen Curnow: Forty Years of Poems" by Terry Sturm, in Islands (Auckland), autumn 1975; Allen Curnow by Alan Roddick, Wellington, Oxford University Press, 1980, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1981; "Allen Curnow: Further Out" by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, in Scripsi (Melbourne), spring 1983; "That Second Body: An Australian View of Allen Curnow's Progress" by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, in A Review of English Literature 16(4), 1985; "'Errors and Omissions Excepted:' Allen Curnow's Philosophical Skepticism" by Trevor James, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature (London), 22(1), 1987; "Second Wind: Allen Curnow's Continuum" by C.K. Stead, in London Review of Books, 16 February 1989; "Allen Curnow: Continuum, New and Later Poems 1972–1988" by Thomas Crawford, in British Review of New Zealand Studies, 2 1990; "Some Remarks on Allen Curnow" in Allen Curnow at Eighty: A Celebration, edited by Michael Hulse, in Verse, 8(2), 1991, "An Appreciation of Allen Curnow" in The Spectator (London), 269(8557), 11 July 1992, and "Allen Curnow, Memory and Avro 504K" in Review Journal of the Centre for Research into the New Literature in English (Adelaide) 1, 1993, all by Michael Hulse; "Where Tomorrow Was, Encloses Me Now: Allen Curnow's Recent Poetry of Recollection" by Michael Faherty, in Verse 8(2), 1991; "Postmodernism and Allen Curnow" by Donald Davie, in PN Review (Manchester), 1991; "Writing an Island's Story: The 1930s Poetry of Allen Curnow" by Stuart Murray, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature (London), 30(2), 1995.

Allen Curnow comments:

I don't know of any school I would care to belong to. New Zealand is difficult enough for me.

I don't know anything about themes, subjects, etc., only that occasions for poems or plays crop up as one feels a need (intermittently) to touch something, to check on its existence or one's own.

I don't know about influences either but sometimes think of Yeats's dictum "All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt. Ancient salt is best packing." This is bound to be misinterpreted. I would like to be a poet writing verse so radically old that it looks radically new. I would have to be a much better poet than I am.

Half a century ago I wrote a good few poems "about" New Zealand, as much to find out what I was as what it was. Worry about one's country is one of the major human worries; of course, one can think of universality and worry about that instead, but it's an arid ground for poetry. One learns to live with the oddity of one's country, like Byron's lame foot or Wallace Stevens's insurance company, and these universal poems record the learning process. Poetry won't bear too much accidental stuff, but must have some. Warning: do not exceed the stated dose.

*  *  *

Allen Curnow is a central figure in modern New Zealand poetry. His A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–1945, a selection of poems supported by an impressive introduction, made apparent for the first time that New Zealand's modern poets had produced the beginnings of a distinct tradition. Curnow's point was that the period of colonial literature was over, demonstrated by the fact that the poets were no longer romanticizing their environment with an eye to, or with the eyes of, English readers but were coming to terms with it as it was. Curnow's argument was further supported by an enlargement of his anthology in 1951 and was extended in his 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse.

Curnow's critical writing went hand in hand with the writing of his poetry, contributing to the development of his subject matter, which had always, however personal its origins, reached toward public statement. In the 1930s, while still finding his voice, he wrote political and social satire. But his characteristic middle style, as he found it in the 1940s, was one of ironic perplexity, brooding over one or another distinctly New Zealand scene or historical event, making its detail sharply present to the senses, yet working at it verbally until its particulars rendered up a broader significance. A sonnet in memory of a cousin killed in North Africa begins with these lines: "Weeping for bones in Africa, I turn / Our youth over like a dead bird in my hand." By the end the dead soldier has assumed not heroic but national proportions:

   But O if your blood's tongued it must recite
   South Island feats, those tall, snow-country tales
   Among incredulous Tunisian hills.

A recording of a Beethoven quartet becomes "Your 'innermost Beethoven' in the uttermost isles." The skeleton of the extinct moa "on iron crutches" in a museum suggests a vision of the New Zealand poet: "Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year / Will learn the trick of standing upright here." Even in his more difficult poems Curnow's gift for dazzling phrase arrests and holds attention. His lines have the ring of major statement: "Small gods in shawls of bark, blind, numb and deaf, / But buoyant, eastward, in the blaze of surf."

In poems written mostly in the mid-1950s very different occasions or "subjects" seem to have led Curnow consistently to the same preoccupation, weighing objective against subjective, real against ideal. In the real—the present time and place—and in that alone our salvation, or more simply our satisfaction, lies. It is the pursuit of the ideal that damns us. The self is discovered and defined only as it confronts what exists out there:

   A kingfisher's naked arc alight
   Upon a dead stick in the mud
   A scarlet geranium wild on a wet bank
   A man stepping it out in the distance
   With a dog and a bag.

In the 1950s Curnow's anthologies brought him into conflict with a younger generation of poets. Then (the two facts are not necessarily connected) for 15 years, beginning in 1957, he published almost no new poems. In 1972, the year of James K. Baxter's death, there appeared Curnow's sequence Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects: A Sequence of Poems, which put him back into the center of new developments in New Zealand poetry. This was followed by a less striking collection, An Abominable Temper and Other Poems, in 1973 and by the extraordinary and powerful sequence An Incorrigible Music: A Sequence of Poems in 1979. In the latter book Curnow juxtaposes images of coastal New Zealand with modern urban Italy and a Borgia murder with that of the Italian statesman Aldo Moro exactly 500 years later. The mind and the poetic skills are cast wide to bring together these various realities, each of them a means of confronting death in a new way. Curnow has never written better.

Yet it is possibly the less spectacular (in terms of subject matter) but more homegrown poems of Curnow's 1982 collection, You Will Know When You Get There: Poems 1979–81, that will be seen to have quarried most deeply the vein of experience and reflection central to his writing. Self and place, self in place, and place in self, the sense of a soul lost at the altar and found in action, being in love, pissing by moonlight, or walking among trees down to a wild coast—these are the mysteries he comes back to when he is writing at his best. His habit has been to waste no energy on peripheral things, to write slowly and carefully, and to publish only when something finished has been achieved. The Loop in the Lone Kauri Road and the half-dozen poems in Continuum show Curnow writing only three or four poems a year but still at the top of his form.

—C.K. Stead