An appreciation of Allen Curnow
Imagine you left New Zealand near the end of the 1960s. You lived overseas and, predictably, grew out of touch with the New Zealand literary scene. You return in 1996 and decide to attend the Wellington International Festival of the Arts. Browsing the programme for the writers and readers week you notice among a list of names familiar and unfamiliar (“Bill Manhire? I’ve heard the name“), that of Allen Curnow, slated for a session – “An Hour With Allen Curnow” – on 13 March at 10:45am. “Good Lord!” you might say to yourself, “surely he’s long since retired from the literary scene?” For Allen Curnow was born in 1911. When you left over 25 years ago, he was already firmly ensconced as one of New Zealand poetry’s great pioneers. His definitive work had been produced a generation earlier, in the 1930s and 40s. His last substantial collection of poetry would have been the Poems 1949‑1957.
You might imagine that this session would be merely an act of homage, a chance to salute a closed chapter of New Zealand’s literary past (something like an “Hour With Stephen Spender” – born just two years earlier than Curnow – might have seemed to an English audience in the years before his death). After all, wasn’t all that nationalist stuff with which Curnow’s name was irrevocably linked sounding pretty old hat even in the 60s? Just about everybody had had a tilt at his 1960 introduction to the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. All that palaver about our struggle to “express what it meant to be, or to have become, a New Zealander” or the relationship between “individual vision” and “national consciousness” – hadn’t Erik Schwimmer put paid to that way back in 1951?
In order to interpret the peculiarly New Zealand experience – for experience cannot be raised into poetry before beliefs are evolved which endear the experience – a myth was created concerning a lonely island‑desert, discovered by navigators and developed by baffled explorers, which was identified with New Zealand.
This myth was never widely believed in by New Zealanders; in fact, only a handful of literati were ever touched by it. This, however, does not detract from its importance, as myth-makers have always tended to be a social or intellectual élite and the people have followed by accepting the myth. Yet it may be that the Curnow‑Holcroft myth of New Zealand will never be accepted by the people. The consciousness of the internationalisation of culture is too vivid in New Zealanders who are vulnerable in the extreme to all political and economic developments abroad.
But if that’s what Curnow’s name brings to mind, any bookshop or library will be able to bring you up to date. In 1972 Curnow produced Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects – a blast from the present, if ever there was one. From Trees, Effigies through An Abominable Temper and Other Poems (1973), An Incorrigible Music (1979), You Will Know when You Get There (1982), The Loop in Lone Kauri Road (1986), and Continuum (1988), Curnow produced a sequence of substantial collections which for sustained creativity and craftsmanship would not be surpassed by any of his younger contemporaries. And the audience of “An Hour With Allen Curnow” need not despair of hearing something new. That Curnow can still respond in poetry to the issues of the day is demonstrated by his “Pacific 1945‑1995: A Pantoum”, collected in last year’s Below the Surface: Words and Images in Protest at French Testing on Moruroa:
Jacques! Chirac’s rutting tribe, with gallic
eye for the penetrable, palm-fringe’d hole ‑
thermonuclear hard-on, ithyphalhc
BANG! full kiloton five below the atoll
Eye for the penetrable, palm-fringe’d hole,
whose trigger-finger, where he sat or knelt down –
BANG! full kiloton five, below the atoll.
had it off, bedrock deep orgasmic meltdown –
You would be mistaken, however, to think that the Curnow who emerged after breaking his long poetic silence was either more or less worthy of your interest than the old Curnow we all think we know. A late flowering like Curnow’s is sufficiently rare in any of the arts that it tends to give the late work a kind of mythic stature. We think of Beethoven’s late quartets or Monet’s waterlilies, for example. Here, enthusiasts will tell us, is where one finds the fullest realisation of the master’s vision.
Retrospectively, this tends to downgrade and devalue the earlier work, which becomes (relatively) primitive and incomplete by contrast. To some extent this effect has caused the reputation of Curnow’s early work to suffer. It’s not that the place of this work in NZ‑Lit‑Hist is not secure ‑ perhaps too secure for people to take the trouble to challenge their own preconceptions about it ‑ but somehow it can seem hard to read it through the veil of intellectual controversy to which it gave birth in the 50s and 60s. The idea that the early Curnow was some kind of nationalist mythologiser, the joint‑perpetrator of the “Curnow‑Holcroft myth” – also known as the “South Island myth” – of an empty, alien land to which we pakeha settlers had to learn, painfully, to adapt ourselves, has distorted the way we read some of Curnow’s most famous poems. Poems like “Landfall in Unknown Seas” (1942) or “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch” (1943) get read now in a spirit of cultural archaeology, an exploration into past states of national development.
If we try to set aside these preconceptions, however, and read Curnow’s older and more recent poetry side by side, what strikes us far more than the differences are the similarities. The strengths of Curnow’s poetry, those qualities that make it, without much argument, the single greatest oeuvre yet produced by a New Zealand poet, are present right from the very beginning of his published career.
If we read Curnow’s earlier poetry without the assumption that we already know what it is trying to say, we discover that like all poetry – indeed all art – worthy of the name, it can continue to surprise and challenge us no matter how familiar we think it is. It is particularly unjust that Curnow was branded a mythologiser, because the strengths of his poetry seem completely incompatible with such a charge. His very first collection of poetry, Valley of Decision (1933), explores the crisis of faith which led him to abandon his theological studies, and his ambitions to follow his father into the Anglican priesthood. These poems are by no means Curnow’s best work but they set the tone of honest confrontation of doubt, rigorous examination of the individual’s relationship to the world, and an ironic awareness of the material limits of human life which will remain present in all his subsequent work:
All the hand knows
for a fast friend
is blind first touch
and a last as blind.
How does that heaven
of yours agree
with this, life’s in‑
These qualities have their corollaries in the technical virtues of Curnow’s poetry. Curnow’s father, Tremayne Curnow, was, in addition to being an Anglican vicar, a regular contributor of light verse to the Dunedin Evening Star. Curnow has said of him: “My father simply couldn’t write a metrically faulty or limping line, over the whole range of forms… If he wanted the form of a ballade, or a villanelle, or a pantoum, he didn’t need to look up a model to remind him of the correct scheme.”
It is perhaps not surprising that, raised in such an environment, his son grew up to have one of the most unerring ears in New Zealand poetry. Curnow inherited his father’s fondness for such challenging forms as the pantoum and the sestina, poems which can so easily become mere exercises m form. In a pamphlet entitled Poetry and Language published in 1935, Curnow offered this definition of “the art of poetry: The skilful making of things with language, things which will please and stimulate the mind.” It is a craftsman’s view of poetry which is reflected in the rich rewards Curnow’s poetry offer to attentive re-reading. There is never anything gimcrack or showy in Curnow’s verse, no form for form’s sake; every word is there to serve a purpose, although that purpose may not be immediately obvious. In the introduction to his immensely influential anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse (1945), he wrote:
There is what may be called the time‑life of a poem, its rhythmic character within the chosen necessity of prosody. This is “word music” not in the popular sense: not the ingenuity with which vowels may be made to buzz and consonants click, but the actual existence of the poem as a time-structure and the way this gives movement and energy to the sensuous or ideal representation. Certainly, it is the first part of a poet to be aware of this: that the time – or rhythm – cliche [sic] is more debilitating than any other, and will kill a poem surely, for all the poet’s ingenuity or sincerity.
It is this avoidance of the “rhythm‑cliche” which, above all, makes Curnow’s poetry the antithesis of “mythologising”. It is with rhythm above all that a poet picks a reader up and carries them over rational objection on a wave of purely physical excitement (“Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward… “). The careful considered rhythms of Curnow’s verse invite readers to pause and reflect, to weigh his words, to draw their own conclusions. When Curnow criticises Baxter as being “a builder impatient of art” who “often makes do with prefabricated sections”, it is Baxter’s desire to impress rather than persuade which he has in mind. If Baxter writes, sometimes, in “prefabricated sections”, Curnow writes brick by brick and invites us to inspect the work at all stages of construction.
This is not to say that Curnow is incapable of the grand rhetorical flourish ‑ indeed the “nationalist” poems of the 1930s and 1940s are full of them – but no sooner are they made than he seeks to put them in question, to undermine them. “Simply by sailing in a new direction / You could enlarge the world”, “Who reaches / A future down for us from the high shelf / Of spiritual daring?”, ‘Therefore I sing your agonies, not upward, / For the two islands not in narrow seas”, “Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, / Will learn the trick of standing upright here”.
Lines like these lodge in the memory and they are in large part responsible for the image of Curnow as nationalist myth-maker. But their grandeur is purely ironic. Curnow does not write of New Zealand’s developing nationhood as a glorious adventure on which we few hardy pioneers have chosen to embark. He writes of a series of errors, “mutations”, surprises: at each new step we find, in the words of “The Unhistoric Story”, “something different, something / Nobody counted on”.
It is absurd that Curnow should have been accused of a “South Island” perspective which involved a belief in an empty land. The first “error” in our island story, the one with which Curnow is virtually obsessed in these poems, is the confusion and guilt of first contact. In “Not in Narrow Seas” (1939), he calls New Zealand, “the stolen country”, in “The Unhistoric Story”, “A Victim” (both 1941), and “Landfall in Unknown Seas”, he writes about Tasman’s unfortunate encounter in Murderers’ (later “Golden”) bay, in his 1949 verse drama, The Axe, he uses the bloody triumph of christian missionaries in Mangaia as a parallel, and a warning to New Zealand’s own history.
“Landfall in Unknown Seas”, which opens with the rhetorical sweep quoted above, ends with “The stain of blood that writes an island story”. Nor is this an account of visionary, idealistic Europeans meeting savage incomprehension. The expansive possibilities suggested by the opening lines have already been shrewdly undercut with a knowing appraisal of the mercantile calculation underlying the urge to exploration:
O you had estimated all the chances
Of business in those waters, the world’s waters
The flat mundanity of the language of these lines (underscored with the mock‑heroic “O” which opens them) is a neat and telling counterpoint to the rhetorical elevation that precedes them.
Curnow indeed tells the story as much from the Maori as the European point of view:
Always to islanders danger
Is what comes over the sea;
Over the yellow sands and the clear
Shallows, the dull filament
Flickers, the blood of strangers:
Death discovered the Sailor in a flash, in a flat calm, clash of boats in the bay
And the day marred with murder.
The dead required no further
Warning to keep their distance;
The rest, noting the failure,
Pushed on with a reconnaissance
To the north; and sailed away.
What is really remarkable about these lines, though, is what they avoid doing. They refuse to dress up this confused, unhappy and fatal misunderstanding with any bogus claims to inherent significance. They preserve the very unheroic messiness which is precisely the source of its symbolic value. Again, it is the rhythm which frames our attitude to the content of these lines: the frequent enjambment which puns us uneasily through the silent beat which naturally falls at the end of these predominantly three-beat lines, the occasional four-beat line which keeps us metrically off-kilter. This prosodic unease punctures any attempt we might make to build this incident into a “myth” in the sense intended by Schwimmer.
In the preface to his Four Plays, Curnow wrote:
Nothing can be discovered twice. After the event, the questions crowd in. What next? What now? Who was on the beach to discover the discoverers? Where do we look to discover ourselves?
“Discovering ourselves” is what Curnow’s “nationalist” poems are attempting to do. “National identity” is never, in Curnow’s writing, something to be mindlessly celebrated, the easy source of spurious self-aggrandisement. Indeed, nationalism in this crude sense is something about which he can be savagely ironic:
National, the word, is a sign among you,
Everywhere nation is talked and taught;
In one-man schools, at public luncheons,
They speak of a nation, never of islands,
As if by repeated incantation
Some god might be persuaded
To descend and transfigure,
Making every man bigger.
(“Dialogue of Island and Time”, 1941)
Nationality, our location in space and time, culture and history, is simply something which an honest exploration of self and world forces us to explore. At times one senses Curnow’s irritation with that duty:
To forget self and all, forget foremost
This whimpering second unlicked self my country
Why that’d be freedom heyday, hey
For freedom that’d be the day
And as good a dream as any to be damned for.
(“To Forget Self and All”, 1957)
The angry piling up of adjectives, metrically underscored by heavy stress falling on the first syllable of each one, suggest Curnow’s real frustration with the subject. But the facile rhythms of those last three lines powerfully convey his contempt for what he regards as the soft option.
The image of nation as “second self” comes from George Santayana (who called it a “second body”) and it evidently found a powerful resonance in Curnow’s thought. He refers to it on at least three occasions in his critical writings, as well as in this poem. It is an image which gives us the clue to the essential continuity of Curnow’s subject matter. If the later poetry can seem either more personal or more general than the “nationalist” poetry (for example, a poem like “Blind Man’s Holiday” from The Loop in Lone Kauri Road, or the sequence on the assassination of Aldo Moro in An Incorrigible Music) this is simply because in the 1970s and 1980s the problems of national identity loomed less large on the poet’s personal horizon. What remains constant in Curnow’s poetry is an urgently felt need to explore as honestly as possible the confrontation between self and world.
At times this fascination with the relationship of poet/ subject to world/ object can make Curnow seem like a belated romantic, an antipodean Wordsworth over a century behind the times (“There is a Pleasure in the Pathless Woods” or “Lone Kauri Road” in Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects are good examples). But what distinguishes him from the Wordsworth who claimed that “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her” is a persistent ironic awareness of our inability to achieve an unproblematic union of subject with object. In “There is a Pleasure in the Pathless Woods” we are encouraged, in Wordsworthian vein, to “Look hard at nature”; but would Wordsworth ever have continued “It is in the nature / of things to look, and look back, harder. / Botany is panic of another description”? In the sonnet “To introduce the Landscape” (1957), Curnow opens by stating a very romantic goal: “To introduce the landscape to the language”, but the final couplet firmly denies the possibility of achieving this millennial coupling of Word and World:
And where, from here, do you go? Out with the tide
You won’t, without some word that will have lied.
The inevitability of lying, and the poet’s duty to explode lies wherever possible, become a primary concern of the later poetry, but they were always present even in the “nationalist” verse. There, the awareness that national identity is unavoidable was coupled with the ironic awareness that it was equally unpredictable and unheroic, the quasi random result of a sequence of often farcical errors (“The third and fourth generations / Begin to speak differently, / Suffering mutations, / Cannot help identity”, “Dialogue of Island and Time”).
In the later poetry Curnow’s ironic impulse often emerges in simple acts of counting or naming. In “A Small Room With Large Windows” (1962), the stultifying debate over “how the children should be educated” (“the Bible, or no Bible, free swimming tuition, / Art, sex, no sex and so on”), is ironically undercut by contrast with Curnow’s simple observations of brute materiality:
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 near distance
With a dog and a bag
on a spit of shell
On a wire in a mist
a gannet impacting
Explode a dozen diverse dullnesses
Like a burst of accurate fire.
In “Magnificat” (1972), the gigantesque statue of the Virgin Mary which hangs over state highway 1 on the Kapiti coast is subjected to a rigorous material measurement:
Twelve electric bulbs
halo Mary’s head,
a glory made visible
six feet in diameter,
two hundred and forty-five feet
of solid hill beneath.
Tell me, mother of the empty grave,
how high is heaven?
Mary’s blessed face
is six-and-a-half feet long,
her nose eighteen inches,
her hands the same.
Conceived on such a scale,
tell me, Dolorosa,
how sharp should a thorn be?
how quick is death?
The pointed contrast between the realm of what we can know and measure, and the grander questions which only faith can approach is handled with such nicely balanced sensitivity, that it seems strange to observe that this poem has been the occasion of some controversy. It was, presumably, seen as mocking those beliefs which would cause the statue to be erected in the first place, which is surely to fundamentally mistake its purpose.
There is counting and measuring again in “A Window Frame” (1973) which begins with a sequence of measurements of the paper on which he writes, the table which supports the paper, the room in which the table sits., the house in which the room is located, and then moves to counting the twigs on the peach branches out the window opposite the table (“I count / fifty twigs and then give up”). The point, of course, is the impossibility of making some final measurement of a world which constantly escapes from our grasp:
It is not what you say,
it is not the way you say it,
it is not words in a certain order.
Look out the window.
It is on the page.
Examine the page.
It is out the window.
Knuckle the cool pane.
It is in the bone.
In the “Moro Assassinato” sequence, the horror of the assassination is simultaneously reduced and made more tangible by Curnow’s insistence upon its physical details (“the Beretta 7.65s / had to hit the left hunch‑breast / eleven times, the grey head / whiplashed, nodding to the shots / yes yes yes yes / yes yes yes / yes yes yes yes“). But perhaps the definitive statement of this motif comes in the title poem of the same collection, “An Incorrigible Music”:
It ought to be impossible to be mistaken
about these herons, to begin with
you can count them, it’s been done successfully
with swans daffodils blind mice, any number
of dead heroes and heavenly bodies.
Eleven herons are not baked in porcelain,
helpless to hatch the credulities of art
or to change places, e.g. number seven
counting from the left with number five,
or augment themselves by number twelve arriving
over the mangroves. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen,
punctually the picture completes itself
and is never complete.
The mudbacked mirrors in your head
multiply the possibilities of human
error, but what’s the alternative?
There’s only one book in the world, and that’s the one
everyone accurately misquotes.
“Accurate misquotation” – if one needed a single phrase to describe Curnow’s poetry from the beginning of his poetic career up to the present, one might do worse than that. Of other New Zealand poets, perhaps only Ursula Bethell has shared his ironic awareness of the combined necessity and futility of precision of utterance. At times Curnow’s commitment to artistic honesty has drawn him into controversies.
There is a toughness in Curnow’s verse which means that it is not afraid to tread on toes if it has to. His thunderous broadside at MK Joseph’s The Soldier’s Tale, “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (1979) occasioned outraged responses from many quarters. What was not sufficiently appreciated by its detractors was how fully considered Curnow’s criticism of the novel was. Joseph’s implication that his fictional narrator was somehow able to “transform” the brute facts of the story into “art” by telling them properly could not have been better calculated to offend Curnow’s understanding of the artist’s role. Curnow’s poetry is a testimony to the belief that “brute fact” – eleven herons, 50 twigs, a geranium wild on a wet bank – is precisely the condition to which art should aspire, even if it must fail in that aspiration.
The point of the brutal final three lines of “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (“What can you do, with nothing but a cock / and a knife and a cuntful of cognac, / if you haven’t got the talent?”) is not to suggest that Joseph somehow lacks the talent to “transfigure” these elements into art. It is to ridicule (and once again, it is the knockabout rhythm which carries the ironic undercutting of the lines) the very idea that artistic “talent” is some external agency which transforms brute fact into art, Wahrheit into Dichtung. For Curnow, the gap between truth and poetry, though ultimately irreducible, must be kept as small as possible.
So what can we expect at Writers and Readers Week? Which “Curnow” will be on show? At the very least we must expect the unexpected: something different, something nobody’s counting on. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is things skilfully made with language, “things which will please and stimulate the mind”.
Hugh Roberts lectures in English at Victoria University of Wellington.