Cock of the walk
Heather Murray’s review of Curnow’s The Bells of St. Babel’s (in your August 2001 issue) is a kind of negative tribute to Curnow’s pre-eminent position on the New Zealand literary scene. How many poets in their nineties could expect a new collection to be met with the oedipal angst displayed by Murray, rather than polite – and empty – plaudits (all with the subtext “Gosh, you mean he’s still alive?”)? No, Curnow still manages to be – in Murray’s phrase – “cock of the walk”, and thus is fair game for a challenge.
One could wish, though, for fairer fighting. Murray’s first charge, that Curnow’s 1945 Caxton Press anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse somehow imposed Curnow’s taste upon the nation by diktat, is a tedious canard which should long since have been abandoned. Murray is shocked – shocked! – to discover that Curnow chose “the poets I really like” for his edition. Responsible editors, we are to assume, use only delicately calibrated laboratory tests to determine which poems deserve inclusion in their anthologies. Yes, Curnow made a small selection of recent poems which he thought particularly excellent. Yes, this left a lot of people out. But the book wasn’t an official government list of “poets to be regarded as worthy”. It was – to quote the title-page in full: “A Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923-45: Chosen by Allen Curnow” (my italics). There was never any attempt to hide the fact that the book represented one man’s preferences. The book became influential because – by and large – most people agreed with his “choices”. Otherwise, why not just keep buying reprints of Kowhai Gold, or the far more pretentiously titled Treasury of New Zealand Verse?
Murray’s second charge is that Curnow occasionally wrote unfriendly reviews of other poets. I would suggest that Murray might concern herself with the plank in her own eye before troubling Curnow with this particular mote in his, but I suspect she may have already broken it over Curnow’s head.
Her chief gripe, however, is that Curnow’s poetry is gloomy and makes New Zealand sound like less than the most wonderful place in the world. The idea that art should serve to boost the nation’s image is not in itself an unfamiliar one. We are more used to hearing it from tinpot dictators and members of chambers of commerce than from English professors, however. Curnow is a poet who is interested in the darker sides of the human experience, it is true. Murray cites the poem “The Upas Tree” from his most recent collection as evidence of his “morbid fascination with the grotesque and poisonous”. I assume she was aware that the poem was a translation from Pushkin; I wonder if he, too, falls under her “gloomy poet” ban. Perhaps, like the malcontents of Monty Python’s Happy Valley, Curnow should be sentenced to be hanged by the neck until he cheers up?
Ironically, Curnow anticipated this charge of insufficient cheerfulness in his introduction to A Book of New Zealand Verse, although he regarded this (prematurely as it turns out) as a waning vestige of New Zealand’s cultural immaturity: “Cheerfulness, incidentally, seemed to become an important test of poetic merit for some local critics: when bitterness began in some younger writers, it was denounced as if elegiac, satiric, or ironic social verse were something odd
Heather Murray has every right not to enjoy Curnow’s verse – you can’t please all of the people all of the time – but it will take sharper criticism than this to persuade others that Curnow hasn’t earned his right to be cock of the walk.
University of California, Irvine
In your abridgement of my (lengthy) letter in the June issue – in reply to Terence O’Brien’s review of New Zealand in World Affairs Vol III (March 2001), which I edited – you inadvertently omitted an important point.
Terence O’Brien had contended that the primary British concern in negotiations with the European Community was the size of their contribution to the EEC budget (in their view excessive), not New Zealand’s continued butter access. So it was for many years, especially in the Foreign Office. My (omitted) point was that in 1984 Britain succeeded in negotiating such a good deal for their budget contributions – so good that they refrained from saying so publicly lest they provoke a re-opening of the matter – on the basis that this was no longer an issue in the 1988 negotiations for New Zealand access, when British support for New Zealand in the initial stages of these negotiations was less robust than previously. It was our difference on nuclear issues, not British budget concerns, which was the cause of that.
I read with interest Heather Murray’s review of Allen Curnow’s The Bells of Saint Babel’s: Poems 1997-2001 in your August issue, in which she represents Curnow as “a mandarin whose weighty tasks are canon formation and establishing the climate and mode by his own poetic example.”
James Brown’s review of the same volume is placed opposite Murray’s review in more ways than one. Brown treats Curnow more conventionally, analysing the poems in just the same way that Curnow’s poems have been treated for decades in curricula across the country and at every level; we all know how to read a Curnow poem.
Both reviews fit interestingly with the documentary on Curnow recently screened at the Wellington Film Festival, which reads and represents Curnow as an institutional and a paternal figure, a literary great-grandfather not only of New Zealand poetry, but of New Zealandness per se, representing him visually as intricately bound up with a particularly New Zealand landscape, both urban and rural. In the film, Curnow becomes a quintessential New Zealander.
That version of New Zealandness is one which Heather Murray wants to leave in the past. Murray describes Curnow as the last remnant of the group of poets and critics who were the “early shapers and gatekeepers of New Zealand poetry”. Curnow did much of the theoretical work of constructing and defining the notion of a New Zealand poet; it’s hardly remarkable, then, that he should typify his own definitions. That convergence doesn’t detract from the place of Curnow’s work within a New Zealand canon, but to call Curnow “New Zealand’s greatest poet” is to accord entirely with his construction of such a notion, and to exclude alternative versions of that identity.
So I agree with Murray’s implication that part of the theoretical work done by Curnow involved a Thatcherite demolition of those who stood outside the parameters of such a definition, leaving Curnow’s own claim to such a title uncontested, as well as unnaturally extending his reign as literary patriarch. Curnow’s place in the canon (critical and literary) has determined much about the way we read New Zealand poetry, a practice exemplified by James Brown. But we shouldn’t think that all New Zealand poets can, or should, be read in the same way, or even that being able to be read in that way is what identifies the New Zealand poet. And so I also agree with Murray’s assertion that it’s high time we thought anew about myths of New Zealand literature, and how they form and shape New Zealandness. The next question is, I suppose, who’s going to do that for this generation, as Curnow, generations ago, did for his?
School of English, Film and Theatre
Victoria University of Wellington