Letters – Issue 24

Letters, June 1996

Revisions do supersede

When I revised poems from my earliest collection (Valley of Decision 1933) for inclusion in my Collected Poems (1974) I intended — and expected — the new versions to supersede the old ones. Why else had I gone to the trouble of revising? My Note to the 1974 volume explains this fully and frankly, if evidently not to the satisfaction of your correspondent Janet Hughes (New Zealand Books, June 1996) who reads into it precisely what it does not say. My Note refers to “famous instances of a poet’s revising his life — correcting youthful beliefs or opinions — in touching up his early writings”. I mentioned these (as any attentive reader would realise) only to emphasise that this kind of self-revision on my part “would be a futile exercise”. And I add that “No revision can alter” what may be read in these youthful verses. Could there be a plainer assertion that this is not the object of my own revisions?

Your correspondent seems particularly disturbed by Hugh Roberts’s use of a few lines from the revised “Et Resurrexit” to support his view that there’s something constant in relation earlier to later work of mine. She parallels the “original” (1933) lines with the revised (1974) lines. Briefly and crudely, she argues that I doctored my verses to “tip” the “decisively” from belief into scepticism. It doesn’t escape her that “His Eternity loses its reverent caps”, meaning the upper-case “H” and “E”. A bit careless, this, since “His Eternity” has disappeared with the final clinching line, “He rose again”. Would one expect a revision in favour of “scepticism” to leave in place and intact that final quatrain, giving the last word to the “Servants of God” with a bald statement of the central doctrine of their faith? Exactly as in the 1933 version. While Hugh Roberts, pursuing his hunch, speaks of “ironic awareness of the material limits of human life”? And what is the Resurrection all about, except those limits?

My explanatory Note of 1974 ends: “Whatever the life has been — and who knows very much about that? — the poetry is all one book”. It provides your correspondent with her punchline:

…One suspects Curnow would rather we forgot the substance, if not the fact of the revision and it’s easy to do so given the rarity of the 1933 volume. But if we accept uncritically that “the poetry is all one book”, this strikes me as an unwarranted triumph of myth-making of a personal kind.

Of course, “one” can suspect anything “one” pleases. But with my 1974 book (ppxii-xiii) open in front of her, what can your correspondent be talking about? Can she be referring us back to where she came in, with her comment that “misconceptions hanging about Allen Curnow’s reputation need urgently to be dispelled and Hugh Roberts’s persuasive account … was a timely corrective to the myth-making myth”? Isn’t it obvious, that I’m pointing out very simply that however little of anyone’s life can (actually) be known, all the poet ever wrote can be considered “one book”, if only by metaphor?

I suppose most readers would simply take the 1974 text as having my authority, while feeling (as your correspondent did) perfectly free to satisfy their curiosity, if any, about the 1933 volume and equally free to comment on both or either. Or pay no attention whatever to either.

It will be understood that I write, as my Note of 1974 was written, from a unique knowledge of the personal and authorial steps and circumstances concerning both versions. There are textual variants and relevant considerations dating back to the thirties, of which an excellent memory helped me to make the revisions as near perfect a paraphrase as possible. Your correspondent makes too much of the more heavily revised: four are not reprinted out of the 23 “originals”, several are almost untouched, others by no means heavily. She has no ground whatsoever — other than half a sentence of mine wrenched out of context, for the tendentious — and I mean false — assertion that “Curnow anticipates possible charges of intellectual dishonesty” or for the comment, “He argues evasively in reply, deftly switching the focus…” and even less for “Curnow’s defensive vagueness (‘… In … and after …’) is disingenuous”. The two prepositions are anything but “vague”; they very distinctly and discretely say what I meant: that the “crises or change” is to be read not only in Valley of Decision but in later work (or life) as well. I simply don’t know how to account for such a pile-up of “bad faith” imputations, any more than for sloppy misreadings like “death” extrapolated from the unspecifics in the quoted lines of “Et Resurrexit”, and “the heaven” for “that heaven”. I am trying to persuade myself that there’s really nobody here but some keen young academic deconstructionist, with an eye to her cv, getting carried away in the heat of the chase?

For the bibliographical record: if my memory is correct only 250 copies of Valley of Decision were printed in 1933, by RW Lowry and Ronald Holloway. At whatever notional date it may be thought to have passed out of print, it certainly remained so for 30-40 years and has been out of print again for many years. None of the poems in either version appears in any of my main Selected volumes: Oxford (1962), Penguin NZ (1982), Penguin UK and Viking (1990) and Auckland University Press (Continuum, 1988). I am happy to let them stay out of print, and have not considered them in plans for a new Collected volume, already well advanced in this country and Britain.

Allen Curnow



Janet Hughes comments:

I apologise for having given offence to Allen Curnow and assure him that none was intended. I made and meant no comment on his motives for revising and thought I had acknowledged that the revisions are in themselves unexceptionable (“not … morally or intellectually reprehensible”). My remarks were, I thought, confined to their effects. Evidently I worded my letter too strongly and, given the inferences drawn from it, insufficiently clearly.

For almost every purpose revised poems must be taken to supersede their earlier versions, the exception (obvious, I thought) being analysis along chronological lines. Such historical or biographical discussion of a major poet’s work will certainly happen; to publish a collected poems is effectively to invite it. By “disingenuous” I did not mean to imply bad faith and regret having used the word incautiously. I meant that, by insisting on the “one book” trope and making light of the revisions, the 1974 Note evaded their implications for any discussion of the poetry as a whole.

To my “misreading” of the poem. Yes, the typo was inexcusable. Yes, I neglected to mention the dynamics of the two voices, in the interests of brevity and thinking it immaterial because in Hugh Roberts’ quotation only the doubting voice was heard. My point was that only with revision do the sceptics acquire a convincing voice, and the poem a consequent irony. The revised capitalisation contributes to this separation of the two voices. And, yes, the Servants of God get in the last word; but I’d still be inclined to award the bout to the revised Sons of Man on points.

So much for the irony. As for the “material limits of human life”, I took the assertion “Et Resurrexit” for a denial of precisely those limits. Perhaps I was mistaken. I’m not a theologian; neither, alas, an academic nor any longer young.

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