The misconceptions hanging about Allen Curnow’s reputation need urgently to be dispelled and Hugh Roberts’ persuasive account of his poetic was a timely corrective to the myth-making myth. I want to take issue, however, with his claim that Curnow’s very earliest poems “set the tone of … rigorous examination of the individual’s relationship to the world and an ironic awareness of the material limits of human life” which characterises his subsequent work. My quarrel is with the textual basis of the claim for continuity: the stanzas offered to illustrate the point come from the heavily revised version of “Et Resurrexit” in the 1974 Collected Poems (1). Compare the original wording in Valley of Decision (2):
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-
All the hands know
for certain friend
is sweet first touch
and thankful end.
How sort you His
with this, life’s in-
Most of the Valley of Decision poems were revised to a similar extent and some much more drastically, removing any line-by-line equivalence. The changes are often simple aesthetic improvements, the practised hand removing the triteness we expect in a novice’s verse. Many a “sweet” or “lovely” goes west, along with many a stilted inversion and the odd infelicity (the “labour pain” afflicting relief gangs becomes “bodily pain”).
The original poems rely heavily upon an aura of connotation, highly-charged but finally obscure. The revisions tend to make the imagery more precise and intelligible, the metaphors more concrete. But they remain a strictly metaphysical imagery, drawing physical parallels to illuminate emotions and spiritual entities. The emphasis shifts sometimes in revision from the supernatural plane to states of mind; but engagement with the material world is scarcely anywhere to be found. Hugh Roberts’ example is exceptional in having some literal physical reference — the touching hands. It’s more pronounced in the revision, but in either version this poem, like most of them, explores the individual’s relationship to the supernatural rather than the world, theology rather than the phenomenology that informs the later poems.
There are many revisions which alter the sense of the poems fundamentally. In our example, blind, uncertain death displaces a “thankful end”; and “His Eternity” loses the reverent caps and acquires a disclaimer — “the heaven of yours”. Doubt niggles loudly in the first version and the balance doesn’t take much tipping: but it is tipped, as decisively as in any of the poems, precipitating the speaker’s apparent allegiance from belief into scepticism. With the shift in perspective to hindsight, and only then I think, comes the “ironic awareness of material limits”.
In a prefatory note to the Collected Poems, Curnow anticipates possible charges of intellectual dishonesty: “a poet’s revising his life — correcting youthful beliefs and opinions”. He argues evasively in reply, deftly switching the focus from life to work:
There is no critical appeal against this, as a poet’s own verdict on his work. In my case, it would be a futile exercise. In Valley of Decision, and after it, some crisis or change from faith to scepticism may be read … No revision can alter this … the poetry is all one book.
Curnow’s defensive vagueness (“In … and after …”) is disingenuous. Wherever the crisis figured in the chronology of his life, in the time-scheme of the fiction which is his poetry it is pushed forward by the revisions, so that it precedes the poems; we read of its process only by the light of its resolution, filtered through a tone of assured irony instead of youthful ambivalence. The struggle is over, the decision taken; and doubt has prevailed.
I’m not arguing that this is intellectually or morally reprehensible; or that we should disregard the revised poems which are decidedly better. But it needs to be recognised that the consistency they exhibit with the later work was partly imposed, with 40 years’ hindsight and practice, in 1974. It matters especially if Curnow’s work is being considered from a literary-historical rather than a purely critical perspective. 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 it we accept uncritically that “the poetry is all one book”, this strikes me as an unwarranted triumph of myth-making of a personal kind.
A question of editing?
I read Harry Ricketts’ review of Dinah Hawken’s book and thought it was slightly harsh but justified by the work presented by him on the page. However, I feel the better poems of Dinah Hawken’s collection were overshadowed by his tendency to focus on the lesser poems of her collection.
You would struggle to find many collections in recent years by New Zealand poets which have not been “good in parts”, except perhaps Allen Curnow’s excellent collection You Will Know When You Get There. New Zealand is in abundance with “good” poets at the moment but the question should be: Are they consistently “good” or are they “good in parts”, as Harry’s review pointed out?
I think part of the problem of producing a substantially interesting collection does not lie totally with the writer in choosing poems for the collection but also in a small part with the publisher/editor of such collections.
As a regular reader of New Zealand poetry, I have bought a lot of VUP collections which have similarly failed to portray the poets as exemplars of their craft. If you take James Brown, Jenny Bornholdt and Damien Wilkins into consideration, as well as Dinah Hawken, you may find a similar inconsistency in the standard of each poet’s work. This inconsistency is where the editor/publisher should have a greater input, in order to encourage the poets to reconsider poems for the collection on merit.
Therefore I feel editing needs greater consideration so as to ensure the position of our poets as exemplars of their art form, whilst at the same time leading to a more satisfying and stimulating result for the reader of fine poetry, not only in New Zealand but overseas, where a consistently “good” collection will help raise interest in future New Zealand poetry!