Climbing Mount Curnow, Hugh Roberts

Journal of New Zealand Literature 15
Department of English, University of Otago, $20.00,
ISSN 0112 1227

In 1996, the Association of New Zealand Literature held a conference with the announced theme of “Curnow, Caxton, and the Canon”. The Journal of New Zealand Literature has now gathered together a healthy selection of the papers given at that conference, and intends to publish a further selection in its next edition. All of the essays in the present volume concern themselves with the first of the conference’s three Cs, some with the second, but few – explicitly anyway – with the third. There is much good writing in these essays, some useful scholarship, and some interesting engagements with Curnow’s work, but I must confess at the outset to an overall sense of disappointment – a sense, indeed, of an opportunity missed.

To be fair, climbing Mt Curnow is always a tricky proposition. It’s obvious enough why one wants to do it: because he’s there: there as the “greatest New Zealand poet”; there as the “founder of NZ literary nationalism”; there as “the inventor of the NZ poetic canon”; there as critic, playwright, satirist, éminence grise. But where do you find him? For such a monumental figure, he’s pretty light on his feet. Curnow the shape-shifter, Curnow the self-reinventor, is one of the mythic figures of late 20th century New Zealand literature. One day he’s a fusty relic, long since faded into retirement – next thing you know, he’s partying with the muse all night and making the Bright Young Things look tired. And how do you do it? The footing is pretty uncertain in even the most placid-looking Curnow poem. It is in their nature not just to “look back harder” at the reader’s gaze, but also to bare their teeth – and use them too.

Too many of these essays, though, walk along wide, well-worn tracks that exist now only as the traces of long-completed critical explorations. The actual literary and cultural landscape has long since reconfigured itself, but the paths are, alas, too well built to collapse from their own weight. If few of these papers tackle the thorny critical issue of canon formation head on, many of them are haunted by the familiar figure of Curnow-the-canoniser, whose editorial rigour fell like a “killing frost” on so many tender poetic shoots. This is the Curnow whom writers in the 1960s and 70s (understandably, and probably rightly) felt they had to struggle against, the Curnow who seemed to be the selector and coach of the New Zealand Poets First XV.

Isn’t it about time to lay this bogeyman to rest, though? The Caxton anthology was not a licence to kill, handed to an agent who either did or did not use it wisely. It gained its authority because Curnow made a selection that resonated with a widespread cultural movement. There have been other anthologies before and since Curnow’s that have left no appreciable impact upon the general sense of the New Zealand canon. If Curnow’s Caxton and Penguin anthologies were influential, the power they wielded was largely collective, not individual.

Nevertheless, the determinants of Curnow’s selections – his spiritual and intellectual allegiances and blindnesses – remain a hot topic in these essays. One feels oneself, at times, to have been transported back to the days when the Wellington Group denounced the colonialist “South Island Myth” of Curnow and Holcroft and argued for a new “Internationalism” (read: Americanisation) in New Zealand poetry. Noel Waite, for example, offers a paper in which he anxiously inspects the Caxton Press’s typographic choices for signs of colonial abjection, discovering that Denis Glover did knowingly and with malice aforethought use Gill Sans-serif to set Curnow’s prose, thereby appropriating “the authority of the dominant cultural matrix [read: England]” and “assum[ing] the right to determine the canon”.

William Broughton spends thirteen pages shaking his head (and possibly rolling his eyes) over the fact that Curnow selected so many poems by D’Arcy Cresswell in his anthologies. Broughton thinks Cresswell’s poetry is demonstrably dreadful and his point would seem to be either that “even Homer nods” or that Curnow’s taste isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Either way, a disagreement over one editorial inclusion in an anthology is an odd thing to go on about at such length, and the paper demonstrates the prevalent overestimation of the importance of these decisions. Ironically, however, by way of establishing Cresswell’s incompetence, Broughton shows that no anthologies of New Zealand poetry after Curnow’s have included Cresswell’s work. Selection by Curnow, then, did not by itself confer canonical status.

Cresswell is also thrown in Curnow’s face by John Geraets, although from the other direction. If Broughton convicts Curnow of being too kind to Cresswell’s Georgian fustian, Geraets finds Curnow too “pompous” in the face of Cresswell’s “naughtiness, his disreputableness” – by which he means his excursions in the gay rough trade. Geraets, too, is restaging the old National/International generational struggle, but he recasts it – uncomfortably – as an Oedipal struggle between Allen Curnow and his son Wystan. Wystan’s capacity to write amiably about Cresswell’s fantasies of “reverberating arseholes” stands as evidence of a broadminded, “postmodern” openness and as a reproach to Allen’s presumed uptight traditionalism. In the absence of any actual public controversy between the two Curnows, Geraets feels compelled to stage one, at one point even cutting together excerpts from their respective critical writings into the form of a debate between father and son.

This paper is an odd, and uncategorisable, performance. Geraets empathises too closely with Wystan and the other “postmodern” writers he admires to allow for clarity of thought. One moment he demonstrates his “postmodern” credentials by lecturing us on the death of the author: “it would be unwise … to regard the text as a … representation of the personal, social or moral aspects of the writer”. The next he triumphantly exposes the failure of the final couplet of “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch” in the most excruciatingly “personal” terms.  In Geraets’s version, rather than heralding Wystan and his generation, the lines “Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, / Will learn the trick of standing upright here” serve instead to proclaim Allen’s own arrival, his own standing upright.

Geraets’s paper demonstrates the misleading effect of wallowing in these old battles. He gives us a strangely distorted image of Allen Curnow, defined simply as everything he and his soi-disant “postmodern” friends think that they are not. Thus Big Daddy Allen appears here as a “transcendentalist” insisting on the inviolability of the “reality prior to the poem” and blithely unaware of the “untruth-fulness of … poems”. But is there a poetic oeuvre in New Zealand literature, or any literature, so constantly marked by an awareness of the limitations of language, so obsessed with “misquotation” – the impossibility of any perfect linguistic rendering of “reality”?

John Bayley’s outsider perspective of Curnow – unencumbered with canonical and generational resentments – provides a useful corrective. For him, it is Curnow’s absolute rejection of the “transcendental … either in terms of art or of belief” that chiefly characterises the poems. That this makes them “genuinely depressing” in their flat transcription of a disenchanted reality may be an overstatement, though. Vincent O’Sullivan notes in his piece that this is a common misperception:

Most of Curnow’s commentators pick up, one way or another, on the deftness, precision, clarity with which he brings the visible, sensible, transitory world to heel. And the constant revision, remakings, resaying, even as that transaction is underway. There is hardly any attempt, on the other hand, to engage with the insistent fact of anger, its lingering aesthetic as part of the poetry


This is shrewdly observed, and makes one wish for a more sustained exploration of the point than O’Sullivan has room for here. There is too much anger – and too much pain – in Curnow’s poetry to allow it to be quite the wet-blanket Bayley describes.

There are, then, other Curnows to be found in these essays than Big Daddy Allen. Peter Simpson’s patient and scholarly reconstruction of Curnow’s long collaboration with Denis Glover and his various presses is useful, enjoyable, and quite without axes to grind. The Curnow it reveals is a loyal friend and working poet, unforthcoming on his plot to reshape New Zealand literature in his own image. Some of the racier, more up-to-the-minute Curnows (like James Norgate’s Bakhtinian “subversive” and Philip Armstrong’s Lacanian critic of the colonial “gaze”) are indeed quite antithetical to the one Geraets rails at. While such re-examinations are welcome (particularly Armstrong’s, which is subtly and powerfully argued, and shows the hopeless inadequacy of the “colonialist Curnow” myth), even they seem shaped to some extent by the older discourse.

It is delicious to discover a “subversive” Curnow precisely because he is still Big Daddy, still New Zealand literature’s highest peak. Let us hope that soon some children, born in these marvellous years, learn the trick of standing upright there.


Hugh Roberts teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine.


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