Allen Curnow (1911-2001)
When did a wind of the extreme South before
Mix autumn, spring and death?
(“Elegy on My Father”, Allen Curnow, 1949)
I cannot remember when I first encountered Allen Curnow’s poetry. It seems to have been part of the atmosphere in which I grew up. Lines like “Simply by sailing in a new direction / You could enlarge the world,” or “Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, / Will learn the trick of standing upright here” seem in retrospect to have been part of the fabric of the language that I grew into. Not that this meant that I read these poems with particular respect. They were simply unavoidable reminders of a nearly forgotten past, like the Wellington Cenotaph: a heroic past, no doubt, full of hardy pioneers forging a national consciousness and whatnot, but one that now seemed just a little self-important, a little over-the-top.
After all, my generation knew that, whatever poetry was for, it certainly wasn’t for making vatic statements about the destiny of the nation. No doubt New Zealand literature had had to go through that phase, and we were grateful that it had left behind a few poems and stories that could be read without wincing, but, with the growing pains behind us, we could get down to writing some real poetry.
Of course, even as I was forming these attitudes, unbeknown to me Curnow had begun his remarkable second wind with the publication of Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects in 1972, and continued it with An Abominable Temper in 1973. His next volume, 1979’s An Incorrigible Music, was the first book of the “new” Curnow that I encountered. In my late teens at the time, I remember vividly the sense of excited discovery with which I read and re-read that volume. Like the fish in the first poem, “Canst Thou Draw out Leviathan with an Hook?”, I was caught, mate, caught: “the hook’s fast in the gullet, / the barb’s behind the root / of the tongue and the tight / fibre is tearing the mouth”. The violence of the imagery is not inappropriate. Here was a poetry with no false consolations to offer, a poetry that was often painful to read (as in the magnificent sequence on the death of Aldo Moro) and yet remained extraordinarily compelling. It was a poetry, also, in which the poet’s own doubts and uncertainties were on display – as in the title poem of the volume, “An Incorrigible Music”, one of the best poems about the limits of poetry – indeed the limits of all human knowing – of which I am aware:
The mudbacked mirrors in your head
multiply the possibilities of human
error, but what’s the alternative?
The small wind instruments in the herons’ throats
play an incorrigible music on a scale
incommensurate with hautboys and baroque wigs.
There’s only one book in the world, and that’s the one
everyone accurately misquotes.
This poetry was a revelation to me. Here was a Curnow who eschewed all easy phrase-making, who was upfront about the limits of poetic vision, who spoke of pain, suffering and death without sentiment, and without any puerile pride in that lack of sentiment. After reading this volume, I sought out the two earlier collections from the 70s, and this new Curnow became a firm favourite, and I savoured each subsequent volume of poetry as it appeared, right up to the improbably excellent Bells of Saint Babel’s of just this year.
The real revelation, however, was yet to come. It is a cliché of the New Zealand experience that we only discover our country properly by leaving it. It was not until I was well on in my 20s, and living in Canada, that I began to read the New Zealand writing of the 1930s and ’40s with any real, sustained attention. What I discovered was that the “new” Curnow and the “old” Curnow were nothing like as different from each other as conventional wisdom held. To read Curnow’s “nationalist” verse with any attention is to find that it is anything but. The nation is his theme, but there is no easy appeal to an imagined identity. The ringing phrases are there, true, but always to be undercut, to be held up as inadequate to the violence and suffering of real history. How many poets would fulfil a government commission for a poem in celebration of their nation’s centenary with a poem that ends by turning the “half-light of a diffident glory” on “The stain of blood that writes an island story”?
But now Curnow is dead. Curnow’s full life is one to celebrate, and not one to mourn. No doubt his poetry has touched and shaped countless lives as it has mine, and if he has “become his admirers”, he has a long and honoured afterlife before him. I read the news in an International Herald Tribune in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, chancing across a small newswire paragraph – a wind of the extreme South – tucked under the sombre columns devoted to America’s gathering response to the September 11th attacks. It seemed a sad footnote to so much pain and death. But then I thought that part of the greatness of Curnow’s poetry is that it tries to teach us to see the pain, the violence, the blood, the suffering in the world, to see it honestly and unflinchingly, and yet not to despair. Allen Curnow may be dead, but we have much left to learn from him.