Consecrating Curnow, Simon During

Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction
Terry Sturm (Linda Cassells (ed))
Auckland University Press, $70.00,
ISBN 9781869408527,

Allen Curnow’s first book, Valley of Decision, appeared as a “Phoenix Miscellany” under the Auckland University College Students’ Association Press imprint when he was very young, just 22. But Curnow’s abiding concerns were already in place. To take just one instance: the first stanza of the collection’s first poem, “Sea Changes”, announces what, looking back, was to be one of Curnow’s central themes, the sea, or more accurately expressed, the seas, and does so from a perspective that combines the political and the metaphysical/theological:

Strange times have taken hold on me,
strange seas have locked across my eyes,
thick in the twilight undersea
from the great deep I made these cries.

In the oblique language that counted as poetic for Curnow at the time, “these cries” are the book’s poems to come; the “strange times” are, whatever else they may be, the Depression years, which had dented the settler nation’s confidence and which were realigning not just its social policy but its society and culture too; the “strange seas” themselves are, presumably, the oceanic Pacific waters that surround New Zealand, understanding of whose (Polynesian) history was being revised at the time in scholarship by Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) and John Beaglehole which Curnow was reading; and, on a different level, the “great deep” is the worlded condition of human life removed from God’s goodness and truth. When the book appeared, Curnow was still a devout, if restive, Anglican, following his father’s footsteps by training for the priesthood.

When, in the early 1970s, Curnow came to put together his Collected Poems, he rewrote many of the early poems that he decided nonetheless to reprint. In this process, the fourth line of “Sea Changes” was deleted and replaced by “unheard-of silence heard these cries”, so that the stanza now read:

Strange times have taken hold on me,
strange seas have locked across my eyes,
thick in the twilight undersea
unheard-of silence heard these cries.

It is a telling alteration. Curnow is jettisoning not just his first version’s Christian resonances, but what we might call its vatic tone. Now the stanza’s last line denotes not his (and putatively our) generalised spiritual state, but rather something more secular: the absence of a responsive readership for his poetry. In purely literary terms, this is not, however, a change for the better because it costs the poem some clarity. The “cries” may not be any longer the poet’s, but, if not, whose might they be? And “unheard-of silence” means what exactly? If the vatic or prophetic mode is being ditched, a certain portentousness remains. After all, what kind of knowledge is required to make the unlikely claim that the silence that meets these cries (whose ever they are), is “unheard-of”? 

I would wager that Curnow made this rather unfortunate alteration for good reasons. He was responding to something profound – a shift in poetry’s social and cultural status in the later 20th century. By about 1970, in the West at least, the persona of the poet could, I think, no longer legitimately claim the prophetic or vatic voice at all. By this, I mean that poets could no longer speak as inspired representatives of society, channelling deep truths and insights that other forms of language than theirs could not well encompass. Nor could they effectively sermonise: that is, they couldn’t, as poets, inhabit even a thoroughly secularised equivalent to ecclesiastical office. The great male modernists who excited the young Curnow – T S Eliot, Ezra Pound and W B Yeats – were all poet-prophets, bards one might even say, in the traditional, less than fully secular, sense. One can read The Waste Land, Four Quartets and The Cantos as the last great vatic poetic utterances in the culture, and their traces lie everywhere in Curnow’s oeuvre (as indeed John Newton has recently reminded us in his excellent Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945). But poets like Wallace Stevens, W H Auden and Louis MacNeice, who later came to be closer to Curnow, had not yet, at least in their earlier verse, broken with that long tradition either. Not at all.

Curnow’s career as a poet, which lasted 70 years from 1933, when Valley of Decision appeared, to 2001 when his last book, The Bells of St Babel’s was published, can be best understood, I think, as an effort to negotiate this profound transformation. When his career began, he presented himself as the bardic poet who, as we all know, soon articulated the new Pākehā “critical nationalism”, as Alex Calder has named it (although there are strong grounds to argue, as John Pocock did, that in its dismissal of actual Kiwi lifeways and hopes it wasn’t in fact a nationalism at all). His turn from that followed, first, the 1930s’ Depression and, second, the new understanding that, as much for worse than for better, the settler colony was its own thing with its own geography and (partly Polynesian) history and not just a province of the British empire. By the time Curnow’s career came to an end, he was, instead, a poet (and retired literary academic) operating in a limited, self-enclosed, international poetry-world based in poetry readings, honorary awards, little magazines, university patronage, sporadic academic analysis, writers’ festivals and so on. This was a world which, statistically speaking, engaged very few, ie was addressed to the “unheard-of silence” of “Sea Changes”.

Terry Sturm’s biography (published posthumously and edited by Sturm’s partner, Linda Cassells) helps us understand the terms on which Curnow negotiated this shift, even if, sadly, the book itself has no real sense why the shift happened, or indeed that it happened at all. That’s because this biography is itself a consecration of Curnow’s work and career. In this regard, New Zealand seems to be an unusual place. Where else would a poet, even a major one like Curnow, be granted a long, beautifully produced, all but official biography, written by a colleague and former student, and published simultaneously (in a slipcase cover) with a (supposedly) definitive edition of the Collected Works? Not in Australia (which, interestingly, has no equivalent literary figure to Curnow); nor in Canada; nor even in the United Kingdom or the United States of America, where important poets, when they receive biographies at all, usually do so more casually in commercial books which reach out to a more general readership and thus ask of their subject questions like “What kind of person were they?” and “What might they have to say to the young today?” – questions that Sturm, in his officially tactful manner, leaves alone.

Whatever the reasons may be for New Zealand being able to honour its poets in this generous way, they are also, I suspect, the reasons for both Curnow’s success and his failure. His success because, in his poetry, he could indeed make a good fist of channelling the nation’s experiences as well as its purposes, opportunities and limits, preaching to it in his bleak and opaque, but wonderfully crafted and continually surprising, verse. Which is to say that he could write good poetry, and certainly highly praised poetry, somewhat in the vatic style even when that style had become outmoded: that is, even when his kind of poetry had been shunted aside by poets like John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, just to name a few.

Yet Curnow’s success was his failure for the exact same reason: that is, just because, as a Kiwi, he was not compelled completely to discard the bardic voice even though he did indeed make attempts to do that (turning for instance and for a period to the academic New Critics’ idea of what a poem was), and even though some commentators did at the time signal that something was amiss with the poetry of his last, say, four decades. In the end, traces of prophetic persona and voice mark his later work as outmoded for all its technical facility and inventiveness. Another way of saying this: in hanging on, despite everything, to its claims to represent the culture and thus to bear sermonic witness, his poetry was no longer adequately sensitive to the times and, more particularly, to the contemporary general fate of poetry as a genre.

The best-known effort to signal that something was amiss with Curnow’s later work came in C K Stead’s 1979 essay, “From Wystan to Carlos: Modern and Modernism in Recent New Zealand Poetry”. Here, Stead pointed out that Curnow’s writing retained traces of a “Georgian” truth-telling mode which had now been displaced in New Zealand by those whom Stead thought of as the younger “modernists” associated with the magazine Freed. As Sturm makes clear, Stead’s perceptive essay annoyed Curnow and spurred on his efforts to avoid its charge (even if Stead did not, in my opinion, quite grasp the full cultural and social force of the transformation that he was addressing).

Five years later, Leigh Davis upped the ante in his “Curnow solo”, published in his and Alex Calder’s little magazine, And. Here Davis argued that Curnow’s work and fame rest on a number of unacknowledged conventions and positions. For Davis, Curnow adopted the persona of the high-culture poet in order to essay a New Zealand landscape which was still fundamentally colonialist – a landscape imagined as resistant nature there for the taking – but without fully understanding, or at least without making it clear, that his persona and its project were based in given social structures, and were thus political. Curnow’s response to Davis’s essay is unknown, but his furious rejection of all that And (a creature of his own Auckland English department, after all) represented, and which he called baldly “deconstruction”, fuels a couple of his later poems.

It is a pity, I think, that Curnow was unwilling or unable to take Stead and Davis more fully on board, or, more importantly, to grasp exactly what writers like Ashbery and Plath meant for poetry’s status and future. But his failure to do so was able to be ignored precisely because these were also the years of his triumph, of his consecration by the Anglophone, international poetry world. He was now published in the London Review of Books, flown to festivals around the world, laden with awards (a CBE, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize …). All this, I suspect just because he represented the old vatic, sermonic mode in a contemporary, “late modernist” guise and thus was, at the time, much less threatening than poets like Ashbery or Plath or Jeremy Prynne or even Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn or indeed, closer to home, Janet Frame, whose poems, however different they were from each other, communicated and implicitly accepted and responded to poetry’s increasingly modest, self-referential and withdrawn role in the public culture.

These remarks are not at all intended to detract from the considerable achievement that Terry Sturm’s biography represents. It is, as I say, a careful and comprehensive book with which anyone who wishes to know about Curnow’s work and career in the foreseeable future will need to be familiar. But it neither fully contextualises Curnow in relation to the radical and rapid breaks and shifts that constituted 20th-century culture, nor, given its will to consecrate, sensitively or critically enough judges his work. And so, sadly, it doesn’t help us understand Curnow, and his place in history, as well as it might.

Simon During, born and educated in New Zealand, is currently a member of the English department at the University of Melbourne.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Biography, Literature, Non-fiction, Review
Search by category

See more

Recent issues: subscriber-only access

Subscribe to NZ Books to access the issues above