This initial post on an Allen Curnow poem on this site is about the first poem in his first book. Before we look at the poem it deserves a bit of context. In 1933 Allen Curnow was just 22 years old and the book was published by the Auckland University College Students Association Press in September 1933. The cover also states it is a “Phoenix Miscellany: I”. There cannot have been many copies printed.
The name of the book was “Valley of Decision” and it contains 23 poems, many of which have biblical references in their titles: for example, “Prayer”, “The serpent”, “Renunciation” and “The spirit shall return”. It was around this time that Allen Curnow decided not to pursue the Anglican priesthood and thereby rejecting his Father’s path (who was an Anglican Minister). So this biblical imagery is understandable since he would have been immersed in it from childhood and also during this time of training. Much later in 1974 Curnow wrote of this book: “In ‘Valley of Decision’, and after it, some crisis or change from faith to scepticism may be read, however perplexed and precarious the faith was, and the scepticism no less so”. It is worth noting in passing that the volume is dedicated to “T.M.C.” – his father was Tremayne Munro Curnow.
Few of the poems in this first book are republished in later anthologies and so they are not well known. His more famous poems would follow some years later and he would gain much more fame for his anthology of New Zealand poetry published in 1945. Those days were still a decade away. At this point in time he was simply a 22 year old who was publishing their first book of poems. Everyone who later is acclaimed starts somewhere and often it is those with dedication and desire who are able to continue and make a name for themselves (although natural talent helps). Having noted that context, already you can see the elements of what would make Allen Curnow successful in his use of language, descriptions of nature and sharp observations about the world.
So, turning to the poem, “Sea Changes”. It is three stanzas long with four lines in each and it has a simple but effective rhyming structure of a,b,a,b, c,d,c,d, e,f,e,f. It opens with a strong statement, “Strange times have taken hold on me”, perhaps acting as a statement of introduction not only to this poem but to the entire book and the circumstances of his life at that time. It seems very likely this was written when he was struggling with his sense of identity and questions over what he should become and so one can relate to this statement. Children often think they will one day do whatever their Father has done. Allen Curnow’s father had published poetry in a 1906 anthology and was an Anglican Minister. Now the son was training to be an Anglican Minister and had been publishing his own poems in different publications. And yet we know now that the two years he had spent training between 1931 and 1933 at St John’s Theological College would not end with his following in the footsteps of his Father. All this to say that the opening line of, “Strange times have taken hold on me”, make perfect sense in his circumstances as he reconciled his doubts with the future direction of his life.
The poem then turns to a natural phenomenon of the ocean. Nature is described often and is a central feature in many of Allen Curnow’s poems so it is no surprise to find it taking central stage in this first one. While his opening line referred to “strange times” the second line echos that by beginning, “strange seas”, which have “locked across my eyes, thick in the twilight undersea.” This echoing of his own feelings in the description of the sea – both are “strange” – highlights the sensation of feeling out of ones depth, something which recurs throughout the poem with the reference to the strange seas being “locked”, connoting the sense of being out of control, and the way that he has been “taken hold on” in the first line. Even in the very next line this feeling of despair and desperation continues, “from the great deep I made these cries.” This seems to be the speaker of the poem who is uttering the cries which perhaps result from the “strange times” mentioned in the first line. This description is reminiscent of Jonah, a biblical character who also cried out from the depths of the ocean. It seems likely that “these cries” may refer to the poems which he has written, each of them a cry. If that is right then it is appropriate for this poem of his long career to be giving some background to the origin of the many cries to come in the next few decades.
The poem moves into the second stanza and I think gives some clue as to the origin of the “strange times” and the resulting poems, noting: “Out of the glimmer of green waters, the ringing deafness of dark seas”. The poem title is “Sea changes”, and so it fits with this picture that it is the sea which has originated the strange times. He describes the poems that resulted as “such dim-begotten sons and daughters, of love and cold-flesh death are these”. The phrase “cold flesh-death” is very powerful because it gives death such a personal element – the body has gone cold for death has arrived. While the poems are said to originate from both love (positive) and death (negative) either way they are sons and daughters which are “dim-begotten” – this has negative connotations and is in contrast to the usual use of the biblical term “begotten” which is used positively (as in the phrase, “only begotten son”).
So we turn to the final stanza which begins bleakly, “Uncertain are they hunting on, and all their faith’s inconstancy”. So the poet is implying that these poems that have resulted from the strange times move around as the dim-begotten sons and daughters of love and “old-flesh death. Not only are they hunting on but there is an express reference to their “faith’s inconstancy”. An inconstant faith is hardly reassuring and one can see why these are “strange times”. There is a lack of consistency and stability inherent in their birth. This must have also been how the poet was feeling around this time – studying for the Anglican ministry but with hindsight we know that he was about to turn away and follow a different path. Yet he had studied for a long time and so must have felt the personal impact of “faith’s inconstancy” in his own self and identity.
And so to the final lines which close things out and describe them further, “they are who touch and straight are gone, yet have no other where to be”. This almost sounds more like a description of the strange times which are inherently disconcerting and unstable and which have given birth to the deep cries / poems – they can touch an individual but then are gone right away, leaving behind uncertainty. Yet they themselves have “no other where to be”. That is certainly something which is “strange” and difficult to explain. With no home – no other where to be. The strange times come and go touching lives in a random way, in ways that cannot be expected. One does not end the poem feeling happy for the sense is that the strange times will force the person who is subject to them to perhaps also join in having, as the final sentence of the poem says, “no other where to be”.
It is worth noting that the fact that it seems to be that the origin of the deep cries (the poems) is the sea is not surprising given that New Zealand is an island nation. Whether looking out off the coast of Timaru (where Allen Curnow was born), the coast of Christchurch (where he grew up) or the harbor of Auckland (where he was living when this was written) the sea is always present. In his mind then the poems have their origin in the “sea changes” of the title which come and go like the tide, even if they are more purposeful in their “hunting on” through their lack of place or consistency. This poem is certainly an interesting first poem in what would become a large body of work and perhaps an indication of a question Allen Curnow would seek to answer in the coming decades – what is the response to the fact that “strange times have taken hold on me”?
The beauty of a poem is that most likely each of us will interpret the meaning in a different way. I would like to hear if you think I was on the right track with the views here or if you have a different interpretation of the meaning of these poems of Allen Curnow.