3. Introduction to “A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1945”

Allen Curnow selected the poems that appear in “A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1945”. His introduction dated January 1945 set the framework for much of the subsequent thinking about New Zealand poetry. This post pulls out some of the key statements from the introduction to that book and considers them. Allen Curnow was first a poet and then an anthologist so it is interesting to also examine his introduction and how he phrases things as a poet writing what is really a non-fiction essay. The introduction runs from pages 13-55 of the book so is 42 pages long. All of the extracts included here are from within the first 9 pages because the later parts focus on the different poets selected whereas the beginning has some overarching themes about his approach and what it means to be a New Zealand poet.

An anthologist may approach his task in the confidence, which he could not have had ten years ago, that verse has begun to be recognized as purposive, a real expression of what the New Zealander is and a part of what they may become.

It is interesting to try and place ourselves back in 1945 when this selection of poems first appeared. Allen Curnow was born in 1911 so he was 34 years old and had published 5 full books of poetry by this time (Valley of Decision, Enemies, Not in Narrow Seas, Island & Time, Sailing or Drowning). There had been other anthologies of New Zealand poetry writing but this was the first with a real purpose of setting out poems which were a “real expression of what the New Zealander is”. He explains the origins of the early poetry in New Zealand – which was not a real expression of being a New Zealander – as follows:

They were promoted by a real need, a conflict of the exiled spirit, and this the settler-versifiers and their sons bequeathed unsolved, to trouble in less visible ways later generations of native-born New Zealanders. It must come of the struggle of those early generations to sustain their feeling of identify with England, in a country so forbiddingly different, that we have so habitually upheld the pretended against the actual.

From the perspective of around 70 years after this was written I think the world has changed an enormous amount – we have learned to live much more in our own skin. There is far less agonising about the fact that New Zealand was formerly a colony of England and therefore its poetry often reflected back like a mirror on the English experience. Clearly back then this seems to have been a dominant concern if we read into what Allen Curnow was saying in his introduction. At that time he was breaking new ground with thinking about poetry in New Zealand. He was identifying that prior to this there had not really been distinctive New Zealand poetry yet now there was and it was even “…a part of what they may become”. Back in 1945 these were the concerns that Allen Curnow had.

…the New Zealand poet, trying to keep faith with the tradition in the language while his imagination must seek forms as immediate in experience as the island soil under his feet.

Here we have a further layer for consideration. A New Zealand poet perhaps may include in their poems some expression of the local character of where they are and their experience. As Allen Curnow says as immediate as the “island soil under his feet”. Going only to the index of poems you can see this emphasis on the local element in the various New Zealand names which appear: “By Burke’s Pass”, “Nor’West Evening, Winter”, “From Lyttelton Harbour”, “A View of Rangitoto”, “Attitudes for a New Zealand Poet”, “The Magpies” and “Elegy in the Orongorongo Valley”. Both the titles and the content of the poems as well are dealing with those local places that are uniquely New Zealand.

There are at least themes and attitudes which recurs, and which I believe to be significant both within the verse and beyond. Perhaps, returning so often to the theme of land and people, the particular theme of this land and this people, some poets are making a home for the imagination, so that more personal and universal impulses may be set at liberty.

Clearly Allen Curnow was looking for poetry which fit his conception of what made up “New Zealand Verse”. The title page states the poems were “chosen by Allen Curnow” – some proactive and deliberate approach is implied here (rather than a more passive word like “selected” or “compiled” or “edited”). One interesting point about the collection is that there were only 16 poets chosen. Of those, 7 poets had fewer than 4 poems and 2 poets have only one poem. This is in contrast to the 1926 revision of the “New Zealand Verse” which had around 70 poets (including Allen Curnow’s father). Why wouldn’t Allen Curnow have included more poets? He comments on this:

The body of New Zealand verse is not to be enlarged by seeking numbers of additional names: reading literally hundreds of pieces by dozens of versifiers has made this clear to me. It was possible, and therefore seemed a duty, to look at nearly all the verse, of whatever kind or promise, printed in this country in the last twenty years. If it seems, as I have no doubt it will to some New Zealand readers, that too few are chosen, I would reply that all but one or two of those disregarded have given us only that kind of verse, trivial if sincere, which is so hugely multiplied in larger countries that an anthologist could not and would not think of embarking on a survey of it.

So for Allen Curnow this selection was about actively choosing those poets who were a “real expression of what the New Zealander is”. This is expanded on here in relation to the role that England had played up until recently:

History was sweeping New Zealanders further from participation in the traditions of a real England, the more they clung to the England of colonial fragment and fantasy – those New Zealanders, that is, who were established here, raised families, and gave the colony what character it had.

The poems which were put into the book of New Zealand verse are then a counter to that colonial era. Allen Curnow wanted those poets who were moving beyond nostalgia for the “old country” of England and moving into an acceptance of who they were as New Zealanders and the identity they had. With the end of World War II a few months after this book was published it was appropriate as some kind of break with the past that it was published at this time.

Theirs once more are often ‘interests shared by all New Zealanders’, and what is shared is shared more deeply, as the generations have taken root, and more fruitfully for verse, as the country becomes a point of departure for imagination.

For another perspective on this introduction to the anthology, I thought it would be good to include the following comments from Terry Sturm in his biography of Allen Curnow online (see: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6c1/curnow-thomas-allen-monro/page-3)

Curnow edited a highly influential anthology, A book of New Zealand verse, published by Caxton Press in 1945 and reprinted in 1951. Its elegant introduction, exploring problems of the imagination, which was sometimes misread as a narrow nationalist manifesto, brought a sophisticated modernist sensibility to the poetry. It also established many of the terms of debate about the history, character, purposes and value of poetry in New Zealand for the rest of the century.

In selecting just a few passages from the introduction the focus has been on some of the themes which Allen Curnow mentioned in relation to what makes up New Zealand verse. Or more importantly, what he felt should make up the criteria to select the poets and poems at that time. He gives other examples from specific poets in his introduction and explains why they were chosen. The aims of this post have been modest – to highlight just a few of the critical elements in his analysis of New Zealand poetry at the time of the book and to better understand what the context was for their selection. The overarching theme is that rather than a focus on the past and dwelling on some memory of England that colonists have left it was time to break from that tradition. Instead the poet would use their own context and history and turn that into poems particularly with a focus on New Zealand as “…the country becomes a point of departure for imagination”.