This poem is from Allen Curnow’s third book called “Enemies”. It was published in 1937 by the Caxton Press when he was 26 years old. As this is being posted on 1 January 2017 that means it is the 80th anniversary of the publication of this book. While there are several collections of Allen Curnow’s poetry there are very few examples included of the earliest of his poems. To try and remedy this I will aim to include comments on poems like this one from time to time.
The cover of this book is printed on thick card with black binding on the edge and there are 14 poems in total included. One of the poems is much longer than the others, called “Woman in Mind”. The others are mainly shorter. The opening one called “New Zealand City” addresses partly the topic of nationalism which he would expand on in his Introduction to New Zealand verse in 1945 (see the other post about that). The copy I have has that lovely feeling of old age and smells like it has been kept unopened on a shelf for decades.
I turn the thick stained pages to find a small poem, ‘Chief End’, which is only two stanzas and eight lines in total. I like the small poems. I wonder if they force a poet to capture a thought more succinctly. I think in this case we are being asked to think about what the Chief End is – or should be – in what we do in our lives. I like that the themes which I notice here apply as much to me now 80 years later.
It is worth mentioning here that the phrase “chief end” may have been chosen by Allen Curnow because he was familiar with its use in a Christian context. He had been training for the Anglican clergy a few years before in Auckland so it seems likely that he would have known that the term “chief end” was used in the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 with the answer to “What is the chief end of man?” Being, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” So by titling his poem in this way he seems to be subtly questioning what he may have been taught. The poem begins:
Drag a star down to the office table –
what sort of light is that to work by?
Having worked in an office environment for many years I like the intersection of the two worlds introduced in this poem. That is, nature and the random beauty of stars and later, wind, and an “office table” – the working life where efficiency and productivity is the main goal. For me, this raises questions about what is important and what is not important. Perhaps in prioritizing efficiency we lose something of the magic that could be evident if we chose to really open our eyes and appreciate the world around us. Allen Curnow has contrasted the light that comes from a star with the everyday task of being in an office at a table: “what sort of light is that to work by?” – you can imagine the person asking that question is not impressed at the fact that a star is being used. It reminds me of a children’s story called “How to catch a star” about a boy who wants a star for a friend. Imagination, wonder, beauty – all that could be lost by a cynicism which places too high an importance on work. Allen Curnow then goes on:
Rising wind will confuse important papers
Not contributing to efficiency
Again this description highlights that difference between the natural world and our working world. If there is too much value placed on work and the emphasis is on efficiency then there will be no time for nature and things like appreciating a rising wind. At this time Allen Curnow was working in Christchurch at a newspaper so you can imagine the focus on efficiency would have been a commonly heard one in that environment with daily deadlines to be met. The poem continues:
Get up at daybreak, seek bed at dusk?
So little time there would be for pleasure.
This reminds me of the expression “up with the birds” for they are awake at dawn and are resting by nightfall. Instead of those natural cycles we very often will stay up late into the night seeking our pleasure, as Allen Curnow puts it, through many means that disturb natural rhythms. It is amazing to think that back in 1937 when this was published there were still decades to go before computers were even around which today offer us many diversions and distractions through instantaneous access to entertainment late into the night. At any rate this again provides us an example of a contrast between natural rhythms and what we do instead.
We shall save money and buy a car
And cultivate a right use of leisure.
I remember older generations of my family describing how they were excited to even see a car back many decades ago in the 1920s and even 1930s. Today we kind of take it for granted that most families will have two or even more cars. Yet here it is put forward as an example of a way to pursue leisure (technology being a first requirement). It is through that saving of money and buying this new way of transport that a “right use of leisure” can be “cultivated”. This leaves us with that sense of contrast – is the chief end the car which opens the possibility of leisure or have we lost some connection with what leisure actually should be. One is left with the sense at the end of this poem that all these examples illustrate the fact that very often we can be focused on the wrong “chief end”. Certainly appreciating a rising wind and the light of starlight will ultimately likely bring more satisfaction than greater efficiency or more work getting done. So for each of us individually, what will the chief end be that we focus on and promote to others in our own ways by the approach we choose to take to tasks and decisions in our everyday lives?