8. Biography and collected poems released

The biography of Allen Curnow has been released as well as the collected poems.

Full titles and pricing are:

ALLEN CURNOW: COLLECTED POEMS
Elizabeth Caffin &Terry Sturm (Eds)
Auckland University Press, $60

ALLEN CURNOW: SIMPLY BY SAILING IN A NEW DIRECTION – A BIOGRAPHY
Terry Sturm, Edited by Linda Cassells
Auckland University Press, $70

Both books are also available in a limited edition slipcase – $125

There is more information at the Auckland University Press page here:  http://store.press.auckland.ac.nz/allen-curnow-biography-and-poems-slipcase-edition/

There is a review of the books here:
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501119&objectid=11945205

 

 

7. Documentary on Allen Curnow

While this is referenced elsewhere on this site, it is worth making special mention of it here to draw attention to the fact that the full length TV documentary from 2001 about Allen Curnow is still accessible online at this link:

https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/early-days-yet-2001

It is split into four parts and provides an amazing overview of his work with interviews and his reading of several classic poems.  It was directed by Shirley Horrocks and is a really wonderful record of this great New Zealand poet.

6. Biography of Allen Curnow to be published in 2017

There have been hints in various articles and references on the internet that the biography of Allen Curnow that Terry Sturm was working on before he passed away in 2009 would one day be published. A post on Facebook indicates that will finally happen in 2017 as Linda Cassells wrote the following there on 21 November 2016:

Does anyone know how I can contact the family of Dr James Walton, who was professor of English 1969-1983, and who died in 1998? I am editing a biography on the poet Allen Curnow, with whom Professor Walton taught while in New Zealand. The book, Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: A Biography of Allen Curnow by Terry Sturm, is to be published in 2017 by Auckland University Press. I need to clear permission to use brief extracts from Dr Walton’s letters to Allen Curnow.

It will be great to find out more details about this biography as and when they become available.  In an online obituary for Terry Sturm there is the following story which gives us some more background about the project and its origins:

In 2005 Terry published a rich selection of Curnow’s satiric verse, Whim Wham’s New Zealand; and at the time of his death he had already prepared a working text of the Collected Poems which he intended to publish after finishing the poet’s biography. It was typical of Terry’s extraordinary commitment that – despite the heartbreaking theft of the computer on which his work was stored – he continued to work on the Curnow project throughout his illness, completing the full draft only weeks before his death.  From http://nzbooks.org.nz/2009/obituaries/obituary-terry-sturm/

I am sure those of us who appreciate Allen Curnow’s poetry will all look forward to reading this book when it is finally published.

5. Encounter with a Tremayne Curnow poem, 1920

We were in Arthur’s Pass yesterday and came across an unexpected link to Allen Curnow. In a small way it helps to place him in context as it was a poem written by his father, Tremayne Curnow. It is on the wall of a section of the Department of Conservation visitor information centre. There is a room at the back which has an original stagecoach which was used to go over Arthur’s Pass. On one of the walls there are memorabilia of the stagecoach days such as old posters and photographs showing the stagecoach.

The poem is dated 1920 and a picture of it is included below. It was written in the era before a tunnel had been put in that area so it describes the harrowing experience of traveling by stagecoach. A few years later a tunnel was finally completed which would transform the journey. The tunnel was a major building project as it was many kilometres long but progress was slow as World War I got in the way.

The reason for posting about this here is that it provides a glimpse of what Allen Curnow must have experienced as a child in terms of having a poet mentor in the form of his father. Allen Curnow’s first collection published in 1933 was dedicated to his father “T.M.C.” and in interviews he always described him in a positive light as someone who had a real ability to write poetry. Tremayne Monro Curnow lived from 1880-1949 and he is also remembered by Allen Curnow in the poem “Elegy on my Father”.

In 1920 Allen Curnow would have been just 9 years old and so if his father was writing and publishing poetry then it must have seemed perfectly normal for the son to do so as well. In other words, there was a rich family heritage of poetry which would have made it more likely for Allen Curnow to pursue that as well since it was a normal part of his Father’s life. It would be interesting to consider this further from a “nature vs nurture” perspective and the influence of parents on their children. I think it is also interesting to think about the rooting in Canterbury that this family had, since Allen’s father worked as an Anglican Minister throughout this province and wrote about what he experienced there. For those reasons I thought it was helpful to include a post about this random encounter with one of Tremayne’s poems in Arthur’s Pass.

allen-curnow-tremayne-curnow

4. ‘Chief End’ from “Enemies, Poems 1934-1936”, published in 1937

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?

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”.

2. ‘Ten Steps to the Sea’, from “The Bells of Saint Babel’s”, 2001

The initial post about an Allen Curnow poem was about the first poem published in his first book. Rather than continue in a chronological way with a comment on another older poem this post has some observations about the first poem in Allen Curnow’s last book.  A distance of 68 years separates the two poems which is just remarkable.  It really is an amazing testament to the longevity of Allen Curnow’s career as a poet.

What is interesting is that both poems involve the sea and even have that name in their titles. That first poem was called “Sea changes” and this one is called “Ten Steps to the Sea”.  When you reflect on this it is clear that the ocean was a topic that permeates Allen Curnow’s work.  References to the sea occur many times which is not surprising given that he came from an island nation.  The references include those in one of his more famous poems, “Landfall in Unknown Seas” and the line “always to islanders danger, is what comes over the sea”.  But they also appear in others such as “you will know when you get there” and poems in the book “Island & Time”.

In the 2001 documentary about his life by Shirley Horrocks he reads a poem, “At Dead Low Water”, and then he comments about this, which perhaps gives us some insight into the reason that the ocean makes many appearances:

“From childhood I think I had an extraordinary rather scary kind of curiosity about what could be underneath all that water – something of that kind of thing gets into this poem – and into one or two other poems which I call tidal poems – what is down there?  It is rather scary.”

So turning to the poem in his 2001 book, “The Bells of Saint Babel’s”, I am not going to go through on a line by line basis and discuss the poem like the last post. It is divided into 10 parts – the ten steps to the sea of the title.  It is three pages long so it is more lengthy than the last poem which was three stanzas only.   I am just going to highlight a few of my favorite parts of the poem which triggered thoughts for me.

A remark
for the rising sun. I see
by what blinds me.

I like this short little snapshot of an idea. It has an almost Haiku quality to it with the statement spread over three lines and the clever meaning in the second line being expanded on by the truth in the third line.  Coming out of the darkness of night the new dawn has cracked open the world again.  Light pours out over the landscape and it is that light which both enables the poet to see but also holds a danger for it could damage the eyes to the point of blindness.  One is reminded of the saying, “too much of a good thing” – how often in life do we overindulge in some fancy or craving only to find that we have had too much.  In the same way we can see by the light that could damage our eyes, which would mean we could never see again.  Having worked long hours in Tokyo and London before I wonder if there is some crossover here with a job where we work hard to earn money – that is all well and good but if we work even harder then we may burn out and cannot even do the job itself anymore.  The way that Allen Curnow has presented it could perhaps be interpreted then as a call to moderation.  Well, that is what it means to me.  On to the next lines.

Repeat this experience
wilfully.
Instruct this
experience to repeat
itself.

How many times have I gained some new insight or understanding and then realised it couldn’t have come without some action and so determined to adopt that as a new habit.   Perhaps that is reading a new book, attending a course, taking time out for a holiday or making space to reflect in a busy world.  For a while I usually do repeat the experience “willfully”, and yet then the habit dies away.  What I instead need is for it to automatically become something which “repeats itself”.  If only it were as easy as issuing an instruction along the lines set out above.

Telling us about
his cancer, he said, ‘They can control
the pain till there’s well really
no pain, but then there’s no reality.’
He said: ‘I try to balance
the two, as little pain
as possible, as much reality
as possible.’

The first line gives no indication of what the person is about to raise as a topic. That appears as a surprise in the second line.  This series of thoughts immediately follows the discussion about the rising sun being what blinds us.  In some ways there is a similarity here for the medicine can dull and ease the pain but in doing so it drowns out the reality.  Taking just one line from this: “no pain, but then there’s no reality”, I wonder if this doesn’t apply more generally in our culture as well with a desire for sedation through instant access to entertainment (games, movies, TV) and a resulting loss of touch with reality.  However, the specific situation of cancer that is used to introduce these concepts by the poet is horrific and having seen its impact I would not want to read too much into this part of the poem.

In reality,
A step in the right direction.
The pain is this wind, which blows the whole time, uncontrollably.
In your face.

The words reality and pain are both used in this final section of the poem again, and they were used in the section above as well about balancing pain and reality. The poem title is “Ten steps to the sea”, and yet here at the end we have reference to only “a step in the right direction”.  Perhaps it is too much to expect to reach a destination in only ten steps.  Instead it is more important to move in the way that you know you should go.  Instead of more “7 habits of highly effective people” or other self help books it is a series of smaller steps that we can implement rather than instructing our experiences to repeat themselves.  At any rate there is pain, in this case the example given is the wind which continues to blow in your face.  And it is not a coincidence that two ideas meet in the second to last line with, “time, uncontrollably”, because certainly it is one of the things in life which is truly not capable of being paused, stopped or controlled.  Instead it marches on regardless.