Allen Curnow's 'Collected Poems' and Terry Sturm's 'Simply by Sailing in a New Direction'
Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: A Biography
Allen Curnow (1911–2001) was a dominant force in New Zealand letters and became an internationally acclaimed poet, anthologist, and critic. Together, the 2017 Auckland University Press poems and biography provide a substantial (1120-page!) recognition of his achievement. Let me offer what follows as a kind of searching tribute. It is written within the broader horizon of literary reviewing, happy to acknowledge the necessary shortcuts and abbreviations, your USA and our little NZ, as well as encompassing the sense of elsewhere that so captivated the poet.
Curnow is rightly considered a “major” poet of the last century. This word — which I think would matter to him — nowadays causes us some difficulty. Curnow models a world through language only to suggest the insufficiency of both: “Logos begotten of log, / the disyllable.” His New Zealandness — initially something fundamental to and progressively something incidental to his achievement — is referred to by his biographer Terry Sturm (also: colleague, friend) as an instance of a recurrent “doubleness” by which he characterizes the poet. Fundamental because it comprises a deliberate choice of occupation and identity made by Curnow; incidental because he’d be such anywhere, a New Zealander everywhere.
From the 1970s onward, Curnow travelled quite often with his second wife Jeny, especially within Europe and America, and from these lands various locations and historical events figure prominently in poems of the last three decades of his life (“Veterans Day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” “Moro Assassinato,” “Narita”). An awareness of elsewhere remains quintessential — an “intrinsic” aspect of his poetic to which I will return. How is this? Is a country and the self-identifications it engenders somehow incidental? Country is important to Curnow, beyond a mere verbal designation. He embraces country, especially in the early years when as poet-anthologist-critic he steadfastly works towards a cultural-historical-spatial-social-imaginative definition of New Zealand. Following formative volumes which explore spiritual matters (Curnow studied towards the Anglican clergy at St John’s Theological College in Auckland, 1931–33), later titles sweep up the broad themes of discovery, hardships of settlement, and the inevitable recalibrations required when adapting to unfamiliar surroundings: Enemies (1937), Not in Narrow Seas (1939), Island and Time (1941), Sailing or Drowning (1943), Jack without Magic (1946), At Dead Low Water (1949). Physically and culturally, the “land of settlers” was not readily accommodating to the newcomers:
Awareness of what great gloom
Stands in a land of settlers
With never a soul at home. (67)
As well as delineating the struggle to define a place to call home in an establishing literature, the biography, scrupulously researched and effectively “authorized,” deals quite directly with other literary controversies involving Curnow: a neglect of women’s writing, the inclusions and exclusions surrounding the internationally directed Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), and an effective self-removal from literary controversy following his abrupt dismissal of postmodernism in his Turnbull Winter Lecture of 1981: “Olson as Oracle: ‘Projective Verse’ Thirty Years On.” Its thoroughness renders the biography an indispensable source book covering a long life and the gestation of many, wide-ranging texts (poetic, critical, dramatic); as such it proves an important accompaniment to the Collected Poems. The one thing I do miss — perhaps due to an understandable obeisance on Sturm’s part — is a more incisive questioning of the inner deliberations and literary reckonings of its subject. It’s as if the poet is taken too readily at his own word.
In a real sense Curnow defines twentieth-century writing in New Zealand. His Caxton Anthology of New Zealand Verse 1923–45 singlehandedly announces a powerful, trimmed start to a national poetry: all previous poets are excluded in favor of just sixteen contemporaries. The anthology was extended and reissued in 1951, and something similar was undertaken in the Penguin text, albeit this time a number of contributors bridled at what they considered Curnow’s rectitude in determining what constitutes identification and belonging, not least his imposition of a national mythos. Despite the controversial aspect of the Penguin, the two anthologies remain significant landmarks in local anthology making and are testaments to Curnow’s prowess as an anthologist-critic.
They also attest his poetic preeminence. As Sturm demonstrates, Curnow is a formal master, adopting from the start traditional forms, diction and poetic devices, and in later decades an increasing flexibility, particularly in syllabic and graphic presentations. Variously witty, brilliant, knotty, scathing, incisive, fierce, playful, derisive, and everywhere shrewd and uncompromising, meticulous in the use of detail, intellectually and metaphysically rigorous.
Curnow is shown through the years to adapt modernist models to his own thematic concerns. This begins in the 1930s and ’40s with his spiritual struggles and exploration of a founding identity (influences: Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Thomas). Through the 1950s the focus becomes increasingly metaphysical and the environment predominantly urban (late Yeats, Stevens). And from the 1960s onwards there is a sustained interest in a pervading condition of uncertainty and an unavoidable confrontation with the various doublings-up that pass for reality: local and nonlocal, historical and unhistorical, personal and nonpersonal, factual and fabulous, logos and nix:
To sink both self and all why sink the whole
Phenomenal enterprise, colours shapes and sizes
Low like Lucifer’s bolt from the cockshied roost
Of groundless paradise. (117)
As Sturm decisively tracks, between fallow periods there are characteristic spurts of activity (1936–37, 1940–43, 1955–56, 1970–71, 1977) that precede the production of major volumes. Following the landmark Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects of 1972, six books of new poems (as well as the collection Continuum) appear through to the poet’s death. Increasingly there are joint or even sole overseas imprints, reflecting a growing international reputation.
Now let me return to the “intrinsic” aspect, and some of those inner determinations, that I mention above. While gathering material for his Reed Collected Poems (1974), Curnow wrote to his close friend, publisher and fellow poet Denis Glover: “I can see that I have been driving (or groping) at the same thoughts for 30/40 years.” I am inclined to relate this quality of determination to a prevailing force of poetic presentation that I find in Curnow: of self, of history and place, and of what language is able to make by way of itself: “The sign is / what the maker means” (281).
I write. The past itself encoded itself
known only to itself and is dead, and we
live in our different style. (288)
As Curnow’s career progresses, we see that the very way in which he takes on a subject means that it is relieved of its out-there-in-the-world distinctiveness in favor of the poem’s own intrinsic distinctiveness. The subject of the poem becomes what the poem claims as its own, as itself. The contested space becomes poetic property, its habitus. This is a complex, sophisticated, intricate stratagem, and clearly Curnow is much more than a poet of repudiation or of a simple phenomenological abandonment. The contestation reveals an ongoing perplexity in him. As suggested in the poem “A Sonata of Schubert,” individuality is most usefully viewed as an ephemeral by-product of errant forces: “We are strange, strange to ourselves. Who is it applauds / His own transfiguring? Who plays?” (115).
Deliverance, always a provisional for Curnow, is not particularly respectful of the personal or of the supernatural. His poems insistently deploy logical processes, tangible references, only to have these succumb to the imposing and disruptive propensities of rationality itself. The poems are nonsalvific, except perhaps in a negating demonstration of the unbridgeable fissures encountered in any endeavor to make of a there a here, whether an “NZ” or a “UK” or a “USA.” Any statement excludes infinitely more than it can contain (“What it would look like if really there were only / One point of the compass not known illusory,” ). Doublings abound:
a fart in a bottle
all men (major term) are
doctors (minor term)
laws letters sciences cats
the angelic Dr are
mortal alas (232)
Curnow’s poetry (his “life”: they prove mutually inhabiting subsets) is not finally about himself, or family, or friendships, or settlers, or Māori inhabitants, or particular places. In “To M.H. Holcroft” (1943) the process of assuming (having to assume) restrictive identities is personified: “mostly we behaved / As if the country shamed us with a shape / Too trite or terrible to be believed” (89). A makeover of identities is enabled through a newfound confidence in utterance. Curnow turns away from history (despite some obvious revisits, e.g. “Moro Assassinato”) as a platform for meaning and moves towards an imaginative spell making that in “To Douglas Lilburn at Fifty” (1965) — our “founding” composer — is characterized as “Magic that hath ravish’d me!” (179).
Curnow distances himself — sometimes unconvincingly to be sure — from what he once termed Zelanianism. New Zealand becomes but one of the many forms that poetry might take. Yet the underlying poetic thrust remains. Poetry is much, much bigger than New Zealand, or indeed anywhere anytime. A preoccupation with language and its naming rights becomes constitutive of how the poem is delivered. Like an eye wanting to look into its own seeing (“The Eye Is More or Less Satisfied with Seeing”), recognition fixes on the impossibility of fixing language to anything. The intentness of the language used means it sheers from the object it addresses, and this process becomes something mesmeric, tantalizing, shamanic. “Jack Without Magic” refers to “genii of the heart” (100). Then a hiatus in the poet’s career and in “He Cracked a Word,” which ends the long-awaited Poems 1949–1957, he reiterates the compelling quest to “get at the inside / Of the inside” and thus attain “The beginnings of his joy” (136).
Unthought possibilities are released through the incredible amplitude that Curnow is able to generate through the words that he arranges: the substantial world is reduced to one of its innumerable possibilities, a chosen projection, viewed from a narrowed determining angle. “To Forget Self and All” transforms an already “groundless paradise” into the nullity of “one grand row of noughts” (117), better viewed, according to “Keep in a Cool Place,” from “the right time, the correct distance” (127). Discrete measurement, which has always intrigued the poet becomes, despite all, a troubling infinitude of divisibility. Curnow shows any clutching at reality to be futile. Yet knowing that language is without capacity to mend, he finds himself still gripping to its slipping away. In “To Introduce the Landscape,” the spiritual lapsarianism with which his career started, marks now a lapse again and again into baseless language: “Out with the tide / You won’t, without some word that will have lied” (127).
“Mementos of an Occasion” was written in the mid-1950s and celebrates his new favorite poet Wallace Stevens, asserted to be “Dead but to the world.” Stevens is adapted to the cause: “Capable to detect where reality was not / And scrupulous what to put in place of it” (129–30). Wonderment generates new ritual enactments, a formal, sometimes ransacking, violence that may prove appalling yet is the only way on — or beyond: “Are the victims always so beautiful?” (130), “Spectacular Blossom” repeatedly asks. In “Any Time Now,” we learn that the language itself suddenly and repeatedly falls through what it posits: “the ground opened at my feet / without warning” (172). Such a frightening prospect distinguishes all life.
In the end the subject of the biography and the poet arrive together. It was a life of unremitting exactitude spent exploring what making a poem might mean and sensing the costs. This was the seven-decades-long enterprise: a brazen look straight into the two-way quandary of reality qua language and language qua reality — a surrender and its satisfaction. Speaking again and again of his own resistance to “the hallucination of fact” the poet, with some rhetorical defiance, challenges: “Am I to burn in my chair for no worse fault / than pulling out the plug?” (174). And in this supposed trivializing of guilt, reality is its own ruse, its own self-torment:
I should be used to it, the way numbers
Won’t go by numbers, the injustice of it
That finds me guilty. A sparrow has not fallen
to the ground. Do you smell burning? (175)
To (or to not) have “numbers … go by numbers” places Curnow at the threshold of the postmodernism he had earlier dismissed, as it simultaneously ties him even more securely to the transformative preoccupation of twentieth-century poetic modernism: wanting discordance and disparity to cohere, whatever the odds. We see the reaching for coherence collapse again and again into the very (and only) orderliness that is words deposited on the page. Such a single-minded skepticism — the way supposed foundations crumble under scrutiny, not excepting even the serviceability of language as a firm and reliable ground for poetry, let alone life — is something left for us to ponder and to take to heart. Such relentless audacity is the poet’s legacy.
1. The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, received by Curnow in 1989, is the UK’s highest accolade. Said former winner and then poet laureate Ted Hughes: “Your support is extremely strong, and most emphatically includes me” (reported in Terry Sturm, Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: A Biography [Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press, 2017], 611). Formal recognition comes less from the USA, where Curnow was nonetheless admired by many. Interestingly and revealingly, given Sturm’s focus on external life events, the index to the biography cites some fourteen lines of reference under “awards” and a mere two and a half under “character.”
4. Compare Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Biography (London: William Collins, 2015), 19:“This approach [of tracking a theme, criss-crossing through the years] has the added advantage of breaking up the potentially deadening march of chronological fact-listing.” Sturm’s is of the chronological fact-listing school, though the facts are many and illuminating.
5. One senses an increasing consternation at Curnow’s dominating the discourse: in the Caxton the opening poem appears only on page 57, and in the Penguin only on page 79. Preceding pages, formalities aside, are entirely taken up with his own introductory arguments.
6. For instance, when the accuracy of the line “A scarlet geranium wild on a wet bank” in A Small Room with Large Windows (1962) was questioned, Curnow’s rejoinder was that that was precisely what he could see outside the window of his house.
8. Following overseas trips in 1950 and 1961, taking in UK and USA, Curnow comes to favor their journals and imprints (to a lesser extent USA). Greater comfort is found in the context of the English tradition, coinciding to some extent with a later rejection of the Americanizing that postmodernism comes to represent for him.