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.
The closer one gets to the present, the harder it gets to pontificate convincingly about the significance of it all (which might be seen as casting retrospective doubt on earlier assertions and certainties, also).
I’ve chosen for the last of my State-of-the-Nation poems peri poietikes by Michele Leggott, from her book of laureate verses Mirabile Dictu: “wonderful to relate”. Not, you’ll note, mirabile visu: “wonderful to see” – Michele is legally blind, and has been fighting a long rearguard action against macular degeneration for almost twenty years now.
I first heard the poem on a wintry night in Titirangi, one of Auckland’s western suburbs, in the heart of the Waitakere ranges. A group of us had been invited to a joint Poetry Day reading upstairs in the Lopdell House gallery, and Michele was trying out her latest device for live performance: an ipod with the poems already recorded on it, so she could recite them line by line after her own voice coming through an earpiece.
I think that we’ve had enough generalizations about various different types of New Zealand poetry for a bit. It’s time to descend to cases. But which poems should we talk about?
There’s not much point in doing a mini-anthology of my favourite contemporary poets. In any case, that’s something I’ve already been asked to do for Jacket2. It appeared last year as the feature “Look and look again: Twelve New Zealand Poets.”
Instead I thought it might make sense to concentrate on big-issue public poetry: those “state-of-the-nation” poems which poets more often find themselves writing by accident than actually sitting down to compose (or so I suspect, anyway).
Robert Lowell specialized in such poems: “For the Union Dead”, for example – or “Waking Early Sunday Morning.” It’s a form of engagé, ex cathedra discourse which many modern readers are understandably suspicious of, but when you reread those Lowell poems, or Derek Walcott’s superb sequence “The Schooner Flight,” or even Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” it becomes clear that there are ways of avoiding pompous attitudinizing within this mini-genre.
Nice to see your Jacket2 write-up, and that you used the 2 words I wrote at the beginning of our very very very very very very very very very very long beach poem – I'm sure I am pulling 'begin anywhere' from some co-making moment, and that too is par for the symposium. …
Which prompts me, in turn, to claim responsibility for inscribing the four words visible in the picture above, beside Michele and Olive, which were meant to be a quote from the last line of the title poem of Allen Curnow's 1982 collection You Will Know When You Get There:
Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.