Vincent O’Sullivan assesses the 1957 Chrysler of New Zealand writing, Allen Curnow, the subject of a 700-page biography by the late Terry Sturm.
“A big one.” It’s a phrase you’ll come across several times in reading Allen Curnow. It could be a fish caught off Kare Kare, a talent another writer didn’t have, an implied assessment of his own. Always it has something to do with what loosely we call “the nature of reality”, a description tinged with the defining slaughter that hovers in so much of the poetry from the start. And now, how appropriately, one borrows it to recognise Terry Sturm’s massive account and estimate of one poet’s relentlessly focused drive towards his own “book of the world”, another phrase he favours. Sturm takes us with him, as I believe no other critic might do, through Curnow’s writing life and the poems that defined it, recast it, endlessly went through the paces of his self-absorbed quest for the forms and language that declared them uniquely his.
Sturm called his book “a biography”, but he might well have insisted that the word “literary” preceded it. It is a master stroke that he decided to give us Curnow’s life, and his poetry, not chronologically, but as the later poems were brought to bear on telling the life as it occurred. Thus one reads of Curnow as a schoolboy, as the son of the vicar, as the student and seminarian, as the newspaper man and the university teacher, alongside relevant poems. It’s a narrative that gives us the writer thinking back on what those experiences meant to him, as he considers them from a distance. It is the man as he writes keeping in step with the man or the boy that he was, a recalling often of precise detail from decades back, but chosen as it serves the present moment of the poem, and finding the language, the form, that does justice to both. With the later poems, the gap frequently lessens between immediacy, and a poem’s entanglement with it.
Part of the deftness of Sturm’s method is that it gives us a life in the sequence it is lived, and at the same time makes the turning of that life into poetry a vivid and consistent engagement that draws on an entire life. What we read is the emerging man, year by year: his jobs, his marriages, his variously committed and changing views, and the range of the achieved artist, working as it were in collusion. For a man who was both stridently public and yet intensely private, one assumes Curnow found this approach congenial, for he worked closely with Sturm as the earlier draft was written.
If I have one abiding reservation, it’s that for a book that so finely establishes the quality and nature of the poems, there’s too tight a rein on the details of a life that was, as many readers will know, more complex, elusive, even rebarbative than Sturm allows us to see. Yet even so, what a triumph this is for Auckland University Press, with the accompanying volume of the Collected Poems, so superbly edited by Elizabeth Caffin. Sturm’s own patient and intricate telling, in almost 700 pages, of how those poems were arrived at, is justly assessed in our recognising too how much Linda Cassells’ astute editing brought to the shaping of the drafts Terry left at the time of his death.
Perhaps the first achievement of this vast and sympathetic reading of a poet in context, and on his own terms, is its trimming back on a cherished cliché of academic commentary; its restoring the immediate grain of experience as it occurs, in place of the condescension that the clever present occasionally bestows on the past. Just before starting on Sturm’s biography, I read John Newton’s sharp, entertaining, and often convincing survey of 20th century New Zealand writing up to 1945. Inevitably, Curnow was central to the story, and his obsession, so it seemed, with initiating “nationalism” as an almost messianic enterprise to break us from casting ourselves as Britons of the Pacific. Or at least, from sounding as though we were.
For Curnow, and for those contemporary poets to whom it mattered, it was always that – a matter of finding a voice that rang true for ourselves, rather than demanding we simply celebrate things closer to home. It was really rather a straightforward project. When Katherine Mansfield reviewed Jane Mander, she warned, rather as Curnow would, against flourishing a splash of local colour, or a few local words, as proof that we wrote as New Zealanders. It’s not the decorative detail, but the way a cast of thought finds its appropriate note, that a genuine writer is after. Curnow argued this at various levels of sophistication. As he does so, he is precise and direct. It is far more a matter of technique, of responsible aesthetic choices, than it is of what you wrote about.
Yes, he certainly said, and said over, that “Poetry must have its feet in the familiar earth of plain speech”, that it is “trying to say living things in living words”. There is nothing in the least provincial in spelling out what was obvious enough to a serious poet anywhere. That he was able to articulate, before anyone else, the now widely accepted fact that “settlement” can be a fairly anodyne camouflage for payment in blood, was just one of the consequences of taking in the familiar with linguistic candour.
Curnow grew impatient with a younger generation that wanted to cast him as prescriptive, or even worse, as the self-appointed founding father, directing his juniors to where they should attend. In the so-called anthology wars, it was an easy and rather cheap manoeuvre for James K Baxter to claim that Curnow still wanted NZ Poster poems, while he and his friends were alert to urban demands and contemporary life as the anthologist was not. It was as much a matter of clashing egos as it was of genuinely poetic debate. A younger group again would need Curnow to seem outmoded, in order to prop their certainty that in imitating and learning from a particular kind of writing in the US, they were up with the play as he was not. It’s that, rather than what Curnow was writing at the time, which now seems the historical footnote.
A critical argument also became modish that Curnow’s insistent “nationalism” somehow stood in the way of “Modernism” hitting our shores sooner than it did, another bizarre take on what he was actually doing. As he wrote even as a 26-year-old, “I have tried to avoid a preconceived idea of what New Zealand writers should write about. . . . Whatever may be said or written about a national literature for New Zealand, England remains at the very least the ‘technical research laboratory’ where the finest and most advanced work is done with that subtle material, the English language.”
Curnow’s nationalism, in a positive poetic sense, is a far cry from the early Australasian anthologists who made market claims for our writing as they might have for our lamb, home-grown and as fine as you might expect, considering how young we are. The other side of nationalism, as Curnow was quick to note, was that it’s about time we took responsibility for what we have done and at what price. And to acknowledge the psychological scar of “that cursed sense of isolation” as we dissociate ourselves “from the larger cultural pool we share.” The state-promoted prance that accompanies so much current ‘cultural product’ makes Curnow’s definitions almost embarrassingly sober and modest. Nationalism was as much about how we don’t like to define ourselves, yet must, as it was about positive reinforcement. In what you might call full cry, he had written to Rex Fairburn at the time of the centennial celebrations that the country had earned “a festival of penitence and humiliation, for our having been here 100 years and added more human shit than human wisdom to this soil.”
There is a more enduring aspect of Curnow’s thinking that runs from his early attention to how the language we use so defines us. In the mid-1930s, and almost as an aside, he noted, “One’s headache is nobody else’s and nobody else sees quite the same things out the window.” As Sturm takes it up, “poems are first and foremost acts of self-exploration, arrived at ‘digging deep’ into personal experience to discover a substratum of ‘common human need’ which links the poet (and the poems if they are good enough) to his fellow beings.” Well, fine if humanity is roped in too, but an obsession with self is the very least poetry demands. To read the entire work that Curnow himself chose to print, is to attend, constantly, to a mind absorbed solely with itself as a matter of vocation. Some readers are uncomfortable with this. Others describe the verse as distant, even aloof.
Yet so it has to be, if it is to achieve what Curnow intends. His poetry drives language as far as it will go, and with extraordinary technical skill, to declare an individual mind that is like no other. Our uniqueness is what defines us. To get that right is finally all that matters. To do that, with clarity and remarkable deftness. One doesn’t choose to be an elitist. It is in the nature of things that one is.
When I first read Czeslaw Milosz’s Ars Poetica? it struck me how aptly some of its lines so applied to Curnow, the sense of discomfort that has to be there if what he wants to say is read as he intends:
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing its tail.
Curnow said how “the process of writing a poem is a process of finding the true subject”. Read those collections that stand as his finest, An Incorrigible Music, You Will Know When You Get There, Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, and you see what Milosz calls poetry’s “lashing” is part of “the true subject”, and what the reader must accept as it springs at him. Here again, Sturm is meticulous in guiding us towards those poems, long after nationalism was of no interest to Curnow, and epistemology now wore razors in its toe-caps.
From his years at St John’s College, Curnow found poetry and speculation inseparable. For the young man heading for ordination, how to align poetry and belief, or how to put spiritual questions as poetry, after all was no more than the great tradition of Anglican verse had done for centuries. No wonder a poet like Traherne meant so much to him. But the ground rules, as it were, changed spectacularly, when faith eroded and poetry confronted reality in quite a different mode. Poetry was not simply what happened as a consequence of thinking. It was the place where thinking was done. Curnow’s task as a poet, the result of that “digging deep” in oneself he had spoken of, was what to put in the place of discarded certainty? What could be said of it, this “reality” of lived experience as an end in itself, this business, as he also put in in one poem, of a new picture always being there when the last was rubbed out? As he later neatly put it in a tribute to Wallace Stevens, poetry must be
Capable to detect where reality was not
And scrupulous what to put in place of it.
Sturm confirms that reading philosophers was always essential to Curnow, and one is not too surprised that the two who seemed to matter most to him at various times were Bergson and Nietzsche. The first, with his elaborate insistence on time as personal event as much as overarchingly determining, was central to so much of what we mean by Modernism. You have only to think of Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ in 1935. While Nietzsche, with his rampant egotism and his curt dismissal of other minds than his own, seems angled like a photographer’s screen to backlight the Curnow we are familiar with. The thrust of both thinkers is to validate the uniqueness of our own minds once inherited structures are left behind. We cannot come at the raw, unmediated grain of reality except through the solitary and necessarily defining self. So much of Curnow, taken on his own terms, and with the linguistic finesse to so forcefully declare it, is the aggressive delight he takes in driving this home.
Blood is a word that for sixty years is inescapably central, as fact and as symbol, to Curnow’s poetry. It threads back to his father’s (and Father’s) liturgy familiar to him as a boy, as it was a key emblem – or more – for the training seminarian. In time it becomes the implacable physical fact that signs off human exchange, as it does natural behaviour. (In the best poem Curnow’s own writing has drawn from another poet, Diana Bridge labels his “Good Friday mind” as a constant in his thinking.) It is there concluding his great poem of discovery, as “the stain of blood that writes an island story”. Forty years further on, it will permeate ‘The Unclosed Door’, a poem taking him back to a child’s first encounter with his country’s trade in slaughtering other beings. The poem draws on Macbeth’s line, “in blood stepped in so far”, as the boy takes in a typical day’s work, an episode of a kind that implicates us all. What he watches for the first time essentially defines us as a killing species.
There’s not a flicker of sentimentality in Curnow. One poem after another hones its point of unexpected death, inescapable violence. One of his last poems takes its epigraph from Pascal: “The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play.” That’s how we are. You’d better get used to it. There’s a kind of unsettling glamour in the way Curnow writes about such things, an even more disturbing aesthetic kick to it when, so to speak, the knife goes in. A defining aspect of his poetry is precisely that exuberant ruthlessness. There are not many poets (are there any?) who carry such responses so far. One can easily enough think of those who call it a day before getting to that. There’s a John Keats poem, a verse letter written to a friend, where he’s appalled by what you might call a glimpse into what is fairly much assumed by Curnow on watch at Kare Kare. He saw, Keats says,
Too far into the sea – where every maw
The greater on the less feeds evermore. . .
But I saw too distinct into the core
Of an eternal fierce destruction.
This wasn’t where Romantic poetry wanted to be, and Keats backed off. He could not have kept on in this vein and written the poems he did. In the latter part of the twentieth century, with sustaining illusions of any kind stripped back, Curnow simply keeps looking “into the core”. He has no choice. If you expect poetry to “celebrate” (as we’re so often told it does) then you’ve come to the wrong poet. He doesn’t balk at wiping off the “whole damned visible material/world” if that is what’s called for, any more than he’s hesitant to tell you in You Will Know When You Get There:
Look down, confess it’s you or they:
so empty your eye and fill it again, with
the light, the shadow, the cloud, the other city,
the innocence of this being that it’s the malice
of your mind must be the ingredient making
Malice, yes. But an element of self-loathing too, “The mind’s too full of itself”. I don’t mean in a one-to-one equivalence between the tone of a poem and the man who writes it, but in the persona of the creating mind, the voice that likes, speaking of victim or perpetrator, to tell you over again, “You’re caught mate, you’re caught.” Read across several days at a time – and that’s rather harder with Curnow than with most very good poets – there’s that insistent contradictory force which so drives through the poems. Here is a world seen and recorded with extraordinary finesse and intellectual energy and startling verbal precision. It is also one for which the poet provokingly allows us to feel his almost exquisite distaste. Something is being paid back. We misread if we miss that.
In a master work like An Incorrigible Music, its title so giving a sharper edge to Worsdsworth’s “still sad music of humanity”, there is a relentless tracing out of quite what ‘humanity’ may mean, as in the brilliant, repellent image of a politician’s murdered body nodding over and over, an unwittingly compliant string of “yes, yes, yes,” as the assassin’s bullets riddle it in the boot of a car. Nothing is going to deviate the poems from giving us the intractable nature of reality as Curnow, from the start, expects poetry to give it. If splatter is where poetry leads you, then that is where you will end up. I don’t believe there are many poets so intransigent in wanting to take us over in quite this way, or to so drum his insistence that ‘the purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to be just one person.’
Terry Sturm, in the finest sustained piece of critical writing we are lucky enough to have, page by page reminds us of that.
Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction – A Biography by Terry Sturm, edited by Linda Cassells (Auckland University Press, $70); and Allen Curnow: Collected Poems edited by Terry Sturm and Elizabeth Caffin (Auckland University Press, $60) are both available at Unity Books.