House and land

In a recent blog I ended with some thoughts about Mansfield the poet from which these further thoughts indirectly follow:


Before we had our own officially sponsored poet laureate it could be argued that we had an unofficial one in Allen Curnow. Allen died in 2001 before the New Zealand laureateship had been established; but if it had come earlier he would undoubtedly have been our first.

The time I have in mind, however, when Curnow was in his prime as, so to speak, our unofficial public poet was the decade of the 1940s. While World War II raged, and New Zealand played its part in the Middle East and then Italy and the Pacific, we celebrated the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840-1940) and commemorated the 300th anniversary of Tasman’s voyage of discovery (1642-1942). This was the period when Curnow, who I assume could not be drafted into the military for medical (eye sight) reasons, was writing poems that chose, whether we were listening or not, to speak for us all. Resonant phrases from these poems entered one stratum of the national consciousness at that time and have remained there:

Always to islanders danger
Is what comes over the sea.

Or the sonnet about the skeleton of the moa that ends,

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

Or ‘The Unhistoric Story’ with its refrain that New Zealand as it developed

...was something different, something
Nobody counted on

‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’ celebrated Tasman’s landing in New Zealand – a beautifully structured sequence which runs through the excitements of preparation for the voyage and anticipation of success (‘time / To go and to be gazed at going’), the exhilaration of discovery (‘There was the seascape / Crammed with coast’), the violence of the first encounter (‘in a flash, in a flat calm / a clash of boats in the bay’) , and the disappointment – followed by a reflection which asks how all this should be remembered and celebrated now that ‘there are no more islands to be found’. The conclusion is that what’s needed is something more truthful than self importance and self-congratulation.

Only by a more faithful memory, laying
On him the half-light of a diffident glory,
The sailor lives, and stands beside us, paying
            Out into our time’s wave
The stain of blood that writes an island story.

All of this, together with the lovely clarity with which Douglas Lilburn’s accompanying music catches the poem’s moods and transitions, put poetry for a moment right into the public arena. The time was right for this, and Curnow had seen the need of the moment and had seized it memorably.

Only a few years later he edited two anthologies of poetry which are generally acknowledged to mark a point in the development of a mature and independent New Zealand literature. Curnow in those days was a literary nationalist; but he was also a literary realist, in the sense that what he cared most about was that our poetry should be an honest record, not a ‘three cheers for us’ one; and this meant recognition of deficiencies, lacks, failures, uncertainties. As Wilfred Owen had said, ‘the true poets must be truthful’. Rather than national pride, Curnow would offer us, in that resonant phrase, ‘the half-light of a diffident glory’.

Possibly the subtlest and frankest of Curnow’s statement of his position in these matters occurs in the introduction to his A Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse when he discusses Katherine Mansfield’s poem ‘To Stanislaw Wyspianski’. He calls it a ‘half-poem’, but praises it because, he says, ‘it allows us to date as early as 1910 the emergence of New Zealand as a characterizing force in the work of a native poet.’ What he finds and admires in the poem is that Mansfield identifies herself as a New Zealander, and that her country, which she appears to have rejected, figures nonetheless as ‘a palpable “here”, a pressure from within, an antagonist’ and so ‘anticipates the conflict of spirit’ in the poets who followed.

Curnow was wanting to be rid of weak nationalist self-assertions, the ‘Kowhai Gold’ kind of thing, that offered the picturesque – tuis and bellbirds, ‘scenic’ bush, mountains and seas, and romantic ‘pioneering’– rather than the tormented inner conscience of the nation; and it was this he felt Mansfield caught in her Wyspianski poem, including

the New Zealand sadness (always there, however deeply buried in the mind) because life here seems makeshift and reality (still sadder illusion) lodged somewhere ‘overseas’.

So Mansfield’s cry from ‘a little land with no history’ seemed to Curnow truthful and to catch a sad reality.

The point about sad or harsh realities rather than scenery is made also in varying ways by that other literary nationalist of the time, Frank Sargeson. In one of his early stories, for example, ‘Chaucerian’, the narrator, who has escaped from a narrow upbringing in a churchy family, has discovered the truth about himself, and about life, in Freeman’s Bay, at that time a central Auckland slum. He writes

It’s a very interesting place. Any New Zealand poet who hasn’t dedicated herself to kauri trees and bell-birds couldn’t do better than go and live there.

My admiration for the Curnow of that time is undimmed. But what strikes me now is how deeply and indelibly negative his nationalism was (‘ the New Zealand sadness, always there...’) When I was young I accepted this because the poems were so good, so beautifully crafted, so eloquent. Perhaps I accepted it also because I felt that sadness in myself, as something out of the air, in the water, inherent in the sense of place and history. At this distance in time that doesn’t seem to me entirely implausible; but if it’s true, I was not conscious of it, and if it had been suggested to me I’m sure I would have rejected it – would have said that the ‘sadness’ was just part of being alive.

But looked back on, how pervasive the gloom in those poems now seems! It is a collective grief, a loss, a deprivation. One of his sonnets begins,

The oldest of us burst into tears and cried
Let me go home, but she stayed, watching
At her staircase window ship after ship ride
Like birds her grieving sunsets.

‘House and land’, a wonderfully managed and memorably lyrical poem, ends

The sensitive nor’-west afternoon
Collapsed, and the rain came;
The dog crept into his barrel,
Looking lost and lame.
But you can’t attribute to either
Awareness of what great gloom
Stands in a land of settlers
With never a soul at home.

We are characterized as an unhappy, in effect homeless, ‘land of settlers’. A 1942 verse letter to Denis Glover laments

O I could go down to harbours
And mourn with a hundred years
Of hunger, what slips away there.

These are lines that chime with Charles Brasch’s

Remindingly beside the quays the white
Ships lie smoking; and from their haunted bay
The godwits vanish towards another summer.
Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring
Shadow of departure.

It’s hard to look at the work of that period from this distance and not see in it the ghostly face of the colonial child weeping for Mother England – something which, if it had been put to me in those terms at that time, would have appalled me and I would have rejected. My thought now is that there is no escaping from your actual condition (and I include myself in this). If yours is one of colonialism that will show, even in your struggle to reject and escape from it.

It would have distressed Curnow too, probably, if I had written in these terms during his lifetime. I realize that what I am saying here is not unlike William Blake’s assertion that ‘Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it’. It is like one of those always slightly irritating exercises in literary deconstruction, where the clever critic proves the writer set out with one intention and achieved precisely its opposite. Nonetheless it seems to me looking again at these poems I have known so long and know so well, that they do surrender to their opposites. The poet who aspired to speak for the nation, was telling us we were not a nation at all but a land of sad homeless settlers. And the poet who said others after him would ‘stand upright here’ as he could not, was writing poems which stood upright as none written before him had done, and only a few since.

Allen Curnow and C.K. Stead, March 2001, at the launch of Curnow’s last collection, The Bells of St Babel’s.


It was not until 1949, aged 37 or 38, that Curnow got out of New Zealand and to London where in November of that year he wrote his ‘Elegy on my father’, an untypically awkward poem, as if his current state of mind, and present preoccupations, had no room for, or means of coping with, such an important but distant death. Back in New Zealand the following year he wrote a poem, addressed it seems to someone left behind in London, and reflecting painfully on the loss:

I pray, pray for me on some spring-wet pavement
Where halts the heart-print of our salt bereavement,
         Pray over many times
Forgive him the seas, forgive him the spring leaf,
All bloom ungathered perishable as grief,
         For the hulk of the world’s between.

There is something very personal and private here, but it is made public. Perhaps for the last time Curnow is speaking for us all – of our far removal, of distance, of the great, almost unbridgeable gap between here and there. It is a last look at, or from, New Zealand before jet travel became affordable, and e-communication commonplace; before the ‘hulk’ of the world shrivelled to a manageable and almost frighteningly small nut, and national self-confidence became, if not actually at least plausibly, self-sufficient.

Meanwhile he had moved to Auckland in 1951 where he became, I think one can say, a regional rather than a national poet: less a public eminence, but no less a brilliant poet. His 1955 poems, marking the beginning of his relationship with Jeny Tole, were an enrichment in every way. The emotional range expanded together with the enlargement of scene and reference. Before too long Curnow, with his new wife, would become, like the rest of us, an international traveller; and though England, and London as a centre of Anglophone publishing, continued to be important, as it had to be for a son of Christchurch and the Anglican Church, Italy became the place he loved most to visit, an expansion of his poetry’s worldly vision. The sequence ‘Moro Assassinato’, on the murder of the Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, is a reflection of that expansion, and is one of his finest.

Of the Mansfield Wyspianski poem Curnow wrote, ‘Because she addresses a Pole – type-figure of suffering nationhood – she disengages herself from the invidious and belittling contest of England versus “the Colony”. Paradoxically, her lines thus dignify the country they reject.’ Perhaps Curnow felt his ‘Italy’ served the same purpose.

It is hardly surprising that some of the poets who came immediately after Curnow, the ones I think of as the 1922 generation, who were perhaps the children ‘born in a marvellous year’, in the 1960s rebelled against and rejected Curnow’s view of our poetry and of the state of the nation. I was involved in that argument, on Curnow’s side because he was the Master and, simply as poets, most of his detractors (with the exception of James K. Baxter) seemed amateurs by comparison. Now it has receded into literary history, and like all such stories, calls for retelling as distance alters the perspectives.

Permission to reproduce the work of Allen Curnow courtesy of the copyright owner Tim Curnow c/- Auckland University Press.

Everyone should be aware the BOOKSHOP DAY is coming on October 31st and bookshops throughout the country will be finding ways of making their presence felt. Good luck to them – we depend on them.

– C.K. Stead

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