by Terry Sturm, edited by Linda Cassels
This is a bumper biography of our most internationally acclaimed poet, combining the story of his life with an overview of his extraordinary creative output.
Curnow has been criticised for being monocultural; white, middle-class and too intellectual. He has also been accused of being a narrow nationalist. But to such an accusation he provided an answer: ‘Nationality’, he wrote (and ethnicity, he might have added), ‘isn’t an option but a circumstance.’ These things simply are; they are the point from which we must observe. As Sturm writes: ‘the past exists in a dynamic relationship with the present,’ or, as J. G. A. Pocock put it when commenting on some of Curnow’s earliest poems, ‘… we are none of us tangata whenua, but a biological species of voyagers and settlers.’ Curnow, in the 1979 poem, The Traveller, says it best of all: ‘All the seas are one sea, / The blood one blood / and the hands one hand.’
Islands, isolation, the ocean; these themes do feature in much of his poetry and in his plays, even in poems and other works that are not ‘centred’ here, but surely not in a conscious effort to ‘define’ what it is to be a New Zealander. The ineluctable truth is that his themes are also always universal, even when, perhaps especially when, the focus is intensely personal.
As a child, Curnow was in constant company with his paternal grandmother, and thus was exposed to the resigned anguish of an ‘uprooted settler’; but he also had stronger and deeper roots in New Zealand through his mother’s side, and most of his life experience was firmly anchored in this country. It was here he was born, schooled, twice married, helped raise three children, studied to become a priest, was for many years a journalist, and finally settled to a career as an academic. During all this time, he steadily worked on his poems, his plays, his verses as the witty, acerbic (and very popular) Whim Wham, and his work as a critic and anthologist.
It was here, too, that he established his most meaningful friendships, particularly with Denis Glover, but also with others such as Douglas Lilburn, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason and Charles Brasch, and where he became part of that Christchurch arts scene vividly described in Peter Simpson’s Bloomsbury South.
Inevitably, Curnow also became involved in the debates swirling around ‘poetics’, and what should be left out or included in anthologies. Such debates at times generated uneasy relationships with some of his fellow poets, including Eileen Duggan, Louis Johnson, Alistair Campbell and (to a lesser extent) James K. Baxter. These differences of opinion didn’t diminish his awareness of their strengths as poets, though they might have strengthened his perception of their weaknesses.
During his life he met and sometimes became friends with many of the greatest English language poets of his day, and by the 1980’s he was firmly acknowledged to be one of them himself, recognised as such by the major critics, with his work appearing in the most prestigious of journals worldwide. 1989 was a particularly wonderful year for recognition, including an invitation from Ted Hughes to accept the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and the offer of New Zealand’s highest honour, the Order of New Zealand.
This is a rich biography of one of our major cultural figures, and merits reading from cover to cover. Even when dealing with esoteric matters of poetic style or the deeper influences of other poets on his work, it is pleasurable and interesting rather than daunting.
At a special tribute to Curnow on 5 April 2002, J.G.A Pocock said: “He was a great man, and I do mean that… his powers, as a poet and a person, went on growing. So long as I live, I shan’t forget him.”
We can be grateful that Terry Sturm has left us with such a generous opportunity to share in that remembrance of both the man and his works. To use the same exclamation with which Curnow ended three of his poems: ‘A big one! A big one!’ Yes, it is; and a very, very rewarding one.
Author: Terry Sturm, edited by Linda Cassels
Publisher: Auckland University Press