Second Wind

C.K. Stead

  • Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972-1988 by Allen Curnow
    Auckland, 227 pp, £16.50, February 1989, ISBN 1 86940 025 9

Much of the best poetry in English at least since the Romantics, is, in a controversial phrase used by Allen Curnow in the introduction to one of his two anthologies of New Zealand poetry, ‘local and special at the point where we pick up the traces’. The phrase typically says what Curnow wants it to say – that the poet and therefore the poem are visibly products of a region – while protecting it-self against anticipated complaints that such a view is insular. When I last wrote about Curnow, in 1963, I backed my text with references to an essay by Allen Tate defending regionalism in literature against an internationalist position which Tate cleverly described as ‘the new provincialism’.

Allen Curnow (b. 1911) invented New Zealand poetry – or forced it into existence. Before his 1945 anthology, A Book of New Zealand Verse, there had been only poets who were New Zealanders. In a similar way Frank Sargeson (1903-82) gathered around him a group of determined cohorts who made a distinct New Zealand fiction. There is an un-measurable calculus between what the history of a region requires and the talents of the writers who are called upon to supply it. One might argue that for a population the size of New Zealand’s to throw up two such men at the necessary moment is improbable – as if statistics should undermine one’s literary valuation – but only if one didn’t know (for example) the approximate population of Elizabethan England, or that of Classical Greece. Between them, Curnow and Sargeson brought one of the ‘new literatures in English’ into being.

Curnow arrived at poetic maturity as the great depression came to an end, the Second World War began, and New Zealand celebrated its first hundred years since the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi by which the Maori tribes ceded sovereignty to the British Crown. He was a post-Eliot poet, keenly aware of the Auden generation, in tune with their politics and their poetics. Like them, he inherited that view common to modern poets that there is an unbridgeable gap between the official account of public events and occasions, and a poetic response to them. Yet like Yeats in ‘Easter 1916’, or Auden in ‘Spain 1937’, he found ways of writing poems about them. He made history over into poetry without averting his eyes from the pain and destruction of colonial settlement, and the depression that was somewhere built into the psyche of generations who had travelled so far, had neither the means nor the wish to return, but hadn’t entirely shaken off a sense of loss and alienation.

By the Fifties the public aspects of Curnow’s poetry had been largely internalised. He was now less a national poet, but still very clearly a regional one. Collective pain, blood sacrifice, simply the anguish of being conscious of place and history – it was all there: but so were the corresponding affirmations, rooted in particularities as ‘New Zealand’ as Lowell’s were ‘Boston’ or Yeats’s ‘Ireland’.

And then, about 1957, Curnow fell silent. There was an Audenesque piece from New York in 1961; there was a retrospective selection from OUP in London in 1963; there were some plays. But for fifteen years there was nothing else – no new poems. New Zealand poetry in the Sixties was dominated by James K. Baxter (born 1926) – a Byronic figure at once careless, prolific and brilliant who had (in the phrase I think Russians use of writers after Gogol) crawled out from Curnow’s overcoat, and who for a few years seemed destined to eclipse his master.

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