Allen Curnow was one of the defining voices of 20th-century New Zealand literature, with a career spanning six decades, and a strong local and international following for his work.
Curnow was born in Timaru in 1911, and educated at Christchurch Boys' High School, Canterbury and Auckland universities, and St John's Theological College. He planned to follow his father into the Anglican clergy, but abandoned that ambition in the early 1930s. Drawn increasingly to poetry, he pursued a career in journalism to support his vocation of creative writer. He established himself at the Press newspaper in Christchurch.
Influenced by the contemporary British modernist poets, Curnow quickly developed his talent for poetry. By the end of the 1930s his verse had appeared in a number of literary magazines, and four small collections had been published. He became increasingly interested in exploring aspects of living in this new country as it approached its 100th birthday in 1940, and sought to understand the New Zealand experience. Curnow's early poetry expressed unease about the settlement and development of New Zealand, remarking famously upon the 'Awareness of what great gloom / Stands in a land of settlers / With never a soul at home.'
Curnow expanded this idea further in his controversial introduction to A book of New Zealand verse 1923-45 (1945), which he also edited. He argued that New Zealand creative writers should be trying to define and understand their country through their work, rather than falling back on sentimental verse or trying to echo English poetry. Curnow's ideas influenced other writers and critics for many years, and were the source of much debate.
His work had its lighter side too. From 1937 he contributed satirical verse to several newspapers under the pen-name 'Whim Wham'. The poems provided a commentary on topical events, and lampooned public figures and current affairs. By the time the last poem appeared in August 1988, Whim Wham had published 2250 poems in the New Zealand press.
In 1951 Curnow shifted to Auckland, where he lectured in English at the University of Auckland until 1976. He continued to write serious poetry, and his work gradually shifted away from the preoccupation with national identity that characterised his earlier verse to a more introspective type of poetry. Curnow referred to this shift as a turning away from 'questions which present themselves as public and answerable', to ones which were 'always private and unanswerable'.
Curnow's work has been recognised as among the finest produced in New Zealand, and has received critical acclaim both at home and internationally. He was awarded the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the Cholmondley Award, and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. His 20th and final collection, The bells of St Babel's, was published in March 2001, a few months before his death at the age of 90.
by Tim Shoebridge