Allen Curnow was one of the defining voices of 20th-century New Zealand literature. His career spanned six decades and there was a strong local and international following for his work.
Born in Timaru in 1911, Curnow was educated at Christchurch Boys' High School, Canterbury and Auckland university colleges, 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, establishing 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 centenary in 1940, and sought to understand the New Zealand experience. Curnow's early poetry expressed unease about the settlement and development of New Zealand, musing famously on 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 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'. These poems provided a commentary on topical events and lampooned public figures. By the time his last work appeared in August 1988, Whim Wham had published 2250 poems.
In 1951 Curnow shifted to Auckland, where he lectured in English at the university until 1976. He continued to write serious poetry, but the focus of his work gradually changed from a preoccupation with national identity towards greater introspection. Curnow referred to this shift as a turning away from 'questions which present themselves as public and answerable' to those which are '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