Page 2: Poetry and journalism
Curnow, Thomas Allen Monro
Journalist, poet, writer, university professor
This biography, written by Terry Sturm, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
At university, new horizons opened through Curnow’s contact with like-minded students interested in poetry and politics. He was particularly influenced by the philosopher R. P. Anschutz, who introduced him to the modernist movement, and the poets R. A. K. Mason and A. R. D. Fairburn. With other students he frequented the student hut at Anawhata on Auckland’s west coast, and began writing poetry regularly for the student magazine Kiwi and for the literary journal Phoenix. In 1933, publisher Bob Lowry produced Curnow’s first collection, Valley of decision, containing personal poems on themes of faith and doubt.
Poetry and satire
Moving back to Christchurch in 1934, Curnow began a longstanding friendship with Denis Glover, founder of the Caxton Press. He contributed the first of 60 poems and satires to the radical fortnightly magazine Tomorrow, many under the pseudonym ‘Julian’.
Break with the church
Also in that year, frustrated by the conservatism of the church, he decided not to accept an Anglican curateship at Tauranga. Although Curnow ceased to be a practising Christian, the religious foundation of his childhood, and his later theological studies, remained a powerful force in his life and poetry.
In 1935 Curnow became a full-time reporter for the Christchurch Press and published Three poems as well as a lively, opinionated manifesto, Poetry and language, which attracted the interest of the English graphic designer Eric Gill.
In 1936, in Timaru, Curnow met Elizabeth (Betty) Jaumaud Le Cren, descended from early immigrants to Canterbury province. They were married in Timaru on 26 August and lived in Gloucester Street, Christchurch. They became part of a lively alternative cultural scene involving writers, artists, left-wing theatre people and radical intellectuals. In 1938, the Curnows shifted to Riccarton, where the first of their three children, Wystan, was born.
From 1937, under the pseudonym ‘Whim Wham’, Curnow contributed lively weekly topical verse satires to the Christchurch Press and later to the New Zealand Herald, on political events and personalities, bureaucracy, and the idiosyncratic social and cultural habits of New Zealanders. Five selections of these poems were published as books.
Enemies (1937) contained powerful poetic attacks on the political and religious establishment. Not in narrow seas (1939), influenced by the revisionist New Zealand historian J. C. Beaglehole, turned to colonial history, emphasising themes of materialism, psychic dislocation, and cultural mimicry of England. It also revealed emergent metaphysical interests based on the country’s unique antipodean, oceanic location.