Story: Curnow, Thomas Allen Monro

Page 3: The 1940s

Curnow, Thomas Allen Monro

1911–2001

Journalist, poet, writer, university professor

This biography, written by Terry Sturm, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.

Curnow’s work hours as a cable subeditor became more irregular after the outbreak of the Second World War. The war deeply affected his poetry. He intensified his sense of New Zealand’s connection with the unpredictable flow of contemporary history (‘Our islands lost again, all earth one island, / And all our travel circumnavigation’). This perspective informs the poems of Island and time (1941) and Sailing or drowning (1943), which contain many of Curnow’s best-known shorter poems (‘House and land’, ‘The unhistoric story’ and ‘The skeleton of the great moa’).

The composer Douglas Lilburn became a close friend during this time. Betty Curnow developed a talent for painting, mentored by Rita Angus. In May 1942 the Curnows shifted to Bryndwr, where two more children were born.

Public themes

Curnow attracted attention as a poet of public themes, challenging complacent accounts of New Zealand’s history and society. ‘Landfall in unknown seas’, commissioned in 1942 by the Department of Internal Affairs to mark the tercentenary of Abel Tasman’s voyage to New Zealand, was accompanied by music by Douglas Lilburn. The work was performed many times and became the best known example of Curnow’s public vein, with its reference to ‘the stain of blood which writes an island story’ and its urgent questioning of what the future might hold.

Personal themes

After the Second World War, Curnow turned to personal themes, including childhood and family memories. In Jack without magic (1946) and At dead low water and sonnets (1949) these themes predominate – an anguished, memory-prompted sense of the erosions of time, deeply conflicted explorations of sexuality and identity, and readings of biblical myth in personally inflected existential terms.

Anthology

Curnow edited a highly influential anthology, A book of New Zealand verse, published by Caxton Press in 1945 and reprinted in 1951. Its elegant introduction, exploring problems of the imagination, which was sometimes misread as a narrow nationalist manifesto, brought a sophisticated modernist sensibility to the poetry. It also established many of the terms of debate about the history, character, purposes and value of poetry in New Zealand for the rest of the century.

Visit to Great Britain and the US

In 1949, Curnow travelled overseas, assisted by a grant from the State Literary Fund. He worked on London’s News Chronicle and met numerous writers, notably the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whom he visited for a week at Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, in October. He also explored his family connections in Norwich and St Ives. In January 1950 he travelled to the United States, meeting Thomas again, as well as the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Eberhart.

How to cite this page:

Terry Sturm. 'Curnow, Thomas Allen Monro - The 1940s', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2010. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6c1/curnow-thomas-allen-monro/page-3 (accessed 21 March 2019)