Page 4: The 1950s and 1960s
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.
In 1951, Curnow accepted a lectureship in English at Auckland University College. The family moved to live in Takapuna, overlooking Shoal Bay on Auckland’s inner harbour. Curnow gained a DLitt in 1964 and was promoted to associate professor in 1967. His teaching ranged widely over traditional and modern poetry, and with W. H. (Bill) Pearson, his closest colleague and friend on the staff, he introduced New Zealand literature to the curriculum.
More poems and the Penguin anthology
In 1955 and 1956, Curnow produced some of his best-known mid-career poems (including ‘Spectacular blossom’ and ‘A small room with large windows’), which appeared in Poems, 1949–57 (1958). In 1957, he completed The Penguin book of New Zealand verse, whose publication was delayed until the end of 1960 by objections to the selection from James K. Baxter, Alistair Campbell and Louis Johnson, and also from Eileen Duggan. The debates the book aroused, which included the claim that the anthology was not hospitable to women poets, did not affect sales, which by 1970 had reached 35,000 copies.
Curnow’s first sabbatical leave, in the United States in 1961, was rich in new experiences. He initially stayed in Washington, DC, attached to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where he read and recorded his poems, and met many other writers, including Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and Robert Graves.
At the end of this trip, he made a decision to separate from Betty. There had been stresses in the marriage after the first few years, and these had intensified after the shift to Auckland.
In November 1954, Curnow had met Jenifer (Jeny) Mary Tole, a teacher and school counsellor who later became a Māori-language expert. The rapport was immediate, and ‘Spectacular blossom’ was written soon afterwards. On 31 August 1965 they married, living at Tohunga Crescent in Parnell. Curnow’s relationship with Jeny was the most important in his life, and he dedicated to her all but four of the books he subsequently published, including all his major collections.
Curnow wrote six plays. His early poetic tragedy, The axe, set on the Pacific island of Mangaia, had been performed in 1948 and 1953, and on radio in 1961. Moon section, a symbolic play about rootlessness and failure, was produced to a mixed reception in 1959, and The overseas expert, broadcast in 1961, was an angry riposte to critics of the earlier play. Dr Pom (1964), a lively absurdist one-acter, was followed by The duke’s miracle (1967), Curnow’s most successful radio play, based on Browning’s ‘My last duchess’. It was translated for Prague Radio in 1968 and in 1969 was an award-winning entry in the Czechoslovak Festival of Foreign Plays. The play was also broadcast in Australia in 1976 and in Britain in 1980. Resident of nowhere (1969), a radio play about James Busby, was Curnow’s last, and in 1971 the collection Four plays appeared.