Story: Curnow, Thomas Allen Monro

Page 5: Later career

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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.

A small bach (holiday home) on a bush section on Lone Kauri Road at Karekare Beach on Auckland’s west coast provided a base for Allen and Jeny Curnow each summer, and an imaginative inspiration for many later poems. In 1972, Curnow began his impressive later poetic career with Trees, effigies, moving objects, less densely written than his ‘high modernist’ work of the late 1940s and 1950s, but no less intellectually challenging. The following year An abominable temper and other poems, the last of his volumes to be published by Glover, appeared.

Later poetry

Curnow’s late poetry was remarkable for its distinctive observation of natural scenes and human events, and its acute sense of time, death and the destructive forces in history and the contemporary world. He probed many of the major intellectual debates of his time, such as the relationship between the self and the world, problems of belief and ethics, and the nature of memory, myth, history and language.

Italy and the US

Curnow’s Collected poems appeared in 1974, while he was overseas on his last sabbatical leave. During five months in Italy, the highlights were Venice and a month in a fishing village, Gioiosa Marea, in Sicily. He returned via the United States, where he gave a reading, as he had on an earlier sabbatical leave in 1966–67, at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. From this time on, European settings inspired many of Curnow’s poems. While his poetry continued to develop, his academic career was nearly over. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Canterbury in 1975, and retired in 1976.

Violence and politics

An incorrigible music (1979), Curnow's darkest exploration of violence in human behaviour, drew on local locations (especially Karekare) but included a sequence on Renaissance Italian history. During a second visit to Italy in 1978, the Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, was assassinated by the terrorist Red Brigade. A further sequence appeared, ‘Moro assassinato’, which added a powerful contemporary political dimension and contributed significantly to Curnow’s emerging poetic reputation in the United Kingdom. Politics continued to absorb him; in 1981, then aged 70, Curnow was arrested during an anti-Springbok rugby tour demonstration and charged with trespass at Auckland airport, but the charge was dismissed.

National and international recognition

After the publication of You will know when you get there (1982) and The loop in Lone Kauri Road (1986), containing many poems that first appeared in Encounter, London Magazine and PN Review, Curnow was increasingly in demand for readings and interviews, overseas and in New Zealand. In 1983, he was the Katherine Mansfield Literary Fellow at Menton in France and in 1985 he gave readings in the United Kingdom and at the Toronto Harbourfront Festival. During these and later visits, he met many of the poets and editors who supported his work there, including Donald Davie, Peter Porter, Anthony Thwaite, Alan Ross, Richard Mayne, Michael Hulse and Karl Miller.

Criticism and commentary

Look back harder (1987, edited by Peter Simpson) published Curnow’s major critical writings, and in 1988 he wrote his last weekly satire as Whim Wham. He always maintained the Whim Wham pseudonym in order to preserve a distinction between his light verse and the serious poetry, but the 2,000 or more contributions by Whim Wham had provided an unparalleled, often controversial commentary on New Zealand’s social and political history.

How to cite this page:

Terry Sturm. 'Curnow, Thomas Allen Monro - Later career', 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-5 (accessed 17 September 2019)