Thomas Allen Monro Curnow (known as Allen) was born in Timaru on 17 June 1911, the second of three sons of Tremayne Monro Curnow, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife, Jessamine Towler Gambling.
On his father’s side, Allen Curnow was a fourth-generation New Zealander, the great-grandson of a Scottish-born settler and merchant, Peter Monro, who arrived in Hokianga in 1835. Tremayne Curnow gained an MA at Canterbury College in 1904 and in 1907 was ordained a priest of the Anglican church. A poet and the author of light weekly newspaper verses, he was the strongest influence on his son’s early interest in poetry.
Jessamine had met Tremayne in Timaru in the late 1880s, shortly after emigrating to New Zealand with her mother, Rose, who had separated from her husband before emigration. Rose lived with her daughter and son-in-law until her death. She played a large part in Allen’s upbringing while his mother attended to parish duties. The two worlds represented by his father and mother – one strongly rooted in New Zealand, the other aware of colonial exile and loss – provided a formative dual influence on Allen’s personality and poetry.
Allen Curnow grew up as a vicarage child, in a supportive environment. He nevertheless acquired a sense of difference from other children and a strong need to live up to parental expectations. He attended primary schools at Belfast, Waddington and West Lyttelton, where he was dux in his last year, but was not academically ambitious. He enrolled at Christchurch Boys’ High School in 1924. In 1929, he became a proof-reader’s copyholder at the Christchurch Sun newspaper.
Still uncertain about his future, Curnow started at St John’s College, Auckland, in 1931 with a Marsh Scholarship to study for ordination into the Anglican church. Curnow was the top student in the national theological examinations in 1933. He studied towards a bachelor of arts degree at Auckland University College and completed it at Canterbury in 1938.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Selected poems (1990) consolidated Curnow’s reputation as a major poet writing in English, but despite the accolades he remained focused on each new poem, often worked on for months, and mostly published in the London Review of Books. Now in his 80s, Curnow remained an intensely private person, enjoying the company of family and relatives, and contact with a small number of longstanding friends, including Bill Pearson, the historian John Pocock, Douglas Lilburn, and the writer C. K. Stead (who lived opposite him in Tohunga Crescent). Curnow greatly respected Stead's comments on drafts of the later poems.
Allen Curnow published 21 volumes of poems, seven receiving New Zealand’s annual Poetry Award. Continuum (1988), containing new and collected later poems, received the Dillon’s Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and in 1989 he became only the second poet outside the United Kingdom to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry. Made a CBE in 1986, he became a member of the Order of New Zealand in 1990.
In the 1990s, Curnow made two last trips overseas. In 1992, he attended EXPO in Seville at the New Zealand government’s invitation, and read at the Voice Box on the South Bank in London. In 1998, after the appearance of his last collection Early days yet (1997), he read at the International Poetry Festival at the South Bank Centre.
In 2001 Curnow’s last, award-winning volume of new poems, The Bells of Saint Babel’s, appeared.
In his later years Curnow seemed remarkably fit for his age, but it was sheer will power that kept him going, as ailments accumulated. He died suddenly at Auckland Hospital on 23 September 2001.
Sir Paul Reeves conducted his funeral service at St Mary’s in Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland and he was buried at Purewa Cemetery, Meadowbank.
Allen Curnow was one of New Zealand’s most significant literary figures, publishing numerous influential volumes of poetry. These, and the anthologies he compiled, had a major impact on the course of New Zealand poetry.