The poets who launched their careers with the Caxton Press in the 1930s saw themselves as the initiators of a national literature. It was a bold claim; and yet, to a large extent later readers have agreed with them.
Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, Denis Glover and A. R. D. Fairburn are acknowledged as having raised New Zealand poetry to a new level of seriousness. The 1930s and early 1940s have been described as the most coherent period in New Zealand’s literary history. Among these four important poets there were personal ties of friendship. They shared a publisher (Caxton), they shared the experience of the 1930s economic depression in their early adulthood, and three of the four were South Islanders with a strong attraction to the South Island landscape. All of them were interested in the kind of cultural nationalist ideas best articulated by Curnow. Nonetheless, they are four quite distinct poetic personalities.
Allen Curnow, from ‘The unhistoric story’, 1941
Whaling for continents coveted deep in the south
The Dutchman envied the unknown, drew bold
Images of market-place, populous rivermouth,
The Land of Beach ignorant of the value of gold.
Morning in Murderers’ Bay
Blood drifted away.
It was something different, something
Nobody counted on.1
Curnow and the anxieties of settlement
Allen Curnow was always the most intellectual and tough-minded of the group. His poems shine an unsparing light on New Zealand history, its pretensions and its failures of self-knowledge.
In his poetry the European discovery of New Zealand is like the biblical fall. ‘The stain of blood that writes an island story’2 has never been wiped out. It haunts the country’s subsequent history, so that a feeling of being truly at home is continually postponed: ‘Not I, some child born in a marvellous year/Will learn the trick of standing upright here.’3
After writing some of the most important poetry of the mid-century, in the 1960s Curnow appeared to stop writing. He re-emerged, however, to enjoy a ‘second’ career, a highlight of which was his 1979 collection An incorrigible music.
Denis Glover, from ‘I Remember’, 1941
I remember paddocks opening green
On mountains tussock-brown,
And the rim of fire on the hills,
And the river running down;
And the smoke of the burning scrub,
And my two uncles tall,
And the smell of earth new-ploughed,
And the antlers in the hall,
Then Uncle Jim was off to the wars
With a carbine at his saddle
And was killed in the Transvaal
– I forget in just what battle.
And Uncle Simon left the farm
After some wild quarrel,
Rolled his blanket and rode off
Whistling on his sorrel …4
Denis Glover had an unrivalled ear for the musical qualities of poetry. However, he was also suspicious of poetry, as if it were not really a manly activity. Sometimes his work is genuinely witty; at other times he resorts to a kind of clowning that reads like a defence mechanism.
But when his lyricism and his scepticism achieve the right balance, as in the Sings Harry sequence (1951), the result can be dazzling. Glover at his best appeals to a wide range of readers. ‘The magpies’ may well be New Zealand’s best-known poem.
A. R. D. Fairburn and Charles Brasch
Glover’s friend A. R. D. (Rex) Fairburn was equally divided about poetry, and even more inclined to divert himself with humorous side-projects. However, his long poem Dominion is among New Zealand’s most bitter social commentaries. Fairburn was an advocate for social credit, and the poem is highly opinionated, especially about economic matters. At the same time there is a deeply romantic streak in Fairburn (he wrote the best love poems of the era) and an almost mystical attachment to nature.
Charles Brasch was a more sober poet. His South Island landscapes capture his generation’s sense of being embarked on a lonely cultural mission in a beautiful but almost uninhabitable place.
Robin Hyde, from ‘The Beaches’, 1937–38
Not here our sands, those salt-and-pepper sands
Mounding us to the chins: (don’t you remember?
Won’t the lost shake for any cry at all?)
Listen: our sands, so clean you didn’t care
If fine grains hit your teeth, stuck in your hair,
Were moist against the sunburn on your knees.
Everything glowed – old tar-bubble November,
Nothing around us but blue-bubbling air…5
The one major poet of the 1930s who doesn’t fit comfortably under the nationalist blanket is Robin Hyde. A prolific, inconsistent writer, her death by her own hand at the age of 33 left a body of work which has proved difficult to assimilate.
It has been suggested that the biggest problem in appreciating Hyde is that subsequent readers have largely inherited the values (and prejudices) of her male contemporaries. Hyde herself, though, was steering by different lights. Unlike Curnow, for instance, she was not seduced by contemporary British modernism.
For these reasons, Hyde’s work is apt to strike readers today as lush, baggy and often rather old-fashioned. Her most accessible poems, such as ‘Houses by the sea’ and the poems she wrote travelling as a journalist in war-torn China, are those which sound most like the poems that others were writing.