Monday, December 18, 2017
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ALLEN CURNOW – SIMPLY BY SAILING IN A NEW DIRECTION: A BIOGRAPHY” by Terry Sturm (Edited by Linda Cassells) (Auckland University Press, $59:99)
In 2004, when I was living in Wellington for a year, I happened to meet Professor Terry Sturm who was doing some research in the National Library. He told me he was writing the biography of Allen Curnow (Thomas Allen Munro Curnow, 1911-2001) and said he was always on the lookout for any interesting anecdotes and memories of the man. I went home and typed out a little Curnow anecdote, something fairly trivial and amusing from the early 1970s, when I was an undergradute in Auckland and Curnow was one of my lecturers. I delivered it to Terry Sturm the following day and he received it with a cheerful laugh. As it happens, the anecdote hasn’t made its way into Allen Curnow – Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: A Biography, but then I’m aware that a huge part of Sturm’s research material could not be used without swelling this biography to an unmanageable length. Terry Sturm (1941-2009) died before Simply by Sailing in a New Direction had taken its final shape. Rumour has it (and I am willing to be corrected on this point) that what Sturm left was over twice the length of the nearly 700 pages of closely-printed text that we now have. The task of editing it scrupulously was undertaken by Linda Cassells, and was apparently quite a job. Hence the eight years between Sturm’s death and the book’s appearance.
I’ll say at once the things that publishers like to reproduce on blurbs, but that in this case are completely true. Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is a great piece of scholarship and quite unlikely to be superseded as the standard life of Curnow. All future Curnow scholars or biographers will have to refer to it. It is primarily a “literary biography”. Curnow’s life is displayed chronologically, from Anglican vicar’s infant son to nonagenarian poet loaded with honours. But the focus is on the man’s work, so the chronicle of the life is kept in harness with a close analysis of the poems and plays. Not yet having a copy of the new Collected Poems of Allen Curnow (edited by Terry Sturm and Elizabeth Caffin), I read Simply by Sailing in a New Direction with my copies of Curnow’s Early Days Yet, Four Plays and various anthologies within easy reach so that I could check Sturm’s analyses against Curnow’s texts. Making one want to re-read admired work is one of the main things “literary biographies” are supposed to do. This one does.
Sturm (or his editor?) is very good in showing how Curnow’s poetic preoccupations, indeed how his “poetics”, developed over the years. He notes that, as a young man in the mid-1930s, “Curnow… makes numerous comments that might be read… as the beginnings of a poetics which remained with him for the rest of his life: that poems are first and foremost acts of self-exploration, aimed at ‘digging deep’ into personal experience to discover a substratum of ‘common human need’ which links the poet (and the poems, if they are good enough) to his fellow beings.” (p.89) He deals intelligently with Curnow’s gradual rejection, in the mid-1940s, of poems that made over-arching comments on time and history and his embrace of poems which encoded landscape or recalled sensual experience and childhood in philosophical terms. Towards the end of his life, says Sturm, there was “Curnow’s epistemological scepticism, hinting throughout at the partial, contingent, speculative character of all knowledge of the past.” (pp.602-603)
Many of the analyses of individual poems are illuminating. I was delighted to find Sturm preaching the essentiality of the sonnet “Sailing or Drowning” to Curnow’s earlier work (p.165) – its idea of the uncertainty of “causality” in history is one with which I have frequently confronted classes. The analysis of “A Small Room with Large Windows” (pp.316-319) led me to read the poem more closely than I had previously done, and find things I had not expected. I could create a very long list of other interesting textual exegeses available here.
Another great merit of Sturm’s approach is to consider carefully Curnow’s alter ego Whim Wham, the satirical newspaper rhymster. As he first took up this role in the 1930s, young Curnow wrote : “I now enjoy a sort of nightmare local notoriety as a writer of funny verse: seem to have inherited the family curse of triviality in serious matters & great profundity in the trivial. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame my ancestry – it’s a very common Anglican trait.” (p.133) For over five decades (1937 to 1988, to be precise), Whim Wham verses appeared first in the Christchurch Press and later in Auckland’s New Zealand Herald. Curnow could be very prickly with researchers and interviewers who asked him about Whim Wham, preferring to be discussed in terms of his “serious” poetry. But as Sturm appears to realise, the Whim Wham verses are often a better guide than the “serious” poems are, to how Curnow felt about topical and political issues at the time they arose.
Some other major matters in Curnow’s biography were news to me.
Despite the later memoir of one fellow student (Elsie Locke) at Auckland University College, the young Curnow “was wholly serious in preparing himself for the prospect of a church career during [a] full-time year at [the Anglican seminary] St John’s.” (p.69) The view is given in Chapter 4 of this biography that it was the social complacency of the church during the Depression, rather than theological doubts over doctrine, that forced young Curnow to write a pseudonymous article attacking the church. Indeed, after he wrote the article, he returned to Christchurch still fully expecting to become a deacon. Some commentators assumed that Curnow’s shift to agnosticism came earlier in part because, for a much later edition of his earliest published poems, Curnow re-worded some of what he had originally written.
The fifteen-or-so years that Curnow supported himself as a journalist were also news to me. Beginning with a post-school job as a copyholder on a Christchurch newspaper, he worked after 1934 (when he had given up on being a clergyman) on the Press as cables editor and, in effect, arranger of foreign news. (Sturm gives an intriguing sidelight on how, during the Second World War, New Zealand newspaper “cable” news was often manufactured out of short-wave BBC broadcasts.) It is also interesting to discover how stifled Curnow eventually came to feel in the parochial air of Christchurch. By the late 1940s, says Sturm, there was “his increasing sense of frustration and entrapment in a Christchurch cultural scene in which everyone knew everyone else, and in which conversation, debate, tastes had become entirely predictable.” (pp.229-230) Hence his greater willingness to shift to Auckland. Perhaps this reflects the late 1940s disintegration of the Bloomsbury South (reviewed on this blog) about which Peter Simpson wrote.
Have I so far made it clear that this is a book with much to commend it?
Now I’m afraid we hit some problems.
It is interesting to build a narrative of the poet’s life around the poems upon which he was working at any given time. But there is a problem in reconstructing elements of his childhood out of the poems he wrote many years later. As Sturm remarks, in the 1980s the much-older Curnow increasingly took “an interest in the possibilities of a new kind of autobiographical lyric: memory-based, reaching back to formative childhood and familial experiences, revisiting history not through large-scale abstractions but through densely textured small-scale, locally-focused observations of the social, political, geographical and domestic contexts in which it occurred.” (p.572) [Dare one say this comes close to an old man babbling o’ green fields?] But these were poems in which an old man reflected – and doubtless often distorted – things that had happened to him in his vicarage childhood and then his adolescence in Lyttelton. Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is sometimes in danger of treating these reconstructions as documentary facts.
One would also have to note that this is a very partisan book. The author is biased in favour of his subject – understandably – and therefore often puts the best possible construction on Curnow’s demeanour or behaviour, and takes his side in any public dispute (usually on literary matters) in which he was involved.
Sturm notes that in an argument with an elderly critic in the mid-1930s, young Curnow showed “his delight in tenacious disputation on matters of small detail.” (p.108). He later remarks that in the same decade “although Curnow enjoyed the social world in which [he] moved, his detachment, usually masked by well-lubricated talk and argumentativeness at social gatherings, was often interpreted as arrogance.” (p.158) The harder fact is that many people were rubbed up the wrong way by Curnow and saw him casting himself as the visionary who understood New Zealand more clearly than anybody else. The arrogance was real. There was also the mandarin attitude towards the perceived philistines. In Chapter 11, Sturm tells us that Curnow feared he had condescended to “popular comprehensibility” in his collaboration with Douglas Lilburn, the performance poetry cycle “Landfall in Unknown Seas”. (Is comprehensibility really something to sniff at?). Chapter 20 provides a long defence of Curnow’s never-published play “Moon Section”, attributing its failure to hostile newspaper reviews. The reality appears to be that it flopped even with discerning audiences.
With regard to New Zealand “literary nationalism” of the 1930s and 1940s, with which Curnow is often identified, Sturm avoids the revisionist criticisms of the movement that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed he is rather anxious to refute the notion that Curnow embraced any sort of nationalism at all. He sometimes takes to scolding readers for not interpreting poems correctly. Sturm writes of Curnow’s much-anthlogised sonnet “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch”: “Commentators on this poem have almost invariably read it as Curnow’s definitive statement about New Zealand identity in the 1940s. It isn’t…” (p.182) Of Curnow’s introduction to his 1940s Caxton anthology of New Zealand poetry, Sturm writes: “Although the introduction was later read as a manifesto of literary nationalism, offering prescriptions for how New Zealand poetry should be written, it was considerably more subtle than that, though – perhaps more than anything Curnow had written up to this time – it claimed to identify distinctive imaginative preoccupations emerging in New Zealand poetry, which made it different from poetry written up to this time.” (p.195) This seems to be a concession to the fact that there was a “nationalist” preoccupation for young and early-middle-aged Curnow. Inevitably Sturm takes Curnow’s side in the pseudo-controversy in the 1950s about his supposed “South Island myth”.
On the matter of Curnow’s “nationalism”, I find myself agreeing with C.K.Stead’s comment on the earlier Curnow “It is hard to look at the work of that period from this distance and not see in it the ghostly face of the colonial child weeping for Mother England” (quoted from Stead’s “Allen Curnow – ‘Poet Laureate’?” in Shelf Life [reviewed on this blog], AUP 2016 pp.385-386). In effect, Stead is saying that Curnow’s impulses were those of a displaced “colonial” whose background and upbringing still made him think of England as “Home”. Something I note about Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is the intense name-dropping in the sections where Sturm chronicles Curnow’s travels overseas, and Curnow’s boyish delight in seeing the English things he had so often dreamed of. The colonial had come Home. By the final chapters we are aware of the great pleasure he took in overseas recognition, New Zealand being too small for him. The last chapter of the book is crammed with overseas festivals and conferences attended, trips taken, awards given, fellow poets met, which is all dutiful and comme il faut but makes for the dullest chapters in the biography.
On other matters Sturm champions Curnow’s version of things, such as his relationship with Dylan Thomas. The biography’s own account (pp.255-259) shows that, while Thomas and Curnow got on very well with each other, their acquaintance was brief – Curnow stayed in Wales with the Thomases for four days and also encountered Thomas a few times in the USA. But after Thomas’s death by booze, Curnow was determined to refute the view of the Welsh poet as a drunken, fornicating, bohemian boyo, and was particularly anxious to refute John Malcolm Brinnin’s (admittedly somewhat sensationalised) book Dylan Thomas in America. Curnow made comments that implied a longer acquaintance with Thomas than he had actually had, such as “He [Thomas] was kind, and thoughtful for friends. I always found him so.” (quoted p.262) Alas, the boozing bard really was a truer image of Thomas than Curnow’s courteous version. [I make this claim based on Paul Ferris’s biography of Thomas, Caitlin Thomas’s two books Leftover Life to Kill and A Warring Absence, and other Thomas-ania sitting on my shelves within reach as I write this review.]
Of course Sturm sees Curnow as the innocent victim of other poets’ carping in the (late 1950s) hold-ups to the publication of Curnow’s Penguin anthology of New Zealand poetry. Louis Johnson, James K. Baxter and Alistair Campbell made objections to Curnow’s proposed anthology, and threatened to refuse permission for their poems to be included in it. This had much to do with rivalries between Auckland and Wellington poets, generational differences and other matters that have been discussed in numerous literary articles. Sturm remarks of Curnow “he seems to have been entirely unaware of the personal animus that some poets felt towards him, and it was at this time that the myth of Curnow as eminence grise, a malign behind-the-scenes controller of poetic reputations, had its origins.” (p.334) Sturm does quote from the review Baxter wrote of the anthology, “The Kiwi and Mr Curnow”. But I think readers of this biography would get a more balanced view of this spat if they read the whole of Baxter’s review – which makes many good points. It can be found in Volume 1 (pp.438-442) of Baxter’s Complete Prose (reviewed on this blog). On the same controversy even better (and funnier) is Baxter’s (never previously published) “A Vegetable Bouquet to Mr Curnow” (Vol.1 pp.459-466 Complete Prose), in which Baxter quotes specific paragraphs from Curnow’s introduction to the Penguin anthology and notes, with heavy irony, what a distorted view of New Zealand they give. This does not prove that Baxter was right on every point – and, in public utterances, Curnow was certainly a more temperate writer than Baxter often was. Even so, this matter involved more real issues than Sturm’s biography suggests.
Then we come to the matter of Curnow’s controversial poem “Dichtung und Wahrheit”. Frankly Sturm’s diplomatic account of it fudges the controversy. Sturm says Curnow “anticipated that some amongst those local readers who recognised [M.K.] Joseph’s novel behind the poem’s savage reduction of its narrator’s ‘literariness’ to the crude and violent obscenity of the events themselves might read it as an unfair and gratuitous insult to a colleague widely respected as a gentle, humane scholar…. However, he did not identify either the novel or its author in the poem… it enabled him to explore ‘the aspect of homicidal violence as entertainment’.” (pp.526-527). [Emphasis added.] One immediately has to ask whether Curnow really expected readers to be so stupid as not to identify the novel and its author. Also one can reasonably ask why Curnow couldn’t criticise “homicidal violence as entertainment” by using any one of the thousands of literary (and cinematic) examples that were available to him. Long story short, this vindictive poem really is an “unfair and gratuitous” attack on a colleague, despite ingenious academic attempts (yes, I’ve read many of them) to justify it as consonant with a volume considering the “incorrigible music” of human violence in history. (For my own take on this poem, you may find on this blog Dichtung und Selbstbefriedigung, which is almost as bilious as Curnow’s version.)
So much for Sturm’s partisanship and diplomacy. I am bound to add that in one matter, his tact is fully justified. This is the matter of the disintegration of Curnow’s first marriage. Curnow married Betty Le Cren (with his vicar father officiating) in 1936. By the mid-1940s, it was clear that the marriage was already in trouble. In 1944 “Despite the pleasure he took in his children, his anxieties about his capacity to support his enlarged family, and about his imagined inadequacies as a father, clearly emerge in Curnow’s correspondence during the course of the year.” (p.197) Sturm tactfully suggests (without spelling it out) that Curnow might have had an affair with another woman (Vie Lee) when he was visiting Britain in 1949-50. In 1955, Curnow left his wife of 19 years, the mother of his three children, for the much younger Jenifer Tole (he was 43, she was 23), but he was still officially married to Betty until they were divorced in the early 1960s. Curnow’s uncharacteristically heavy drinking at this time is noted. (p.365) He did not marry Jenifer Tole until 1965. Sturm shows awareness of the strains placed on the three (teenage) children at the time the divorce was pending, when Curnow chose not to contact any of them until a legal settlement had been made (p.390); but he does note that all Curnow’s offspring (perhaps especially his academic son Wystan) got on well with their father in later life. Sturm is usually diligent in connecting the events of Curnow’s life to his works, but in this matter his tact spreads to his textual analysis. Nowhere does he mention how Curnow’s play The Duke’s Miracle (analysed at pp.413-415) could legitimately be related to Curnow’s marital issues at the time.
Just as a side issue, there are four generous sections of photos in this big biography, and both of Curnow’s wives are properly represented. But I was a little disappointed that Rita Angus’s iconic portrait of Betty (Le Cren) Curnow was not used [even if, at p.158, Sturm reports that Rita Angus herself became annoyed by this painting’s popularity].
Spending days reading this long book brought many issues to my mind. I couldn’t help reflecting how small and interconnected New Zealand’s literary community was at the time of Curnow’s birth (he was a cousin of Arnold Wall and a distant cousin of A.R.D.Fairburn). I thought much how more limited than now opportunities to travel were for New Zealanders in the early 20th century – Curnow was 19 before first ventured outside his home province of Canterbury (and came to Auckland to study theology); he was 38 before he first went overseas (to England and America) and was in his 60s before went to continental Europe. I wondered if Curnow’s first verse play The Axe would ever get off the ground now, its dramatis personae all being Polynesian characters who were all played (in its first production in 1948) by Pakeha actors. Nowadays it would be condemned smartly for its “cultural appropriation”. I was also interested (and in a way heartened) by the rhythm of Curnow’s poetic production. After a creative burst between 1940 and 1943, Curnow went three years without writing a poem. Sturm says “his poetic career had always been marked by sudden bursts of activity followed by longish periods in which little or nothing was published.” (pp.433-434)
If I seem to have carped at some of the things Curnow did and wrote, I would also like to note the many occasions in reading this book when I heartily approved of his utterances. Curnow was quite right to complain, when he returned to New Zealand in 1950, of the over-interest international publishing showed in “new volumes of criticism and interpretation”, noting “there were dangers as well as advantages to poetry in having many teachers, many critics, and not enough readers.” (p.288) Exactly so. Curnow seems to have assessed correctly the character and temperament of Frank Sargeson, being aware of Sargeson’s “mischievous delight in conspiracy theories”. Curnow and Sargeson disliked each other, possibly in part because Sargeson resented Curnow’s becoming an academic. (p.297) Curnow was no homophobe, however - Bill Pearson was one of his closest confidants in his years as an academic in Auckland. Pearson was also best man at his second wedding. Curnow’s long and enduring friendships with Denis Glover, A.R.D. Fairburn and Douglas Lilburn show a man with a strong sense of loyalty, even if it must have sometimes been put under strain by Glover’s boozing (a matter upon which Sturm never touches). It was refreshing to read, in Chapter 22, of Curnow’s intelligent refutation of C.P.Snow’s once-popular “two cultures” argument. It was doubly refreshing to read, in Chapter 30, of how he stood against “open form” poetry. He is much to be admired for his stand (in the 1980s and 1990s) against “theory” as prescriptive for poetry, when (like any real poet) he understood that all theory is ex post facto. I applaud, too, his rejection of the postmodern “death of the author” and “lack of agency” of the author fantasies proposed by Derrida and the gang. (p.622)
I am being very complimentary here, aren’t I?
Now I’m going to ruin it, and possibly invite snarls, by commenting on one final aspect of Curnow.
Agnostic humanist or not, many of Curnow’s instincts remained, lifelong, Anglican ones, from his strong and affectionate connection with his Anglican vicar father Tremayne Curnow to the Biblical and religious allusions and implied Christian frame of reference in Island and Time (p.144) to his final instructions on how he should be buried, despite not having been a worshipper in a church for decades. “Curnow had long let it be known that his preference was for the ritual of a formal Anglican funeral service (using the Authorised Version of the Bible) rather than the sometimes awkward and disorganised informalities of various secular services he had encountered….” (p.670) Hence his funeral service in Auckland’s Anglican cathedral. While he was preparing a “Collected Poems” (in 1973), Curnow said he was “the same animal gnawing at the same bone” as the young man who had written his first poems (quoted p.468). The same went for his feelings about religion, regardless of what his brain was saying.
Part and parcel of the Anglican heritage in New Zealand is an annoyance with, or haughty contempt for, Catholics. (It dates from 1838 when the arrival of Catholic missionaries sent Anglican and Wesleyan missionaries into a panic about papists intruding on “their” missionary territory.) Am I going beyond reasonable speculation to note that some of Curnow’s worst contentions were with Catholics?
When, in the mid-1940s, he applied for a lectureship in English at Auckland University College, he was “overlooked in favour of [the Catholic] M.K.Joseph”. (p.204) Curnow had many grudges about his rank in the pecking order of the Auckland English department. Even when he was near retirement in 1975, he was still irritated at not having a full professorship (p.500). I can’t help but see “Dichtung und Wahrheit” as related to a long-standing animus towards Joseph.
When he put together both his Caxton and his Penguin anthologies of New Zealand poetry, Curnow was at odds with the Catholic poet Eileen Duggan, who thought he had written slightingly of her work and wouldn’t give him permission to include her poetry. Curnow had a hard time getting a travel grant in the late 1940s. Sturm comments “there was still a degree of residual hostility and resentment towards Curnow for his critical treatment of the older literary establishment, especially figures like Eileen Duggan – and difficult to escape the conclusion that a politically well-connected, Catholic-based, Wellington literary mafia deeply resented Curnow as an outsider.” (p.241) [Emphasis added.]
Curnow had almost completed the compilation of his first Caxton anthology when he discovered the work of the teenage poet James K.Baxter, was very enthusiastic about it, and included Baxter in his anthology. Later, his opinion of Baxter became much more negative. There were many reasons for this. (An analysis of Curnow’s “A Refusal to Read Poems of James K.Baxter at a Performance to Honour his Memory in Cranmer Square, Christchurch” is given by Sturm at pp.473-474.) But at least one must have been his annoyance that Baxter had decided to convert to Catholicism. (Mind you, he wasn’t as forthright in stating this publicly as his friend Denis Glover, who spoke of Baxter’s “innate devious jesuitry”.)
Curnow and his wife Jeny, in their later years, enjoyed holidaying in Italy. Like many non-Catholic poets before him (Robert Browning et al.), Curnow loved Italian art and culture but wasn’t so happy about the Catholic church. Of course he hated the sight of St Peter’s basilica (see p.488). Hence his poetry sequence “In the Duomo” which puts historical violence in the context of Catholic ritual. His poem “Magnificat”, about a large statue of the Virgin Mary, (analysed at pp.449-450 and pp.456-457), reads as more quizzical than contemptuous, though one does wonder what persuaded Curnow to take on the topic at all.
Having said all this, I balance it against the fact that Curnow’s second wife came from a Catholic family and (at least as far as Sturm’s biography says), he seems to have got on well with his Catholic in-laws. Also, according to three brief references, his relationship with one of his Catholic colleagues at the University of Auckland was cordial. This was (my father) J.C.Reid. Sturm refers to Reid as “a trusted friend” of Curnow, acting as an intermediary in trying to get Eileen Duggan to allow her poems to appear in Curnow’s Penguin anthology. (p.323). I’m not sure that “trusted friend” is quite the term here. “Trusted colleague” might be better.
By this stage you are appalled at my lack of balance in devoting seven paragraphs to this matter – but I do think it was an essential part of who Curnow was. Anglican ordinand with some religious doubts growing into sceptical agnostic humanist, but maintaining a lot of the same habits of thought.
I think this compendious biography has told me (nearly) all I need know about the life of Allen Curnow. It remains only for me to plunge back into reading all his poetry. I must get hold of that new Collected Poems.