Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In Curnow country

In a late night conversation at Galbraiths Ale House years ago, John Geraets - avant-garde provocateur, editor of obscure literary journals, and stern English master at St Peters College – admitted that the poems of Allen Curnow disturbed him. “I can’t read Curnow too often, because he screws with me” Jon explained, as the huge head of Richard Taylor wobbled sagely on the other side of the table.

Most literary critics would call Allen Curnow the best poet New Zealand has produced, yet few of the man’s texts have won a wide public readership, and even fans like Geraets and Taylor and yours truly sometimes find him more a challenge than a pleasure. “I feel trapped under him” John explained at Galbraiths. “Curnow is overwhelming."

If I find Curnow a disconcerting writer, it is probably because he is capable of leaping, in the middle of a stanza, a line, or even a word, from the world about him – from trees, birds, surf, overheated barbeques, crashed cars, and a thousand other objects rendered with an almost hallucinatory clarity – to a chilly universe of abstract nouns like God, fate, and sin. Curnow entered this second world when he studied theology as a young man, and he never quite left it, despite swapping a career in the Anglican church for a career as a writer.

Curnow is famous for his attempts to get the visual qualities of New Zealand into his poems – to ‘introduce the landscape to the language’ as he put it, in one early text – but he could never quite believe in the reality and value of what he described. Like the fake doors and artfully arranged mirrors that tormented visitors to Versailles, making them mistake a wall for a corridor or a staircase for a balcony, Curnow’s poems invite us to walk into landscapes that abruptly dissolve or implode. ‘The world can end any time it likes’, he says in ‘A Reliable Service’, a poem where the apocalypse interrupts a ferry ride from Paihia to Russell. In another text the poet takes a walk through suburban Auckland, and is only faintly surprised when a hole filled with burning corpses opens amidst the picket fences and beds of daffodils.

In the final decades of his life Curnow spent a lot of time at his bach in Karekare, on the far side of the Waitakere Ranges that block Aucklanders’ view of the Tasman Sea. In poem after poem, Curnow described the broken-backed waves and temperate rain forest and exhausted hikers of Karekare, only to dispose of them in the same defiantly nihilistic way that a child knocks down the same lego landscape he has spent hours building.

In Curnow’s Karekare young men in fast cars end up at the bottom of roadside gorges, where ‘rainforest quickly repairs’ the ruins of their vehicles, fishermen are consumed by huge and sentient waves, and landmarks can dissolve without warning. Even the apparently impregnable Paratohi Rock, which rises above the surf at one end of Karekare Beach, abruptly becomes an Italian bell tower, as Curnow takes a god’s eye view of history: 

All the seas are one sea,
The blood one blood
and the hands one hand.

Ever is always today.
Time and again, the Tasman’s
wrestler’s shoulders

Throw me on Karekare
beach, the obliterations
are one obliteration

 of last year’s Adriatic,
yesterday’s Pacific,
The eyes are all one eye.
Paratohi rock, the bell-tower
of San Giorgio recompose
the mixture’s moment;

the tales are all one tale
dead men tell, the minor
characters the living.

Lonely Planet may link Karekare beach to films like The Piano or television programmes like Xena, Warrior Princes, but Allen Curnow’s poems are the only contemporary cultural artefacts that have become part of the place. They are stamped on the landscape, like the forts left by the Kawerau-a-Maki and other iwi. They are one of the reasons I think twice before visiting Karekare.

Here’s some doggerel I wrote recently after visiting Curnow country.

A Sermon for Reverend Curnow

Hopkins was right: the world is charged
with the grandeur of God. The wind and the water
talk of His glory, and will not stop talking
until judgement day,
no matter how bored we become.

At Karekare the world
resists His word. Karatohi rock stares west,
preferring the horizon's silent line
to the foaming preachers on the beach.

On listing ridges, small trees and shrubs -
manuka, horoeka, jailbreaking honeysuckle -
flinch from His didactic wind.

The dead will not go easily
on judgement day. When the bugle sounds
they will wince awake, up and down the coast,
in their andesite caves. They will rise
angrily, and make themselves armour,
wrapping themselves in scraps of iron, and seaweed,
and whatever else the tide has provided,
and retrieve adzes and patu and machetes
from clifftop pa, and old Home Guard depots,
and fight for their graves, against salvation.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Christ that is good Scott! I mean - God that's good!

BUT - one thing. It is 'the grandeur of God in Hopkin's poem in fact called God's Grandeur.

But that doesn't really affect your poem which takes us on a journey through the mind and invokes the reality of the place and the most important culture there.

I haven't been out that way since 1995. I also think of Curnow's poems when I hear of Karekare and 'Lone Kauri Road' which is another of his poems.

Of NZ's poets he is one whose poetry seems to me the most powerful and it stays strongly in my head, it fucks with my head. His Moro assassination poems are rather dark and there is that strange, violent, angry, and controversial 'Wahrheit and Dichtung', his reaction to 'A Soldiers Tale' by M. K. Joseph (I read that it is a good story for sure).
I asked his son about that and why that poem was so impassioned etc he said: "Curnow was never in the war." (which is true, I suppose Joseph was).

There is a good poem by Stead about the day Curnow revoked religion, but of course he is the most powerfully "religious" poets - obsessed with death, and life - who is supposedly not a "believer".

I'm glad you invoked Hopkins as I cant agree with Smithyman (was he really anti-Hopkins?) of Jack Ross's verdict against the 'over-lushness' of Hopkins. One could say that Prynne is 'overdry' if a counter example is to be evoked.

I recall mentioning Alan Curnow's poetry to Geraets. In commenting (I don't think he dismissed Curnow) but he said:

'[I find him hard to read - or he said he didn't read him much] because he fucks with my head.'

Hamish, when apprised with this,said: 'That's good.'

I think he (Hamish Dewe) meant it was a great sign that a poet such as Curnow can cause such strong reactions.

Some of his poems are indeed very powerful like that, and I agreed in that respect with John (we agreed in fact at the time).

We also talked about William Carlos Williams and so on.

Curnow was, I am sure, indebted to the innovations and power of Hopkins poetry, but he was also affected by his friendship with Dylan Thomas (the 'boozy bard') and in fact also such as Wallace Stevens.

(And in 1968 he was teaching us the poetry of Browning.)

I thought I detected a Stevensonian influence and I asked Professor Don Smith about it and he agreed, as Curnow had gone through a time quite obsessed with Stevens and even wanted to take a paper for a year devoted to teaching the work of Stevens.

Curnow perhaps became a little the "Great Man" of NZ Poetry, conflicting with such as Murray Edmond but he deserves his place as one of our great writers. He wrote very slowly and carefully, very craftily in fact!

11:43 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

'the grandeur of God in Hopkin's poem in fact called God's Grandeur'

Ah, I'm such a doofus. Ta for the correction! I actually agree with Jack about Hopkins' poems - I think the alliteration, in particular, becomes silly. But I find Hopkins' prose, in his diaries and journals, beguiling: vivid but awkward, hyper-attentive to the world but expressing some fundamental estrangement from the world. Beautiful, often.

10:12 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I cant agree with Jack or Kendrick. Hopkins remains a great poet - his 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' being still one of the greatest poems in English.

The alliteration can be overdone. But Hopkins was an innovator. His poetry has energy and beauty - the kind of energy and lyricism at its best that is embedded in Curnow, but rarely in Smithyman who trys too hard to be the Riddler.

Thus he sometimes forgets he is a poet as do many modern and worse instance of writers writing in the fashionable 'school of Wellington adn Manhire incorporated thanks for publishing me Vic Univerity Press School of Dullness which indeed requires another Alexander Pope to do another 'Dunciad' (another of the greatest poems)...

Currently I am reading poems by Denise Riley and in particular her 'The Castalian Spring' is great - she is somewhere betwixt Hopkins and Prynne with a nod to Ashbery and the Lanpos. Got to her via Sarah Broom's very good book on Irish and British modern poetry.

I agree re Hopkin's his prose, that it is also good or great. But I cant concur with Smithy - who I think was frightened of the power of Hopkins' work.

10:30 am  
Blogger Richard said...

But you are doing well yourself Scott! None of these "some doggerel" descriptions!

10:32 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Pretty damned conventional, though, isn't it? I don't think JH Prynne would be impressed...

10:46 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Or as Streets says:

10:48 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Prynne is a worry. I took an interest in his work a few years ago and actually got the library to buy a book on him and the modernists but I found it even more confusing than his work. I also read around on the net, as well as making an effort (using etymology etc) to "decipher" some of his poems...I intended to buy his works but never got around to it.

You mean that Prynne wouldn't be impressed with your work? It doesn't matter, reading that book by Sarah Broom I found there were many poets of many different styles I found interesting for different reasons.

I might like something by Prynne or his near fellow travelers, the Language Poets (or even that bloke Richard Taylor the Nihilist poet, and such as Jen Crawford and say Lisa Samuels and others, and also poetry of a more "direct" poet such as Bob Orr. Prynne himself is big on Wordsworth etc as I am but I am not sure I "get" much from Prynne but I think you kind of bridge the realism with that slide into history and the near surreal.

It is hard to move away to say the Grosseteste poets etc and stay "focused" and on the other hand the dangers of didacticism or the 'lyric and enflamed moment', or the ooh ah effect endanger all others who are not perhaps, it seems as in Prynne's case, as dry as dust!

I think many of your poems have an interesting take on things and literature, given that you are almost always also wearing your sociological, political, historical and philosophical hats...

You can always look back when you get into your 80s writing your very amazing and cryptic poems that blow such as Prynne etc out of the water: you can then say of this period that it was your "naive period when I believed in things"!!

Alan Curnow certainly became the Grand Old Man of NZ Poetry...he said to me re postmodernism that he didn't like "all that jangly jangly stuff"... (yet in some quarters he was accused or "fingered" as being somewhat in the postmodernist camp.

6:40 pm  
Anonymous Michael Morrissey said...

This may not work. I have lot of trouble with the electronic age. I tried to thank Richard for his recent gracious review of my Memory Gene Pool and failed to make it stick.

Anyway Curnow -yes definitely our greatest poet. He is the greatest master of onomatopoeic effects since Tennyson. C.K Stead ocne made the important point that thought you can trace a Yeat-Curnow period, A Thomas-Curnow and a Stevens-Curnow, it's all Curnow, In other words, influences on him strongly but not strongly as to drown out the originating voice.

2:05 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Michael - it can be really frustrating, I found it so when I first got a Personal computer but the advantages are much.

(If you get through and I've commented here for example, an email comes to me).

Thanks for your thanks. I wanted to do some reviews of various writers and I had your book from the local library.

It might be a bit confusing as I have 2 Blogs. One I intended to do reviews and or write about daily or personal matters although I have to say I haven't done enough there.

I read a few recent NZ poets, some are well known others known and new - and while some ARE good - many are not as good as their reputations (I feel) but I would rather write about writers I think are good or who have interesting writing: and I like your poems, some of your stories, and the witty things re your house etc and so on. So keep on hanging in their Michael!

Ted Jenner just got married!

But back to Curnow, Geraets was exactly right about his effect on him and I think many readers (and Stead can be as right also at times): there are some of his poems that almost tormented me...such as the Moro Assassination poems. And I was haunted by his poem about a leaf, which though I read years ago, I couldn't get out of my head (and why in fact he invoked 'the prophet Micah, with a slip of perished silk'* and even some of the ones he wrote years ago. Overall I think his poetry stayed at a high level.

Scott's description here of his work and influence is pretty much on the nail.

*Of course as Scott says he trained at first to be a priest or equivalent. One of Stead's poems I like is about Curnow renouncing religion and coming home (something like that).

3:11 pm  

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