Allen Curnow

Image by Carcanet

Allen Curnow

b. 1911 d. 2001

All poems are rash acts. - Allen Curnow

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About Allen Curnow

Allen Curnow (1911-2001) is a central figure in the emergence of an authentic New Zealand literature. A clue to this pivotal role can perhaps be traced in the fruitful duality of his parentage: born in Timaru he was the son of a clergyman and fourth generation New Zealander, and of an English mother who never felt entirely at home in her adopted country. Originally destined for the church, Curnow converted to doubt and instead pursued a career in journalism. Following a post-war trip to England he joined the English Department at Auckland University where he taught from the 1950s to 1976. His first collection appeared in 1933 but it was his editorship of two landmark anthologies that sealed his reputation: A Book of New Zealand Verse, and The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. These proved equally influential and controversial in their assertion of "some common problem of the imagination" particular to the New Zealander's situation. Curnow's importance was recognised by numerous awards including the New Zealand Book Award which he won six times, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Cholmondeley Award and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. He was given a CBE in 1986 and received the Order of New Zealand in 1990.

C K Stead has written, "It was as if no one had quite seen New Zealand in the English language until Curnow saw it." This sense of discovery is re-enacted in a late poem about childhood memory, 'A Sight for Sore Eyes'. Here the freshness of the boy's response to the landscape is contrasted with his mother's insistence on trying to grow English flowers in unsuitable soil. Throughout his career, Curnow maintained this independent vision, an irreverence for "old-masterly/murk" ('Blind Man's Holiday'). His scepticism may have led him to reject religious doctrine, but he continued his philosophical investigations, in particular into the way the human mind creates its own reality. This concern and his characteristic tone, at once both "skittish and profound" (Peter Porter) is present in 'Continuum' which combines abstract musings on the nature of thought with a wry, colloquial language.

Curnow's reading belies his ninety years, sounding positively youthful in his enjoyment of language and the intellectual paradoxes of his poems. The title of one of his collections seems particularly apt when listening to the accented bite of his words: An Incorrigible Music.

His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 21 August and 6 September 2001 at Auckland Audio, Auckland, New Zealand and was produced by Paul Stent.

Selected bibliography

The Bells of St Babel's: poems 1997-2001, Carcanet, 2001...


Early Days Yet: New and collected poems 1941-1995,...

Penguin Modern Poets (with Samuel Menashe and Donald...

Selected Poems 1940-1989, London, Penguin, 1990


Continuum: new and later poems 1972-1988, Auckland...


The Loop in Lone Kauri road: Poems 1983-1985, Auckland...


You Will Know When You Get There, Auckland University...


An Incorrigible Music, Auckland, Auckland University...


Collected Poems 1933-1973, Wellington, A. H. and A. W....


1958-2001 Seven New Zealand Book Awards for Poetry

Prize website

1961 Fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Washington DC

1961 Fulbright Grant

Prize website

1983 Katherine Mansfield Fellowship

Prize website

1988 Dillons Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Continuum: new and later poems 1972-1988

Prize website

1989 Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry

1990 Order of New Zealand

2000 A W Reed Lifetime Achievement Award

Prize website

2001 Montana New Zealand Book Award, Bells of St Babel's

Prize website


Allen Curnow

Allen Curnow Reading from his poems


2Do Not Touch the Exhibits


4A Raised Voice

5A Time of Day


7A Sight for Sore Eyes

8Blind Man's Holiday

9Gare SNCF Garavan

10Things to Do with Moonlight

11You Will Know When You Get There

12A Passion for Travel

13Ten Steps to the Sea

14The Bells of Saint Babel's

15The Pocket Compass

16For Peter Porter at Seventy

17Fantasia and fugue for Pan-pipe