Allen Curnow Simply by Sailing in a New Direction. A Biography.
Auckland: AUP (2017).
RRP: $76.99. Hb, 717pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
Allen Curnow needs little introduction: he is New Zealand’s most prominent and acclaimed English-language poet, with a creative output spanning seventy years. Born into a wealthy, highly educated family he was a fourth generation New Zealander, with a father involved in the Presbyterian ministry, and he looked likely to follow suit. His gradual disillusionment with received truths and imprisoning conformity meant that he turned away from the church towards poetry as his way of understanding man and the universe.
Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, a comprehensive biography of the man and the poet, has been released by Auckland University Press. It is issued in conjunction with his collected works, which are set out within their respective original collections, in chronological order. Like Curnow, biographer Terry Sturm was a professor of English at Auckland, and it is fitting that this impressive work was published by this university. The volumes are hardback, with minimalist cover illustrations of an indigenous leaf, reflecting Curnow’s firm preoccupation with our native landscape.
Upon Sturm’s death in 2009 it was the job of his partner and fellow editor Linda Cassells to continue shaping archival material and analysis into a coherent work. The finished product is over seven hundred pages long and is a biography for a keen scholar. Childhood, student years, the ministry, journalism ventures, travels, projects – all are detailed extensively.
One of the most powerful aspects of this work is the continual analyses that the writer and the editor make, revealing their inside knowledge both of Curnow the man and Curnow the poet. Not often an easy poet to read, with his intellectualism and willingness to confront, this biography covers Curnow’s oeuvre as he makes his way from beginnings in the 1930s through to his last work in the early 2000s. It also documents his warm, lifelong friendships with fellow poets such as Denis Glover, and the patterns in his personal life.
It is difficult to give a summation of the poet, his poetry, and his legacy here, for this review is to be but brief. To turn to the main achievements of the book (of which there are many): Sturm and Cassells have rare and privileged knowledge of their subject, and so, from this they are able to form most accurate judgements as to his objectives, and to the interpretation of individual poems. Sturm and Cassells had a long-standing association with the Curnows, and Cassells worked with the Curnow family to produce this work, tidying up and further shaping Sturm’s conclusions. A Marsden Grant provided funding.
The title of this biography, Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, is the first line from Curnow’s 1942 poem, “Landfall in Unknown Seas”, for which he collaborated with composer Douglas Lilburn to produce a poem set to music and later performed. This was a commissioned work to mark the tercentenary of Abel Tasman’s arrival in New Zealand, and it has become one of Curnow’s most recognised works. The two opening lines tell of endless wonder and opportunity: ‘Simply by sailing in a new direction/ you could enlarge the world…’.
The biography takes the reader through Curnow’s movements here and overseas, at the same time chronicling his creative output. The editors delve into the themes and motifs significant to him and to his developing writing, making the biography an intellectual feat in itself. Alongside Curnow’s poetry, his satirical writing under the name Whim Wham is explained. This was his pseudonym and persona for his other body of work, his political and social commentaries. These he wrote weekly for fifty-odd years first for the Press and then the New Zealand Herald, and it was a persona he strove to keep completely separate from the more serious poet. It allowed him to contribute opinions, often harsh, against conservative regimes of the time.
Most impressive is Sturm’s and Cassells’ insight into Curnow’s developing consciousness and philosophy, as he increasingly moves towards ‘private and unanswerable’ questions of memory, mortality, identity, purpose, and disillusionment, to name a few. His poetry largely maintains a focus on the interior life. The editors quote liberally from his work and are generous in their interpretations.
Since this biography is released alongside his collected poetry, one could either approach Curnow one book at a time, or read them simultaneously, as one modifies the other. This latter approach would be favourable, as it would allow a reader time to take a breath, as well as to reflect on the vast content.
For its huge span, knowledge, detail, and professionalism, Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is an imposing yet accessible work. It portrays a man and artist at the forefront of literary nationalism, and will be a critical text to students of New Zealand literature, as well as to any keen reader ready to be leap in to our writing, politics, history, and thinking.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.