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.


This 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.

Poems by Allen Curnow

A Time of Day - Allen Curnow
A Sight for Sore Eyes - Allen Curnow
Allen Curnow in the Poetry Store

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Books by Allen Curnow


1958 - 2001

Seven New Zealand Book Awards for Poetry


Fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Washington DC


Fulbright Grant

Prize website

Katherine Mansfield Fellowship


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


Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry


Order of New Zealand


A W Reed Lifetime Achievement Award


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

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