Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations

By Peter Robinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Allen Curnow Travels

I

‘I’m a stranger here myself’ expresses a solidarity between people from somewhere else who meet on the grounds of a similarity in different foreignnesses. Allen Curnow likes the phrase, employing a variation in ‘Friendship Heights’ from 1972, ‘I am absently walking in another summer | a stranger here myself’ (p. 156),1 and he teases out further senses by halving it over a line break ten years later for ‘Impromptu in a Low Key’: ‘I’m a stranger | here myself’ (p. 89). The phrase echoes beyond the situation of the overseas traveller. Curnow from about 1973, a little like W. B. Yeats some fifty years before, had found himself detached from his personal contributions to ‘the anti-myth about New Zealand’. He commented on that situation in 1982: ‘we have heard enough of “national identity”, but this doesn’t mean that it will go away’.2 The beginning of his second career coincides more or less with the moment Britain ‘entered Europe’ and weakened its links to the Commonwealth. Looking back in 1990 the poet observed that ‘As years went by, I began to feel that I’d done the best I could for this country, and it had done it’s best for me—recognition and that kind of thing—and that this wasn’t quite enough, either for me or the country.’3 Seven years later Elizabeth Lowry struck a familiar note when praising him for being ‘one of the country’s cultural pioneers’, but she added that ‘his role in promoting a distinctive New Zealand poetic won’t perhaps be fully appreciated for some generations to come’.4 A stranger here myself, I attempt to

1 References to Allen Curnow’s poetry in the text are from Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941–1997 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1997).

2 Allen Curnow, ‘Author’s Note’, in Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. x.

3 ‘Allen Curnow Talks to Peter Simpson’, Landfall, 175 (Sept. 1990), 301–2, repr. in Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams (eds.), In the Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992).

4 Elizabeth Lowry, ‘Belonging Down There’ (review of Early Days Yet), Times Literary Supplement, 4929, 19 Sept. 1997, 12.

-135-

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