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Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-1997.

Allen Curnow is internationally the best known and most respected New Zealand poet, as evidenced by the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, and Peter Porter's praise cited on the book cover of Early Days Yet. Curnow's poetry was first published in the 1930s. So what we have here is a selection by a still-active writer from poetry spanning sixty years. The book is made additionally interesting by starting with pieces from the author's 1997 collection and working backward to the roots of his poetry as shown in his first collection in 1941.

Early Days Yet reveals a poet who found quite quickly his central theme and his voice. His central technical search has been for ways to adapt to both his native New Zealand version of the English language. New Zealand habits of language are strongly meiotic, avoiding hyperbole, romanticism, rhetoric, the sustained "shout" of dispute, or archaism (though obviously Curnow uses any of these at need). Similarly, topics may be down-to-earth, even mundane. Many New Zealand poets (outside the academic schools of verse) earn international respect for their work in such Japanese genres as haiku and haibun, which seem to have left traces in some of Curnow's most succinct, imagistic lines: "Seven thigh-thick / hamstring-high posts, // embedded two / metres and cemented / in" ("The Game of Tag").

Curnow's focusing interest is in fact poetry itself. His is Wordsworthian in impulse, concerned with the experiencing of perceiving, responding, remembering, re-creating. It is a poetry whose pleasure - and this is an eminently readable collection - is not usually in the parading of sound or word or image but more often in the sheer unexpectedness of detail. Within a syllable a poem can move from the intricately physical to the supernatural to the metaphysical without ever losing grip on the tangible world we inhabit and on the oddities of memory's particularity.

There is a continuing interest in the peopling of New Zealand. Curnow has the notion that whereas the indigenous Polynesians were adaptable island hoppers, the British immigrants and their descendants right up to his generation (he was born in 1911; British immigrants began to arrive in numbers in 1840) were maladapted to this originally wild, rugged antipodean landscape. He sees the perceiving mind being intimately acted upon by, as well reacting to, this landscape. (In many ways this collection provides a useful introduction to New Zealand and New Zealanders!)

The tone does not vary a great deal, but the style does, experimenting with being surreal, imagistic, whimsical, dramatic, reminiscent, oratorical (as in the early "Landfall in Unknown Seas"), playful in layout. But however and on whatever he writes, Curnow always is very much his own sort of poet. The earlier poetry has tinges of Georgianism, even Romanticism or a touch of Dylan Thomas, while the later verse gives a broadly postmodernist impression. But especially since the mid-1940s Curnow has never been other than himself, a unique voice speaking confidently and to his own purposes his own dialect of English to the world.

Bernard Gadd Papatoetoe, N.Z.
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Author:Gadd, Bernard
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Words:507
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