I don't remember actually when I first met Allen Curnow face to face but that is perhaps because in a sense I had always known him. My father had worked with him at the Press in Christchurch in the 1930s, greatly admired him and shared his love of Italy and fondness for light verse. He was responsible for the award of an honorary degree by the University of Canterbury in 1975 and at his request Allen's poem, 'The skeleton of the great moa ...' was read at his Funeral, three bare months before Allen's own. My father-in-law Jim Caffin was also a Christchurch journalist and a colleague of Allen's and his memories, also fond, and Allen's of him, were of parries--Allen climbing on a roof in the middle of the night, Jim drunk in the shrubbery. He too died in 2001 and left me copies of some of Allen Curnow's earliest books.
But beyond these inherited memories I had myself grown up beneath that cathedral spire, at the edge of that great plain, in sight of those mountains 'the colour of wind'; I too spent a childhood in the bosom of the Church of England, could not forget its capacious but genteel culture, nor its language and ritual. All the time I worked with him his poems gave me startling moments of familiarity.
Dennis McEldowney, who first published Alien Curnow at Auckland University Press and whom I succeeded in 1986, also had a Christchurch childhood and his father too had known Alien who respected his work as General Secretary of the YMCA. Dennis was by 1979 well known in New Zealand literary circles for his own books, essays and reviews and Allen's affection for Dennis is very clear in the professional correspondence between them. (2)
I mention all this not to display the inbred character of literary life in a small community, though that view could no doubt be taken. But rather to remind myself of the extreme delicacy, the private and sensitive relations between authors and publishers, and how easy it is for a publisher, who sees life stories every day, to forget what an author, even a great author, lays on the line, exposes and declares, in offering work for publication. I say it only to convey how extraordinarily lucky I felt to find myself Allen Curnow's publisher and my gratitude that at no time did the common wariness between author and publisher exist as he passed on to me without hesitation the trust he had in Dennis in his professional role.
As has often been pointed out, all of Allen's new collections had up till 1979 been published by his close friend Denis Glover under various imprints. There had been a Selected Poems from OUP and a Collected Poems from A.H. and A.W. Reed, and later there were similar presentations from Penguin. But for his new work Allen seems to have mentioned. They called forth from us both, I think, a courtesy that allowed almost every aspect of the publishing process to be discussed and discussed vigorously. Allen had, rightly, high expectations of his publisher but equally he was warm and generous in his appreciation; preferred a smaller publisher and a more personal relationship. This was a friendship as much as a professional bond but one conducted with a mutually understood decorum; the differences of age and sex, talent and reputation were recognised and did not need to be mentioned. They called forth from us both, I think, a courtesy that allowed almost every aspect of the publishing process to be discussed and discussed vigorously. Allen had, rightly, high expectations of his publisher but equally he was warm and generous in his appreciation; above all he saw the publication of his books as a joint enterprise as together we sent out into the world words that we both valued.
By the time he came to AUP Allen Curnow was a well-established poet and many of the normal transactions between author and publisher simply did not occur. I see one letter from me asking whether a new collection was in the offing but mostly Allen determined the moment when the new book took its shape and its contents, their order, its name. Readers were used for the four books which were entirely new work but there was not much debate about whether the books should be accepted. We never thought to send a short collection back for additions or more work, or to doubt the quality of a poem or a line.
Allen was a very active participant in the relationship. He came to see me very rarely but he telephoned and, most frequently, wrote, often by hand. A new book was signalled by a conversation and then a letter. But not always by a completed manuscript. A Curnow text remained up until the last moment an unstable thing to which new poems, always in the making, could be added. The most dramatic of these later additions concerned An Incorrigible Music, which was first submitted from London in August 1978 and subsequently accepted. But a letter on 1 January 1979 mentions a further long poem to be added. This was 'Moro Assassinato', which appears to have been in Dennis's hands by March and which reads as if it had always been part of the sequence. 'Impromptu in a Low Key' was added to the text of You Will Know When you Get There six weeks after submission. A much revised text called 'Lo these are parts of His ways' superseded one called 'The Acronym is MAD' another six weeks after the original submission of The Loop in Lone Kauri Road ('I'm satisfied (as far as one can ever be) that the job is finished now.') (3) In his letter formally proposing the new and selected which became Continuum Alien mentioned the possible inclusion of 'several new poems': 'I don't foresee that there will be more than half a dozen of these by the time the book is ready for the press.' (4) He was characteristically accurate: three new poems, 'Narita', 'Continuum' and 'The Vespiary' were enclosed with a letter of 12 May 1987; a fourth, 'Survivors' is mentioned as having appeared in the December/January London Magazine; on 25 November he added 'A Time of Day'; a letter of 21 February 1988 refers to 'work in progress' and although he went on to say, 'The next poem isn't far enough advanced', my letter to him of 7 March encloses proofs which include this new poem, 'The Pug Mill'. The file of Continuum also holds a copy of 'An Evening Light', which was completed too late for inclusion but which did appear in the Penguin Selected of 1990. The brevity of The Bells of St Babel's was a matter of some anxiety to both publishers and poet but in fact the sonnet, 'A Pocket Compass', and 'A Nice Place on the Riviera' arrived in time to allow a 64-page book with spine.
What the publisher saw over these twenty-three years then was a poet constantly in the process of composition but labouring slowly, patiently and meticulously on each poem, never delivering it until he was satisfied, in a careful typescript. I would guess that 'Moro Assassinato' was probably begun when the original book text was submitted but Allen would not have mentioned it until he was pretty sure it would come to something. He paid attention to every detail and any point an editor could raise would always have been considered by the poet first. For example, in presenting the MS of You Will Know When You Get There he makes some interesting comments about punctuation which he has 'discarded ... to a great extent'. (5) Sometimes a poem had a very long gestation: his last poem of all, 'A Nice Place on the Riviera', had its origins in his period as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow at Menton in 1984.
Small alterations were sometimes made on the proofs. Returning the galleys of An Incorrigible Music he wrote, 'I have taken the liberty, in a very few places, of correcting my own punctuation. I hope I shall be forgiven, too, the eight revised lines on galley 24 ... and the two on galley 26.' (6) On the page proofs of Loop four separate changes were made to single words, three of which are significant ('was' became 'is' on p.14; 'verandah' became 'veranda' on page 31; and, crucially, 'nesting' became 'nested' in the last line of 'The Loop in Lone Kauri Road' and of the book; (7) and almost a month later a further change is recorded in 'Blind Man's Holiday', where on p.21 'sung' becomes 'whipped'. (8)) Changes on the proofs of The Bells of St Babel's were minute but telling (for example, on p.39 'the future' became 'retirement). (9)
As will surprise no one familiar with Allen Curnow's criticism, he established the factual content of his poems with great precision and the notes to the poems are often enlightening. In a note to An Incorrigible Music added in Continuum he explains a factual error pointed out by a reviewer which is now corrected. (10) The learned notes in The Bells of St Babel's were in part a joke between author and publisher to expand the book's girth but he was aware of 'such risks as I mustn't take, of Notes pre-empting poetry! I do want a few, but they do have to look helpful. Not needed but a welcome extra--the right 'note' so to speak.' (11)
For the titles of his books Allen always used the title of a poem but one which could also expand to fit a wider terrain. For the two books which combined new work with previously published poems he chose titles, Continuum and Early Days Yet, which though derived from individual poems yet also suggest an ongoing process, a total oeuvre which was not yet complete. The first title chosen for his second AUP book was A Fellow Being, but some time after delivering the MS he changed it to You Will Know When You get There:
Of all the poem-titles this is the one which suggests the character of the collection without interfering in the special business of any poem taken by itself. Or so it seems to me.... I hope you agree it does have to be one of the poem-titles. I'm sure a good tide could be invented for the whole book, though terribly hard to do this without seeming to prescribe over the heads of the poems: & such titles always (to me) look pasted-on. (12)
For his last book he chose the title of the major poem in the collection but again one which could embrace a larger view, a sardonic assessment, of the world at the turning of the millennium, The Bells of St Babel's.
This same care continued throughout the publication process, as it must have done with Glover. The typography and layout were discussed at length. That for An Incorrigible Music was, clearly at Allen's suggestion, based on Wallace Stevens's first book, Harmonium (published by Knopf in 1923) and is in 11/15 Plantin, Dennis's favourite typeface, with very generous spacing between poem title and opening line. This caused debate about the position of the first line on the opposite page with Allen sending a diagram to accompany his comments. The next two collections followed the same format but with the poem rifles dropped slightly to give, to my mind, a more pleasing appearance. Continuum, which collected these books and others, preserved this internal design and made it consistent so that in visual terms the book harmonised and ordered the poet's work since 1972.
Most publishers discuss with their authors the design of a book's cover and the copy it bears and Allen always took a lively interest in these matters too. He wrote the blurbs for An Incorrigible Music and for You Will Know When You Get There and always provided a well-chosen selection of comments from reviews to appear on the back of the book ('trumpeters' he called them). (13) I remember approaching with some trepidation the cover design for Continuum, for which I commissioned Wellington designer Margaret Cochran. Her first design (a photograph of water on sand, I think) was firmly rejected; three variations on a second, more abstract, design were offered which I took up to Tohunga Crescent. One was duly chosen and used and both poet and publisher were pleased with the cool and elegant result. Margaret stuck up on her wall my letter reporting that 'Allen Curnow told me it is the most attractive book he has had since the days of Denis Glover and the Caxton Press'. (14) (Some time later this jacket design was roundly criticised in a local publishers' design forum by people who, it seemed to me, were totally unfamiliar with Allen Curnow's work and indeed with the market for books of poetry.) The paintings by Colin McCahon and Stanley Palmer which appeared on the covers of Curnow's last two books were his choices and notably happy ones.
The distribution and reception of his books were of much concern. During his AUP years Allen Curnow's international reputation was established and it mattered to him that his work was available widely and read by those whose judgements he valued. He always provided a list of journals which might review the books and later was keen to see reviews and who had written them. He eagerly enquired about New Zealand reviews and was quick to notice absences; but it was the overseas reception that most engaged him: 'One mustn't fall into the habit of 'looking to' UK, or USA either. But ... what have we got now, with much repute or general readership?' (15)
He was understandably impatient with lazy and trivial responses to his work; but deeply appreciative of positive and perceptive comment especially when it came from other poets. Notices on You Will Know When You Get There by Peter Porter (in the Observer), Chris Wallace-Crabbe (in Scripsi) and Bill Manhire (in the London Magazine) pleased him immensely. But praise carried its own responsibilities. Reacting to a review of Loop by Michael Hulse in PN Review he writes
I'm delighted of course that Michad has carried my flag so boldly into such an exposed position--there are oddly disturbing effects too! High praise tests one's nerve as much as savage blame does, & no less for being so enjoyable. (16)
Up until 1994 the local and overseas sales and distribution of AUP's books was handled by Oxford University Press; the UK head office usually took quantities of our poetry titles but the process of ordering, shipping, selling was often slow and cumbersome. Allen followed it by phone and letter, even writing himself to the local manager; and he also monitored the holdings of his rifles in the bookshops of Remuera, Parnell and Newmarket as 'I pass them on my way to PO, Bank, & barber'. (17) Using the first person plural in his correspondence he shared our frustration with booksellers and agents and sometimes chided the publisher. A stem letter of 22 April 1990 to the AUP office manager asked about our marketing and local distribution arrangements ('Can we perhaps be doing more, in ordinary businesslike ways, to market what we publish?'). However after I had replied at length he was characteristically both generous and witty in his response:
... one mustn't expect people to rush one's deathless works like Alison Hoist's dinners. * I'm very happy to know that by your estimate--which I do respect--the book has done well. ... But authors are never satisfied, esp. we of the genus irritabile vatum! * Wouldn't it give us a fright if they did? Something fatally wrong with the poetry--(18)
During these years huge public demands were made upon Allen, which he bore with amazing fortitude for a man in his seventies and eighties. On the appearance of each book he did interviews and readings. I am pretty sure he much preferred the readings and his views on the features by some well-known New Zealand journalists were not always flattering. But a Curnow reading, as many will recall, was a treat. He travelled widely to most of the international literary festivals. As a finalist in the 1988 Dillons Commonwealth Poetry Prize he was submitted to a gruelling British tour. Even more recently he read on the South Bank and in Adelaide. In the last year of his life he read at the Auckland Writers Festival, at the Christchurch Arts Festival, and at the Going West festival in Titirangi a week before his death. In 2000 and 2001 he seemed to us at AUP to take a new pleasure in being a respected public figure and he accepted invitations freely and with apparent enjoyment.
Though he had been a journalist and a university teacher his profession was, at the time I knew him, and probably always, poet; and it was an all-absorbing one, one which exacted the highest standards. What he expected of himself, the discipline he imposed on his own practice, was immeasurably tougher than that of any poet I have known. Nothing was easy and the apparently relaxed flow of some of the later poems was hard won.
The way he reacted to the many requests to reproduce his work grew out of this sense of the value of his profession and the knowledge that he practised that profession well. The uses to which his poems were put should thus be appropriate: they should not be shoe-homed into a business textbook as was suggested on one occasion.
I think I'll have to turn down the ... request for hunks from 'Landfall ...' half from its first section & more than half the third--with a raft of questions for students about matters 'entrepreneurial'--Of course all this is miles away from the real drift of the poem--I don't think people should be encouraged to read my poems, or anyone else's, in this fashion! (19)
And payment should be made for their use. The compilers of anthologies could expect tough negotiations with Allen or with AUP on Allen's behalf if they offered only token fees for his poems. The behaviour of Oxford University Press and the compilers of An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English aroused much anger among poets and Allen led the charge. He quickly sighted 'A Fellow Being' in Metro of March 1993 for which permission had been given but no payment made nor a copy of the magazine offered. (20) Warwick Roger replied to my query slightly irritably, 'Tell him he'll get Mr Kerry Packer's cheque shortly after April 8.' When the Correspondence School asked to reproduce 'Wild iron' in an English assignment Allen quite reasonably commented 'They will pay what I would charge any other publisher.... It is a State service. I note that they are, in effect, seeking permission to reprint annually, in perpetuity!' (21)
Auckland University Press published six of Allen Curnow's books, An Incorrigible Music (1979), You Will Know When You Get There (1982), The Loop in Lone Kauri Road (1986), Continuum (1988), Early Days Yet (1997) and The Bells of St Babel's (2001) (the last two were co-published by Carcanet Press in the UK). This amounts to 62 poems, many among his greatest, in twenty-three years, all written after the normal retirement age. I was only one of many people who waited for each new Curnow poem over these years; and my reactions are often recorded in the correspondence, with Allen invariably replying graciously and kindly. Most of the new poems appeared first in overseas journals, Encounter, the London Magazine, and latterly the London Review of Books but occasionally I saw a poem in typescript and he sometimes talked about poems in progress.
This is not the place to attempt a full assessment of this work but looking back it seems to me that Continuum, falling about midpoint, was file pivotal volume. In proposing this volume of 'new and later poems', which brought together his five previous collections and a handful of new poems, he very carefully accepts the public view of the work from Trees Effigies Moving Objects (1972), without in any way expressing his own opinion:
I think we agreed that there is something distinct about the public interest in my verse of the 70s and 80s. I mean distinct from the interest in my work of earlier years, or as a whole. (22)
He also suggests including the two new poems of A Small Room with Large Windows (OUP, 1962) and a note which 'would explain that some of the poems in the'72 collection ... existed in draft as early as 1961, in particular those relating to my American experience in that year'. These points are of course connected and neither actually came to pass in this book, the book, the note being added only in the Penguin Selected Poems of 1990. For Continuum he used for the first time the arrangement of poems in reverse order of composition, a Maori view of the past, one might say, starting with the most recent work: the model was Robert Penn Warren's New & Selected Poems published by Random House. (23) This corresponded to his own perspective and the epigraph chosen from Solzhenitsyn captured the idea perfectly. As Allen himself commented:
His 'law' answers to my own feeling, & I'm sure to others' who have done enough work to feel the same. (24)
In April 1989 this book was the regional winner of the Dillons Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the following month was the overall winner. It was not even shortlisted for the Wattie Book Award and when I mentioned this to one of the judges all he could say was that when the New Zealand judging was done Continuum had not yet won the overseas award; as if foreigners needed to tell New Zealanders about the quality of their own writers. The Commonwealth Award was followed by several other major British awards, the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry and the Cholmondley Award and Curnow was acknowledged as a leading contemporary poet by major journals and critics. Interest from British publishers hotted up and all Allen's subsequent publications had British publishers though they continued to sell in larger quantities in his home country.
Earn Days Yet was originated by Michael Schmidt at Carcanet as a full Collected but it in fact includes no poems before 1941 and, as the poet says in his prefatory note,
This book is 'collected' in the sense of including everything I have published since the 'sixties, along with my poems of the 'nineties, collected here for the first time. From earlier decades, I have found it a question less of selections than of omissions, leaving out what--it seemed most likely--could as well be left behind for the present.
It was designed and printed in England and AUP imported stock and took care of Australia and New Zealand rights. Similar contractual arrangements existed for the final collection, The Bells of St Babel's, but AUP produced its own edition in New Zealand seven months before the British edition, a fortunate circumstance which allowed Allen the pleasures of its appearance, of its association with the first showing of Shirley Horrocks's wonderful film on the poet, and of the 2001 Montana Book Award for Poetry, the seventh time the poet had won the major New Zealand poetry award.
My most recent memories of Allen then, to return to the subject of memory, are of celebrations, of feasts and high days. In early August 2000 he and Jeny came down to Christchurch where Allen received the A.W. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award and Allen's speech to a motley collection of booksellers and publishers at their annual conference was rapturously received. In March 2001 Bells was launched in the sunshine among a group of Allen's family and close friends. In late July he and Jeny flew to Napier where Montana Wines put on an award dinner more elegant than usual and Allen in receiving the award quoted from the Roman poet Martial.
But my last memory of all is not as a publisher but simply as a member of the audience at Titirangi as Allen read aloud the opening and closing poems of Bells, 'Ten Steps to the Sea' and the beautiful 'Fantasia and Fugue for Pan-pipe'. Allen himself had a prodigious memory, of the lines of other poets and of the details of the faroff past. This poem loops back a hundred years to his father's first published verse, sixty odd years to himself as a young man, two thousand years to the ancient world and the dawn of Christianity. It has echoes of Ovid, Blake, Plutarch, Spenser and Milton. It mixes memories and makes something of them. It stands in the past, it transforms it to become 'a thing of the present, a thing of the future too'.
(1) Allen Curnow, Trees Effigies Moving Objects (Wellington: Catspaw Press, 1972), Introductory Note. I would like to express my warm thanks to Jeny Curnow and Tim Curnow, who agreed to my writing this article and who allowed me to quote from Allen Curnow's letters.
(2) This reflection on Allen Curnow at Auckland University Press is also Dennis's story and I am grateful for his help. It draws heavily on both our memories but also on the files at AUP related to Allen Curnow's books. I am also grateful to Christine O'Brien at AUP and Brian Easton.
(3) AUP file, Loop, 9 April 1985.
(4) AUP file, Continuum, 24 April 1987.
(5) AUP file, You Will Know When You Get There, 22 July 1981. A further note on 13 November 1981 asks Dennis to delete from the Acknowledgments a remark on this: 'However it is worded, it is bound to start some readers thinking about a matter which ought not to concern them. A bit gratuitous to explain a decision which explains itself!'
(6) AUP file, An Incorrigible Music, 7 March 1979.
(7) AUP File, Loop, 20 September 1985.
(8) AUP File, Loop, 16 October 1985.
(9) AUP proof file, Bells.
(10) Allen Curnow, Continuum. New and Later Poems, AUP, Auckland, 1988, pp. 226-7.
(11) AUP file, Bells, 13 August 2000.
(12) AUP file, You Will Know When You get There, 6 September 1981.
(13) For 'trumpeters', AUP file, Bells, 22 January 2001.
(14) AUP file, Continuum, 10 June 1988, 14 June 1988.
(15) AUP file, You Will Know, 13 August 1982.
(16) AUP file, Loop, 1 November 1987.
(17) AUP file, Continuum, 26 November 1988.
(18) AUP file, Continuum, 6 May 1990.
(19) AUP Permissions file, 25 March 1998.
(20) AUP file, Continuum, 1 March 1993.
(21) AUP file, Continuum, 12 August 1990.
(22) AUP file, Continuum, 24 April 1987.
(23) AUP file, Continuum, 12 May 1987.
(24) AUP file, Continuum, 21 October 1987.