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Thomas Allen Monro Curnow
17 June 1911
Timaru, New Zealand
|Died||23 September 2001(aged 90)|
|Education||Christchurch Boys' High School|
|Alma mater||Canterbury University College
Auckland University College
|Employer||Christchurch Sun (1929–1930)
St John's Theological College (1931–1933)
The Press (1937–1988)
The New Zealand Herald (1951–1988)
|Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972–1988|
|Spouse(s)||Betty Curnow, Jennifer Tole|
Thomas Allen Monro Curnow ONZ CBE (17 June 1911 – 23 September 2001) was a New Zealand poet and journalist.
Curnow was born in Timaru, New Zealand, the son of a fourth generation New Zealander, an Anglican clergyman, and he grew up in a religious family. The family was of Cornish origin. During his early childhood they often moved, living in Canterbury, Belfast, Malvern, Lyttelton and New Brighton. He was educated at Christchurch Boys' High School, Canterbury University, and Auckland University.
After completing his education, Curnow worked from 1929 to 1930 at the Christchurch Sun, before moving once again to Auckland to prepare for the Anglican ministry at St John's Theological College (1931–1933). In this period Curnow also published his first poems in University periodicals, such as Kiwi and Phoenix.
In 1934 Curnow returned to the South Island, where he started a correspondence with Iris Wilkinson and Alan Mulgan, as well as finding a job at The Press, the Christchurch morning daily newspaper, having decided against a career in the Anglican ministry. At the same time, he also started a lifelong friendship with Denis Glover and contributed to the Caxton Press, submitting some of his poems. He then taught English at Auckland University from 1950 to 1976.
Curnow's first marriage, to Elizabeth "Betty" Le Cren, was dissolved in 1965; they had a daughter and two sons, one of whom is New Zealand poet and art critic Wystan Curnow. His second marriage was to Jenifer Tole. He was buried at Purewa Cemetery in the Auckland suburb of Meadowbank.
Curnow wrote a long-running weekly satirical poetry column under the pen-name of Whim Wham for The Press from 1937, and then the New Zealand Herald from 1951, finishing in 1988 – a far-reaching period in which he turned his keen wit to many world issues, from Franco, Hitler, Vietnam, Apartheid, and the White Australia policy, to the internal politics of Walter Nash and the eras of Rob Muldoon and David Lange, all interspersed with humorous commentary on New Zealand's obsession with rugby and other light-hearted subjects.
Curnow's publication Book of New Zealand Verse (1945) is seen as a landmark in New Zealand literature. He is, however, more celebrated as poet than as a satirist. His poetic works are heavily influenced by his training for the Anglican ministry, and subsequent rejection of that calling, with Christian imagery, myth and symbolism being included frequently, particularly in his early works (such as 'Valley of Decision'). He draws consistently on his experiences in childhood to shape a number of his poems, reflecting perhaps a childlike engagement with the environment in which he grew up, these poems bringing the hopeful, curious, questioning voice that a childlike view entails. Curnow's work of course is not all so innocently reflective. The satirist in Curnow is certainly not pushed aside in his poetic works, but is explored instead with a greater degree of emotional connectivity and self-reflection.
Curnow's works concerning the New Zealand landscape and the sense of isolation experienced by one who lives in an island colony are perhaps his most moving and most deeply pertinent works regarding the New Zealand condition. His landscape/isolation centered poetry reflects varying degrees of engaged fear, guilt, accusation, rage and possessiveness, creating an important but, both previously and still, much neglected dialogue with the New Zealand landscape. He positions himself as an outside critic (he was far less religiously and politically involved than contemporaries like James K. Baxter, and far more conventional in his lifestyle also) and though perhaps less impassioned in his writing than his contemporaries, his poetic works are both prophetic and intelligent.
Honours and awards
- In the 1986 Queen's Birthday Honours, Curnow was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for services to literature.
- Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, 1989
- On 6 February 1990, Curnow was the fourteenth appointee to The Order of New Zealand.
- New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal
- New Zealand Book Award for Poetry; 1958, 1963, 1975, 1980, 1983, 1987, 2001
- Commonwealth Poetry Prize 1988 (for Continuum)
- Cholmondeley Award, 1992 (other winners that year: Donald Davie, Carol Ann Duffy, and Roger Woddis)
- A W Reed Lifetime Achievement Award, 2000
- 1945: Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–45, Christchurch: Caxton Press
- 1951: Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–50, Christchurch: Caxton Press
- 1960: Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
Curnow was the subject of the 2001 documentary Early Days Yet, directed by Shirley Horrocks. Filmed in the final months of Curnow's life, it records him talking about his life and work, and visiting the setting of some of his important poems.
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