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Leading New Zealand poet dies suddenly

Leading New Zealand poet dies suddenly
Monday 24 September 2001

Leading New Zealand poet Allen Curnow, ONZ, CBE, died suddenly in Auckland last night.

His most recent book The Bells of St Babel’s won the poetry section of this year’s Montana Book Awards and a documentary film on his life and work Early Days Yet, made by Shirley Horrocks, has just screened at Film Festivals nationwide.

In a career which spanned almost 70 years, Curnow received worldwide acclaim as one of the greatest contemporary poets writing in English.

He is survived by his wife and by two sons and a daughter from an earlier marriage.


Background notes A fifth-generation New Zealander, Allen Curnow was born in Timaru in 1911. His paternal great great grandfather was Peter Munro who settled on the Hokianga in 1835. His great grandfather was HAH Munro, the Land Court Judge. His father was an Anglican clergyman. His mother was born in England. Curnow ’s early childhood was spent in Canterbury which features strongly in his later poems.

He was educated at Christchurch Boys High School, the University of Canterbury and the University of Auckland. He holds a BA (1938), a LittD (Auckland, 1966) and an Hon LittD (Canty, 1975). He trained in the Anglican Ministry 1931–1933, studying at St John’s Theological College in Auckland.

He was a journalist for many years, starting at the Sun (1929–30) and later working at The Press in Christchurch (1935–48). He contributed many articles and reviews to The Press from the mid-’30s and was the night foreign news sub-editor during the early ’40s. He pursued this career at the News Chronicle in London (1949) where he went after receiving a grant from the Literary Fund. He undertook some broadcasting work with the BBC.

He then became a staff member of the English Department at the University of Auckland 1951–1976, retiring as Associate Professor.

Allen Curnow wrote some 20 volumes of poetry between 1933 and 2001, several plays and much literary criticism. He has edited a number of anthologies of New Zealand verse. His earliest work appeared in the 1930s – individual poems appearing in university periodicals.

His first book was Valley of Decision published in 1933, published when he was only 22. He published his first literary criticism with Caxton in 1935: Poetry and Language. His first play (Caxton, 1949) was The Axe: A Verse Tragedy, a verse play with a Pacific setting.

He edited the groundbreaking A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923–45 (Caxton, 1945) and The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960).

Honours and distinctions included CBE (1986) ONZ (1990) Seven New Zealand Book Awards for Poetry – in 1958, 1963, 1975, 1980, 1983, 1987, 2001 Dillons Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1988) (for Continuum (AUP)) Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1989) Fellowship at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Washington DC Fulbright Grant (1961) Katherine Mansfield Fellowship (1983) A W Reed Lifetime Achievement Award (2000)

Books of poetry include Island and Time (1941) Sailing or Drowning (1946) A Small Room with Large Windows (1962) Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects (1972) An Incorrigible Music (AUP/OUP 1979) winner of the 1980 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry You Will Know When You Get There: Poems 1979–81 (AUP/OUP 1982) winner of the 1983 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry The Loop in Lone Kauri Road (AUP/OUP 1986) winner of the 1987 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry Continuum, New and Later Poems : 1972–1988 (AUP, 1988), winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1989. Selected Poems : 1940–1989 (1990) Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems (Carcanet/AUP 1997) The Bells of St Babel’s: Poems 1997–2000 (AUP, 2001) winner of the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.

Plays include The Axe: A Verse Tragedy (1949), The Overseas Expert (1962), The Duke’s Miracle (1967) and Resident of Nowhere (1969); all later published as Four Plays (1972).

Criticism includes Look Back Harder (1987) gathered together for the first time his critical writings – manifestos, essays, reviews, dialogues, prefaces, lectures, tributes, letters.

For further information please contact Christine O’Brien Auckland University Press URL: Tel: (09) 373-7528 Fax: (09) 373-7465 Email:

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