Allen Curnow

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Thomas Allen Munro Curnow ONZ CBE (June 17, 1911 – September 23, 2001) was a New Zealand poet and journalist.

He was born in Timaru and educated at Christchurch Boys' High School, Canterbury University College and Auckland University College, going on to teach English at Auckland from 1951 to 1976.

He wrote a long-running weekly satirical poetry column under the pen-name of Whim Wham for the Christchurch 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 Robert Muldoon and Robert Lange, all interspersed with humorous commentary on New Zealand's obsession with rugby and other light-hearted subjects.

His Book of New Zealand Verse from 1945 is a landmark in New Zealand literature.

Curnow 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. His 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 dialog with the the New Zealand landscape. He positions himself as an outside critic (he was far less religiously and politically involved than contemporaries like Baxter, and far less outrageous in his lifestyle also) and though perhaps less impassioned in his writing than his contemporaries, his poetic works are both prophetic and intelligent.


  • CBE, 1986
  • Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, 1989
  • Order of New Zealand, 1990
  • 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


  • Valley of Decision (1933)
  • Enemies (1937)
  • Not in Narrow Seas: Poems with Prose(1939)
  • Verses 1941-1942 (1942)
  • Verses by Whim Wham 1943 (1943)
  • Sailing or Drowning (1944)
  • Book of New Zealand Verse, 1923 – 45 (1945) editor
  • Jack Without Magic (1946)
  • At Dead Low Water and Sonnets (1949)
  • The Axe: A Verse Tragedy (1949)
  • Poems 1949-1957 (1957)
  • The Best of Whim Wham (1959)
  • The Penguin Book Of New Zealand Verse (1960)
  • A Small Room with Large Windows, Selected Poems (1962)
  • Whim Wham Land (1967)
  • Four Plays (1972)
  • Trees Effigies Moving Objects A Sequence of 18 Poems (1972)
  • An Abominable Temper and Other Poems (1973)
  • Collected Poems (1974)
  • An Incorrigible Music. A Sequence of Poems (1979)
  • You Will Know When You Get There: Poems 1979-81 (1982)
  • The Loop in Lone Kauri Road: Poems 1983-1985 (1986)
  • Look Back Harder: Critical Writings, 1935-84 (1987) edited by Peter Simpson
  • Continuum New & Later Poems 1972-1988 (1988)
  • Selected Poems 1940 – 1989 (1990)
  • Penguin Modern Poets 7, second series (1996) with Donald Davie and Samuel Menashe
  • Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941-1997 (1997)
  • The Bells of St Babel's: Poems 1997-2001 (2001)
  • Whim Wham's New Zealand: The Best of Whim Wham 1937-1988 (2005) edited by Terry Sturm
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