The new generation of writers who emerged in the 1930s have been called the ‘Phoenix generation’, the ‘Caxton generation’, or the ‘literary nationalists’. The Phoenix was the title of a short-lived literary journal out of Auckland University in which a number of these new writers first appeared. The Caxton Press, established by Denis Glover in Christchurch, set a new standard of printing craftsmanship and published their most important texts.
‘Literary nationalism’ implied that the writer’s most important subject matter, and the writer’s true audience, were both to be found at home, in New Zealand. It also implied that literature had a key role to play in establishing what it meant to be a New Zealander.
Allen Curnow’s anthologies
The group’s most persuasive thinker and spokesman was poet Allen Curnow. In two crucial poetry anthologies, A book of New Zealand verse 1923–45 (1945) and The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1960), Curnow summed up the history of New Zealand poetry from a nationalist point of view.
His long, polemical essays that introduced each book are considered by many to be the most important literary criticism ever written in New Zealand, and continue to shape the way many readers understand New Zealand poetry.
Allen Curnow wrote: ‘The thirties released – or tapped – a spring. It seemed that New Zealand had its own small audience, alert for new poetry. It began to look to its own creative resources, not this time to provide it with something national to brag about, but to satisfy a real hunger of the spirit.’1
Curnow’s enthusiasm for ‘local reality’ was not the naïve cheer-leading of a tourist promotion or a sporting event. On the contrary, he often seems to belittle New Zealand’s achievements and its place in the world.
His argument was that several generations of writers had been so shocked by their dislocation from Britain that they had failed to come to grips with what was in front of them. The truth, he insisted, was ‘something different, something/Nobody counted on’.2
‘A hard frost’
Curnow saw himself as building an ‘anti-myth’,3 stripping away the fantasies with which earlier poets had protected themselves from reality. Like his own early work, the poetry that he admired was often negative or disenchanted. He was in tune with the British modernists and insisted, like Ezra Pound, on hardness, concreteness and a lack of decoration. This led him and his poetic colleagues such as A. R. D. Fairburn to express a distaste for some women poets, including Jessie Mackay and Eileen Duggan, as overly sentimental.
Much that had been valued by earlier generations was effectively wiped off the map by Curnow’s critical writing. Charles Brasch, who founded the journal Landfall in 1947, likened the 1945 anthology to ‘a hard frost’ that ‘killed off weeds and promoted sound growth’.4