March 27, 2023

Wystan Curnow (New Zealand) 1939

Wystan Curnow (New Zealand)

Born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1939, Wystan Curnow spent his first few years there. Composers, pianists, poets, actors, ballerinas, critics and the like pass through his home and gathered there for parties. His mother was a painter. His father, who had several books of poetry to his name and the introduction to an anthology of New Zealand poetry, was offered a position in the English Department at the University of Auckland. The family moved north. Curnow was named Wystan after W. H. Auden, an explanation which at least to begin with did not cut much ice with his contemporaries.
     He studied English and History at the University of Auckland. He took his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote a dissertation on Herman Melville under Morse Peckham. At that time—the 1960s—he traveled often to New York and became involved in political action on the street and on campus.
     He taught at the Universities of Rochester and York (in Toronto) before returning to New Zealand. He is now a professor of English at the University of Auckland, where he teaches modern and contemporary literature. In 1989 he was visiting Professor at the University of California San Diego and in 1993 is was visiting professor at the University of New York at Buffalo. In 1997 he spent time in France on a Moet et Chandon fellowship.
     Curnow is well-known as an art critic and an independent curator. He is been responsible for twenty-nine exhibitions, in venues as far afield as New York, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Sydney, Auckland, New Plymouth and Wellington. In 1987 he founded Artspace, New Zealand’s first contemporary art space. Currently, he co-directs Jar Space in Auckland. From 1984 to 1987 he co-edited a literary magazine, Splash!, which published mainly language-oriented writers from New Zealand and the United States. In 2005 he became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his contributions to literature and art.
  Curnow’s poetry has its sources in new American poetry and conceptual art (New Zealand performance art in particular). His books are not collections so much as loose collocations of thematically and formally related texts. Broadly speaking his earlier works (some of which are collected in ‘Wystan’s Room’ at are particularly concerned with place, space and language; the more recent poems are involved with history and culture. He is prone to mixing and confusing genres, poetry and prose especially, as well as registers and voices. His pieces are increasingly sensitive to the fact that the language they use has already been spoken for and that the task of wrestling new forms of thought and feeling from it requires an ongoing reappraisal of their poetics.
      In 2020 Curnow was awarded a CLNZ / NZSA research grant for his project Colin McCahon, Let Us Possess One World.


Back in the USA (Wellington, New Zealand: Black Light Press, 1989); Cancer Daybook (Auckland: Vanguard Xpress, 1989); Castor Bay, Poems and Proses (Auckland: The Holloway Press, 1996); Modern Colours (Auckland: Jack Books, 2005); The Art Hotel (split/fountain, 2014)

Winner of the PIP Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative Poetry in English

Portrait of Picabia

Francis Picabia's a nomad we thought
he goes through ideas the way
one goes through countries and cities
-incessant, says Gertrude Stein-
swallong abstruse rosellas and
wood pigeons, wolfing down volume
on volume, hanging around high flyers
making love to curiouscormorants
and washing one's forearms in alizarin

'Funny Guy' Francis Picabia
is an idiot
is a dag
is a pickpocket
is an imbecilic professor
of Spanish

Francis Picabia is to style parliaments
as jumbo jets and jumbos as I don't know
what costly erotic cures for dumbstruck
summoning up plausible ungeants
hologrammatically from the decks of
ocen-going liners, just to get by. Says

he from the pig's back! Or the internal
engines of combustion! Steam heat!
More than him as to ghost writer
of resignation speeches for stick label
despotics never again see the people
he knew and loved, even casual acquaintances
-notorious roue never put-his word
the same woman twice in his bed unless
he'd another who cheated on him every
day with a different man. Even so.

Francis Picabia's a wag
He is an idiot
He's a clow
Is not a painter
Is a crazy
Is a Spaniard
Is a professor
Is not serious
Is rich
Is poor.
Take his word

Reprinted from Wystan Curnow, Modern Colours (Auckland, New Zeland: Jack Book, 2005).


Anonymous said...

Wystan is an outstanding man as well as tutor and of course POET! I had the pleasure of being taught be him... and I learned a lot! I was encouraged to read first and foremost and was proud when he picked one or two of my poems as 'excellent examples'... Woohoo (I must be doing something right!). Wystan is just so becuase he is who he is. I can't sing his praises enough! Love his humour and laid back attitude. Jx

Unknown said...

Wystan, you will remember me from uni...I think you will be proud of my poetry and writing achievements. Maybe I'm ready to do the Masters in Creative writing now...could you find the time to critique?

I have also set up a National Promoting Mental Health website called, I am currently accepting submissions. Would you take a look and consider sharing a poem? Kind regards, Jodine Derena Majewski (nee Butler)