“Continuum” by Allen Curnow

  I said that one of the things I most liked about Brewster’s poem “Where I Come From” was its simplicity: “It’s a beautiful example of a poet doing exactly what a poet should do: realising something quite profound, and sharing that idea with us in a beautiful, accessible, thought-provoking way.” That’s what the best poetry is to me. It doesn’t have to be simple (though simple is beautiful: read Wendy Cope), and it doesn’t necessarily have to be immediately accessible (“immediate accessibility” isn’t a criteria for the lovers of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins or Shakespeare), but for the more complex poems, there has to be that chink of approachability, that glimmer of light, that is the opening for you to “get into” the text. And for i-love-it-i-hate-itme personally, there has to be emotion behind it: explicit, implicit, whatever – poetry needs to make me feel. And that’s why I don’t really like Curnow’s poem. I don’t find it approachable in any way, and when I do struggle into it, I don’t find it makes me feel anything in particular. I like the images in themselves, I vaguely see a narrative shape, but ultimately, from my perspective, it doesn’t move me. It’s not Brewster, or Hopkins, or Hughes, or Muir.

It’s always nice, actually, finding a poem you don’t really like. I think studying these poems, and really giving yourself time to think about them, makes youuntitled aware of what you like in poetry: what moves you, what challenges you, what totally turns you off, what totally turns you on. Its such a wide and disparate collection that there are some poems you are bound not to like. And this is something I hear a lot in the classroom – and sometimes from me – “I just don’t like this poem/play/novel at all.” And that’s fine. The worst thing any writer wants you to feel is nothing: responding with feelings of happiness and joy are great, but feelings of frustration and annoyance are infinitely more preferable to an apathetic “meh” and a shrug of your shoulders.

How you harness your emotional response in an exam answer is always tricky: you can’t just say “I hate this poem a lot” and expect to be rewarded well for it. I find that the teacherly response (or at least, my teacherly response) to such a negative emotional reaction differs according to the year group and point in the academic year of that year group. For example, this poem: in 4th form, at initial study, when everyone says that they don’t like the poem, I’d be very happy to explore it, explore those feelings, and try to get students to empathise with the work, see it from different points of view. All idealism vanishes, as ever, in the face of the exam – now, from the vantage point of some 4 weeks from the exam itself, the attitude is forced to be more utilitarian, less aesthetic, more purpose-oriented, more like “I don’t care if you don’t like the poem: put emotions to one side and get clear on how you analyse the poem, be clear on how you write about it.” Don’t forget: sometimes it’s better to write about work you don’t necessarily feel anything about – the practice of analysis is dissection, far more like science than people give it credit for, and your response could benefit from limiting rapturous subjective waffle and giving instead a dispassionate, even-handed, incisive approach to words, shades, textures, intentions, the feasibility of different interpretations.

You don’t have to like a poem, or a text, to write well about it. You don’t have to like a poem, or a text, to appreciate the skill with which it is crafted; to appreciate the poet’s intentions, their successes, and how others may really gain something emotionally from it even when you don’t. Obviously, the best responses, I think, are the ones who can write both passionately and analytically about the text in hand. Which is why this posting on Curnow’s “Continuum” (poem accessed here) is written entirely from a person who can do precisely that: be passionate and analytical about a poem in a way that I simply couldn’t. I take no credit for this whatsoever – this is all the work of Imogen. I have learned an enormous amount from this essay, and as such, were I to be sitting the exam, this posting may well be enough to convince you that “Continuum” may well be a poem that you could write about under exam conditions, so effective and helpful are her interpretations. Leave comments as per usual, adding and developing the ideas that you have read: don’t lazily plagiarise please.

Thank you to Imogen for both writing such a brilliant essay, and for agreeing to share it with you all on this site.

Continuum by Allen Curnow

To me, this poem has several different levels. It is packed with metaphorical and symbolic ideas, and many different interpretations can be given to it. It’s most obvious interpretation is that of insomnia due to ‘writers block’, however beyond this idea it explores ideas of religion and the metaphysical, influenced by Curnow’s religious upbringing and his training to become a priest in the Anglican Ministry. It also looks at nature, and the rational versus the irrational, as well as seeming discretely sardonic about the nature of writing poetry.

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“The moon rolls over the roof and falls behind…”

The clearest subject of this poem is that of ‘writers block’, a state of mind that most writers find themselves in at some stage, where they fail to find inspiration to write. Curnow uses specific language and structure to reflect this mental state. For example, ‘the moon rolls over the roof and falls behind’. This is representative of his mind: it’s rolling and falling all over the place, without any apparent consequence or significance. Furthermore, ‘moon’ has connotations of orbiting, which suggest that his mind and train of though is going round and round in circles. Also, ‘roll’ is a verb which has immediate implications of continuation, indicating the never-ending nature of his struggle to write. Moreover, ‘fall’ has negative associations, of failure and deterioration, suggesting his poetic skills are diminishing. Additionally, Curnow implements some very simplistic and almost casual language, for example, ‘or something’, to finish a stanza. This vague, offhand ending gives a sense of Curnow giving up, as if he can’t be bothered to finish his stanza perfectly. This failure to finish a verse well could be representative of his incapability to finish a poem well: his writers block. There are no capital letters at the beginning of most of the stanzas, which further emphasises the continuation of his psychological state. Furthermore, the stanzas are all regular and of an even, equal length of three lines, and all follow a similar pattern of line length. These uniform stanzas indicate boredom and monotony, suggesting how he can see no sign of change or improvement in the foreseeable future; no solution to his suffering or way to overcome his ‘writers block’. Moreover, there is no rhyme, which could represent his failure to produce effective work, or failure to product the work expected of him, (as poetry is typically expected to rhyme, and perhaps his ideas are not typical; perhaps they are irrational beyond general acceptance?) Also, the enjambment reflects the wandering train of thought of the narrator; thoughts without a known order or sequence. Furthermore, there is a definite lyrical poetic flow of the first two lines of the poem; however the following line literally halts this flow almost as soon as it’s begun. This could be representing how his creative ideas are always ruined as soon as they’ve begun, forming an image of a frustrated poet scrunching up a fiftieth sheet of paper with a few senseless scrawls on, and hurling it at a trashcan. Curnow uses extremely confusing, jumbled and nonsensical writing throughout the poem, which symbolises the chaos and disarray of his mind; his inability to form his thoughts into anything coherent, understanding or rational.

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“The night sky empties all its contents down on me…”

Though not overtly satirical by any means, hints of mocking can be detected in Curnow’s tone at several points in the poem, for example, in the first stanza, ‘I’m talking about myself’. By saying this, he destroys the expressiveness of the two previous lines. He’s saying what he means instead of describing himself through a complicated metaphor: It’s as though he is being blunt and sarcastic about the way that poets write so elaborately, perhaps pretentiously. Also, ‘the night sky empties all its contents down on me’, as if the sky is truly showering him with inspiration. This could perhaps be perceived as slightly sarcastic about the melodramatic manner in which creative types stereotypically become inspired in a sudden moment of imagination or brilliant idea. Furthermore, when he says ‘it’s not possible to get off to sleep or the subject or the planet’, he is describing things which literally are impossible to do – one cannot physically get off to sleep. Perhaps he is being humorously critical of the way in which poets never simply say what they mean; they instead employ clichés and metaphors to make things sound more profound.

Curnow is also trying to illustrate how the power of nature is needed in order to be able to write poetry. He suggests that the concepts of poetry, creation and imagination are all inexplicably linked with nature. For example, in the second/third stanza, he decides he ‘better barefoot it out the front door’, which indicates how poets look towards the outdoors and the natural world for inspiration. ‘Barefoot’ also has connotations of freedom, suggesting how freedom of thought, thought without constraints, is key to writing poetry. Both this poem and ‘Sonnet: Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth are written during the hours when most people are asleep, shops and businesses are closed: humanity is almost paused. This shows the restraints that the rational world impose upon poetry: the freedom from the civilised world during the night/dawn provide creative power to write. Wordsworth may not have found the inspiration had he attempted to write a sonnet like that one during the rest of the day, when, as during the industrial revolution, a connection with nature would have practically impossible to find. Nature has traditionally always been a source of inspiration for poets, and it plays a key role in the universal balance of things, (for example when the albatross is killed in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, and weird things start to happen – this poem also signified the beginning of Romantic poetry in Britain, and thus Wordsworth’s poem followed, and we can see how harmony with nature has been long been central to poetry). The authorial intention behind this is to demonstrate how nature must not be absent nor interfered with, in order for poets to be able to write, and how imperative its presence is.

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Curnow explores the notion of the rational and the irrational world, for example, restraining boundaries of the equal, regular stanzas and line length could represent the restrictive and constraining boundaries of the rational world upon poets. Also, the unordered and chaotic writing within this rigid structure represents the creative ideas and imagination trapped within the boundaries of rational thought. Moreover, as he goes outside in stanza three, the writing becomes less clearly structured, for example the stanzas no longer end with completed sentences and full stops, and instead they overflow into the next verse. This structure represents the irrationality that nature and the outdoors provides. Furthermore, the blank verse used could represent the freedom of irrational thought. The phrase ‘lean from the porch’ is interesting as he isn’t actually stepping off the porch, as if he cannot escape the limitations of the rational world. ‘Porch’, ‘privets’ and ‘palms’ are all symbolic of the suburban, with connotations of uniformity and compartmentalisation. They are symbols of the restraints of the rational world. The word ‘porch’ signifies an extra boundary between the house and the outdoors; a boundary between the house and freedom of thought. ‘Privets’ denote hedges, and hedges are yet another boundary, of separation, and to limit our space, constricting us to one specifically measured area. ‘Palms’ give the image of large, wealthy suburban houses surrounded by imported palm trees that don’t belong in western neighbourhoods, thus suggesting the way that humanity yearns for the tropical and exotic, the wonder and mystery of the unknown. The plosives help to link all three together as one idea: that suburbia is not wonderful or irrational, but it is shadowing his mind and restricting his imagination. It is indeed ‘a dark place’ as he says in the final line of the stanza.

The final key idea I can see in this poem is that of metaphysics and religion, which helps to explain some of its more obscure lines. There seems to be the idea of two personas: one being the author and the other being the human. For example, he says ‘may depend on the wind’. Only the author can control the weather and thus write away the wind. Also, ‘the author…paces me back to bed’. This shows how the author has total control over the other persona. The author of a story creates and dictates the life of his character. This correlates with how religious Curnow was. He was raised in a religious family, remained devoutly religious throughout his life, after leaving his training in the church. Perhaps he is suggesting that God is the ultimate storyteller, the playwright of our scripts, the poet of out emotions and the author of our actions. It is he who has control over our lives in the end, no matter how in control we believe we are. Also, in the line ‘the night sky empties the whole of its contents down’, ‘sky’ connotes the heavens, thus linking to the notion that God provides his inspiration, that this is where Curnow’s inspiration, creativity and imagination come from – his faith? (Furthermore the idea of God writing our lives could support the sardonicism of the whole pretentious nature of writing poetry – as if poets believe they have the equal extent of creative genius as God.) Moreover, there are seven stanzas in this poem – one for each day and night of the creation of the universe. They could represent the six days and nights it took for the ‘demiurge’ (God) to create the universe, with the seventh day as a day for rest. ‘And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.’ Genesis 1:31. ‘And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. (Genesis 2:1,2) In the final stanza the ‘demiurge’ goes ‘back to bed’, just like God taking the final day (final stanza) for rest. Furthermore, the line ‘close the door behind on the author, cringing demiurge’ could perhaps be representative of Curnow shutting the door on being a priest, thus ‘closing the dOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAoor’ on God, ‘the author’. ‘Demiurge’ literally denotes the creator of the universe, so here is one moment where Curnow may actually be literal. ‘Cringing’ could suggest how the author/God believes Curnow made the wrong choice (in not being a priest?), maybe Curnow feels he disappointed God? Alternatively, ‘close the door behind’ could be describing how he closes the door on the outdoors and nature, thus closing the door on his deep, irrational and poetic self, because of the limitations of the human, rational world. The limitations of time, (he has to go back to bed before morning, we are all locked into a system of time by which the entire world operates – a literal restraint of the rational world), temperature, (‘the chill’ he is cold, he has to go back in) and the human instinct for sleep. These all result in him losing his creative power. It’s the conflict between two conflicting personas which we see here: One is the imaginative inspired ‘author’ who’s driven by a creative urge. The other is that of man, driven by the animal urge to sleep, to go inside. The conflicting urges could represent the limitations of the rational world.

In conclusion, this poem can be seen as obscure, and even slightly self-indulgent, as other than the patronising third line, ‘I’m talking about myself’, he doesn’t attempt to make the poem easy to understand. But I think this intentional obscurity serves a purpose in reflecting how the ideas within the poem are not easy to understand either. The confusing style of writing seems over-exaggerated in order to slightly mock the nature of poets, himself included. It could mean many different things to people. It’s about the irrational, and therefore it must be irrational, and the simplicity of that concept is for me is where the beauty of this poem lies. The underlying wonder in this poem is hidden within layers of metaphors and nonsensical combinations of words – you have to spend time on it in order to understand it and see its significance. In a way, this is another parallel to religion, which is so heavily influential in much of Curnow’s writing. When you spend time on it becomes clearer and fills you with clarity and perspective. However only people who are willing to spend time and give themselves fully to this poem/religion will understand the beauty and power of its messages.

Explore how language is used in Continuum in order to create effect on the reader.

One thought on ““Continuum” by Allen Curnow

  1. Matt

    Just want to throw myself into this one…
    To me, Continuum is all about life moving very slowly, and I think that the kind of frustration we all feel when needing to analyse this poem is exactly the authorial intention. The denotation of continuum is continuous change that is so small we don’t notice it, however there are distict differences at both ends of the scale-the way I get my head around the definition is to look at myself, 10 years ago I was half the size I am now and I don’t notice a difference in height every day, but there is a distinct difference between my height now and my height then. Firstly, the idea of frustration is created in the phrase, “a long moment stretches,”. The word, “stretches” connotes strain, and the fact that it is a “moment” that stretches creates tension. Cunrow is displaying his frustration in waiting. Furthermore, the enjambment emphasises the denotation of continuum as it gives the poem a continuous structure. Overall, the authorial intention behind this poem is to display how slow time goes, and how frustrating it is for Cunrow.

    Reply

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