Allen Curnow was one of New Zealand’s most celebrated poets. He died in 2001 at the age of ninety. He once said that some of his poetry tried to explore ‘the private and unanswerable’.
The poem begins with the personification of the moon: ‘rolls over’, ‘falls behind’ – except the speaker tells us he’s describing himself, and not the moon after all.
The second and third stanzas capture a certain restlessness and the man’s inability to sleep or ‘think thoughts’. From his porch he looks across the privets and palms of his garden at the night sky, ‘a washed-out creation’ – ‘a dark place’. Both of these phrases have metaphorical associations as well as literal meaning.
He observes two clouds: ‘one’s mine / the other’s an adversary’. This observation is likely to be at the heart of student discussions. Why is one cloud his, and in what way? In respect of the other cloud, dictionary definitions of ‘adversary’ are helpful: ‘opponent in a contest or conflict’, ‘a force that opposes or attacks’, ‘enemy’. Which of these meanings do they feel is most suitable here, and why?
He seems unaware of the time and cold: ‘A long moment stretches’, and ‘the chill of / the planking underfoot’. Finally he returns to bed. The poem ends with an image of the poet observing himself as it were: ‘cringing demiurge, who picks up / his litter and his tools’. This description of himself is central to the poem and its original observations about the nature of poetic inspiration. A demiurge is a craftsman plying his trade for the use of the public – which is an interesting metaphor for the poet. But why is the demiurge described as ‘cringing’?
Consider the mood of the first two stanzas. What are their first impressions of the speaker? What does personification of the moon and the man’s identification with the moon reveal about the speaker?
What meaning and effects created by sound in the phrase
‘Better barefoot it out…’? What is he trying to escape from?
Lots of examples of enjambment but say WHY the poet uses this. Ask them to look closely (and listen attentively) to the end of stanza two and the beginning of stanza three, and also the end of stanza three and the beginning of stanza four. What are the effects of the enjambment at these points in the poem?
‘washed-out creation’ and ‘a dark place’. What do these descriptions reveal about the speaker’s mood?
‘A long moment stretches, the next one is not / on time’
‘…for its part the night sky empties / the whole of its contents down’.
What is the night sky’s ‘part’ is in all of this?
The end of the poem has the poet describing himself in a detached and objective way, as if looking at another person. The speaker closes the door behind on the author, we are told.
Why is he ‘cringing’? What are ‘his litter and his tools’? What does ‘stealthily in step’ suggest about the poet’s state of mind? It might be useful to look at the different meanings a dictionary gives for ‘stealthy’.
Thematic links with set poems
Personal reflection: A Different History, The Cockroach, Summer Farm, Where I
The natural world: Pied Beauty, Horses, Hunting Snake, The Woodspurge,
Summer Farm, Where I Come From, Upon Westminster