Continuum

 Overview

I absolutely love this poem and don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun teaching a poem; lots of role playing what is actually going on and very dramatic hand movements!

This is a poem all about writing a poem and overcoming writer’s block. Curnow is searching for inspiration and finds it in nature and the weather, but uses some stunning/confusing metaphors to explain to us.

The moon rolls over the roof and falls behind
my house, and the moon does neither of these things,
I am talking about myself.

It’s not possible to get off to sleep or
the subject or the planet, nor to think thoughts.
Better barefoot it out the front

door and lean from the porch across the privets
and the palms into the washed-out creation,
a dark place with two particular

bright clouds dusted (query) by the moon, one’s mine
the other’s an adversary, which may depend
on the wind, or something.

A long moment stretches, the next one is not
on time. Not unaccountably the chill of
the planking underfoot rises

in the throat, for its part the night sky empties
the whole of its contents down. Turn on a bare
heel, close the door behind

on the author, cringing demiurge, who picks up
his litter and his tools and paces me back
to bed, stealthily in step.

Allen Curnow (1911-2001)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Curnow is probably New Zealand’s most famous poet (he’s the only one I know, so that helps his claims). If you don’t know New Zealand, you need to know that it is a spectacular country covered in mountains and dramatic landscapes – that’s why The Lord of the Rings movies were filmed there.

Anyway, Curnow came from a deeply religious family and initially trained as a priest and then gained a bit of renown for writing witty and satirical poetry. However, he really gained recognition when he lost his faith and abandoned priesthood. His poetry after this point has a deep and close relationship with the landscape of New Zealand and how it impacted upon his childhood and his development as a person.

This poem is all about how his home is his inspiration. A bit like Pied Beauty, but lacking the praise to God.

 Themes

The main themes would be nature and its power to inspire.

When he cannot focus his mind, he turns to the majesty of nature and in particular the weather, which makes him feel alive and inspired once more.

 Content

Oh god, I hope this is clear. I love this poem, but it is confusing and I do tend to warble on sometimes without checking the clarity of my expression. Let me know if I need to reword or phrase bits and pieces.

We start with an interesting image of the moon disappearing behind his house, but immediately Curnow tells us this didn’t happen indicating the image is figurative and telling us something about him.

What does it mean? Well, the clue is in the connotations and associations we have with the moon. Traditionally the moon has been associated with inspiration, particularly when full. The fact the moon has disappeared indicates that his inspiration or his ideas are clouded and he is unable to write. This might seem to be a big leap of understanding at the moment, but once you’ve read the rest of the poem it should make sense.

He next talks about being unable to get to sleep. We’ve all had those nights where we cannot slip off into dreams because of all those pesky worries, cares and irrelevances floating around and popping into our thoughts and distracting us from our goal; the same thing is happening here to Curnow, but I would see his version of sleep as again metaphorical. Sleep could represent a state of dreaming and inspiration, which he is unable to attain at this current moment.

So, what do you do if you can’t sleep? Apparently Curnow didn’t have a DVD to hand. Instead he goes downstairs (again, remember this is all figurative) and tries to find peace out of his front door. Initially this doesn’t seem to do much good as he stares out into his garden and sees ‘privets and the palms… washed-out creation, a dark place’; it’s night and he can’t see beyond his garden and the man made aspect of nature is not enough to re-inspire. No doubt he is seeking inspiration from the majesty of the New Zealand landscape, but this is shrouded in dark and all he can see is ‘washed-out’, so uninteresting.

He then describes the sky above. This confused me and my class for ages, but when we finally figured it out I was extremely happy. Two clouds are in his sky described as being ‘dusted… by the moon’, so you can imagine that these clouds are visible in the night sky as they are covering the moon, which provides a kind of back light to them. However, one is described as ‘an adversary’ while the other is on his side. Why? The adversary one is pretty obvious as it is covering the moon and is therefore stifling his creativity/inspiration, but he hopes the wind will blow it away. The other one, later in the poem, solves his problem and fills him with inspiration again.

I really like the next stanza, but I’m not really sure why. He describes how ‘A long moment stretches, the next one is not on time’, which I find hypnotically beautiful. It is as if he is lost in a day dream and time, or his focus/concentration, is skipping around and he’s losing track. This is the beginning of him finding inspiration and he is lost in time contemplating the sky. Inspiration starts coming back to him as he begins to feel again – the chill from the cold porch floor rises. This is significant because it reaches his throat, which is where his words and ideas flow from as a poet.

Now the cloud that was Curnow’s pour rain down on him. Imagine him now getting soaked and his whole body feeling the cold and wet, this is like him being submerged in nature’s inspiration. His whole body feels again and thus inspired.

Immediately he races back to his bedroom to sleep (remember sleep is a metaphor for writing). Significantly he shuts the door on ‘the author’ because he is so inspired he is no longer just a writer, but a ‘demiurge’, almost God-like creator thanks to how inspired he feels.

So just to recap:

– No inspiration – a million ideas floating around his head.
– Searches for inspiration from nature.
– Initially everything clouded or dark.
– Inspiration comes as natural elements impact upon him.
– Races back to write.

 Language and techniques

Loads of things you could comment on, but I haven’t got all day, so I’m going to highlight the three main things I’d discuss in any essay.

Firstly, talk about the fact that the whole poem is an analogy. Although we have a narrative of a man trying, unsuccessfully, to sleep and then taking some air outside, the poem is actually about how Curnow takes inspiration from his natural surroundings and the weather in New Zealand – the rain breaks him out of his writer’s block and fills him with new ideas.

I’d also talk about the symbolism of the moon and clouds. The moon is linked to inspiration as it is bright and almost like a light bulb in the air, but in this poem it is first hidden by his ‘house’, which represents the non-natural or the world of man and later by a cloud. The fact it is ‘dusted’ by the cloud suggest fogginess over ideas and not quite being able to construct ideas, but when the clouds break and unleash their load on him (that sounds very rude, doesn’t it!?) he is filled with creativity and ideas again.

It’s also crucial that you talk about the phrases ‘washed-out creation’ and ‘dark place’. The first, in particular, is really interesting as washed-out means that something is faded or exhausted, not an attractive or inspiring image. Both of these are used when Curnow ventures onto his porch and both suggest a state of blindness or dullness. His garden and property represent the man-made and these phrases imply that Curnow finds it impossible to take inspiration from the neat, ordered creations of humanity and instead needs the wild and untamed natural elements to get him going.

I’d probably also talk about the significance of closing the door on the author and becoming a ‘cringing demiurge’, but I’ve covered that in the Content section.

 Structure

There are a few things to address here. Firstly what’s going on with the stanzas? There is enjambment between the lines at the end of one and the beginning of another and there seems to be no sensible split. In my opinion, the stanza are not being used to organise ideas in this poem, but to represent the state of the poet’s mind as describe in the poem.

Basically he is complaining that he can’t come up with a good idea for a poem as his mind is whirring with a million different thoughts and is clouded. The stanzas in the poem actually take on the shape of clouds reducing the clarity of his ideas and the fact they are split every three lines could represent all the thoughts bobbing around his mind – not developed in detail, just short, sharp ideas flying around.

Also look at the regularity of the stanzas and the different lines. If you count up the syllables per line you’ll see that they all vary; the poem uses no rhyme scheme; stanzas don’t finish sentences or an idea and it all seems a bit higgledypiggledy (don’t use this word in your exam!). Why? Again, I think this is a reflection of what the poem is about; the poet cannot find inspiration and therefore this poem emulates his lack of clarity through its confused/disorganised structure.

 Tone

Frustrated – I don’t know if you’ve ever had writer’s block, but it is incredible irritating; it often comes to me when trying to write these pieces of analysis. Throughout the poem he is clearly trying to find inspiration, but for the most part is disappointed by what is around him, but at the end see the relief and release after it’s pissed it down on him!

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

12 thoughts on “Continuum”

  1. thanks so much for this great website.. helped me understand and make sense of all the poems.. literature isn’t my strongest subject, but thanks to this im hoping to score an A. thanks again, it’s been great help!

  2. I never really understood this poem but thanks to you I’m hoping that a question on continuum comes out in exam. THANKS A LOT!!!!!!!!!

  3. Your analysis is a total mess. ‘inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense.’ are the perfect words to describe this claptrap. Who starts a goddam essay with ‘oh god’? STOP WRITING FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND

    1. …Hi… Not forcing you to read my analysis and I’m pretty sure I haven’t classified this as an essay.

      I hope mankind doesn’t suffer too much having to suffer the existence of my website (which, as far as I understand, is not compulsory reading).

    2. If you feel it is none sense just keep you silly emotions to yourself. Not everyone can be stereotyped. It takes someone who is real to be creative.

  4. This is great, thank you! Really helped me understand this poem better, it is now my favorite out of the 14 poems I’m studying for my IGCSE!

  5. Thanks for this beautifully put clarification & all the others you have written. It is very kind of you to put time and effort into this.

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