Allen Curnow is widely regarded one of the defining and influential voices of 20th-century New Zealand literature. Born in Timaru, he was the son of a clergyman and fourth generation New Zealander, and of an English mother who never felt entirely at home in her adopted country. Originally destined for the church, Curnow converted to doubt and instead pursued a career in journalism. Following a post-war trip to England he joined the English Department at Auckland University where he taught from the 1950s to 1976.
His first collection appeared in 1933 but it was his editorship of two landmark anthologies that sealed his reputation: A Book of New Zealand Verse, and The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. These proved equally influential and controversial in their assertion of “some common problem of the imagination” particular to the New Zealander’s situation. His work as a literary theorist helped shape the texts of many poets and writers of fiction and his satirical verse, under the pen name of 'Whim-Wham', delighted newspaper readers every Saturday for half a century.
Curnow’s importance was recognised by numerous awards including the New Zealand Book Award which he won six times, the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Cholmondeley Award and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. He was the recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowiship in 1983, followed by a CBE in 1986. He received the Order of New Zealand in 1990.