In the 1950s and 1960s Curnow got caught up in intergenerational and interregional conflicts with the younger Wellington-based writers Louis Johnson and Baxter, especially in connection with his reviews in Here Now of the early issues of Johnson’s New Zealand Poetry Yearbook (1951–52) and then the contents of his own second anthology, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), the publication of which was delayed by disputes about his selections and introduction.
Curnow has written about this episode: ‘My critical positions, as understood from my reviews and anthologies, inevitably came under some fire: whether from an older generation who thought me unjust to respected poets of their time, or from writers younger than myself who believed themselves underrated, and who interpreted any emphasis on a New Zealand particularity or "common problem" as a restrictive desideratum—so to speak, a charge for admission to my anthologies which they were not prepared to pay.
Such challenges came to a head in 1957–58, when a second anthology The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) was on the point of publication in the
Debate about the contents of the anthology and its fifty-page introduction (a key document in
The best of our verse is marked or moulded everywhere by peculiar pressures—pressures arising from the isolation of the country, its physical character, and its history’—became celebrated, seen by some as an important truth memorably expressed, while others—usually younger—took it as prescriptively nationalistic. There were clarifications and elaborations of Curnow’s views in the lectures ‘New Zealand Literature: The Case for a Working Definition’ (1963) and ‘Distraction and Definition: Centripetal Directions in New Zealand Poetry’ (1968). These lectures, the anthology introductions and other miscellaneous pieces were eventually collected in Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935–1984, edited by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, 1987).
After A Small Room with Large Windows (Oxford University Press, 1962)—a selected poems published in the