A book of Allen Curnow's poetry has been lying on the coffee table for a week or so at our house.

It moved from the kauri of the book shelf to the glass of the table because, she said, its words should be read because its author, one of New Zealand's most remarkable poets, was no more.

During that week or so, I've stared carefully and reluctantly at the volume, read its back cover and, once or twice, picked it up to cast an unfocused eye across its verse. Somehow all its words have defeated me, its author has remained a mystery.


Which is perhaps true enough for many of us. Curnow's poetry may have spanned some 70 years - not much less than half this nation's European history - yet for all but his most fervent fans he remained little known, a half-seen master architect of words.

Documentary maker Shirley Horrocks seems to have been struck by this fact, too. As she says in the first few minutes of her rich and wonderful portrait of Curnow, she could not understand why someone acknowledged by his fellow poets to be one of the greatest poets in the English-speaking world had never been subjected to the documentarian's eye.

"I soon discovered one of the reasons," she says. "Allen Curnow is not attracted to the publicity machine. He has kept his energies focused on the job at hand: always striving to write a better poem."

It is good that Curnow allowed a film-maker as deft and careful as Horrocks to finally tell us about him.

Early Days Yet is a celebratory work, but it is no spawn of a publicity machine. And it does not tell us Curnow's story. While a raft of fellow poets has lined up to praise and explain, Horrocks has mostly chosen to let her subject, through his words, memories and presence, acquaint us with who he was and what he means.

Opening with Curnow in the office and kitchen of his and wife Jeny's Parnell home, the poet begins by explaining the physical stuff of writing: a portable and venerable Olivetti Studio 45 typewriter, an extra cushion for the chair and a typing style he calls "hunt and punch". All his words made their way to verse with a ballpoint and "quantities of A4 paper". Eventually he hunted and punched them with the Olivetti before the slow, careful process of editing began in an office filled only with good dictionaries and a small "essential" poet's library at hand.

With the how explained - and there is always something curious about how and where writers write - Horrocks moves onto the what, when and why of Curnow as the poet revisits many of the places which informed and coloured his existence and work.

Tracing his story from his childhood as a Canterbury vicar's son, to his early work as a journalist, to training for the ministry at St John's Theological College in Auckland to eventually finding his true vocation, it is a most extraordinary but somehow comfortingly ordinary life.

Yet as Early Days Yet moves across its 70-odd minutes, it seems to become less a biography of the writer than a record of what he wrote. (Which may explain why Horrocks - and this is perhaps her documentary's only, minor, flaw - is not as precise with dates and places as she might have been.)

Early Days Yet is filled with Curnow's poems. Better still they come from the poet's mouth. With a sonorous, soothing and truly New Zealand voice, Curnow explains a life, his life, in a way few can.

Perhaps I'd better give the little volume on the coffee table a better chance to tell me more.

Early Days Yet

TV One, Sunday 10.20 pm