Judith Wright

Judith Wright #

Judith Wright (1915–2000), among Australia’s foremost literary figures, poet, essayist, activist, dedicated herself to writing and fighting for a more humane Australia. Her passion was the land and the first Australians and the role of women. She was often furious about what she saw as the betrayal of all.  John Hughes

Born into a wealthy well established settler family in the New England region of NSW, she grew up on a station, riding horses, mustering, and managing properties.  Seriously injured many times by coming off horses, she was indomitable.  She maintained a deep connection to the landscape and its natural beauty.  Her English born mother died as a result of the 1918 Flu epidemic when Judith was ten.  After that she was sent to a boarding school at Armidale and later to Sydney University where she had poems published in Honi Soit. She failed to attend post graduate classes, preferring to study by herself in the Library.  In 1937, she and a friend intrepidly toured through Germany. Austria and Hungary conscious of the increasing tension of war. They returned to Sydney in 1938 where she worked at a variety of odd jobs and continuing to write.  At the start of the war, her father called her back to the station where she began to see the country side as an artist.  In 1943, she moved to Brisbane,working for the University and helped Clem Christesen establish and write for the Meanjin Papers. Here she met Karl Shapiro, the American poet.

She formed a close relationship with a married man, Jack McKinney, twenty years older, an invalided and pensioned WWI veteran with whom she had a daughter, Meredith.  With money from her inheritance, they bought a retreat on Tamborine Mountain, the hinterland of the Gold Coast where he lived and she visited every weekend.  Both wrote there for 25 years.  

Judith was forced to seek other work to supplement the low-paying writing work.   Her daughter Meredith writes: *“She had to earn a living so she became a statistician at the uni, which was a complete farce because she couldn’t do maths,”. * “In those days anyone could get any job, it was just after the War".   Due to his war wounds, Jack McKinney died in 1966 but Judith remained on the mountain for another nine years. She left in 1975 when she became disillusioned with the Queensland politics of the day under the leadership of Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson.

“They were fine antagonists those two,” says Meredith. “She fought him through the courts to save the Barrier Reef from oil drilling, and because of that the Reef became a conservation area". She was the first President of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. She did find Queensland extremely oppressive, though. And she was lonely at home. I’d left, and increasingly she had friends in Canberra and another man she loved. I think Tamborine was changing a lot by then.

The Whitlam government recruited her to Canberra as an editor for the National Estate.  According to Graham Kinross Smith, she found Canberra an unnatural place, alien to the beautiful country about it, full of cars and hard edges.  She found it hard to write, eventually buying a bush property near Braidwood. 

From 2013, several biographers revealed a clandestine relationship with Nugget Coombes for over twenty-five years; one of the best-kept secrets in Australian literary and political public life.   They met working together on indigenous causes.    According to Fiona Capp’s memoir in tribute, My Blood’s Country, they did not reveal their relationship because Coombes didn’t want to put his wife through the strain of divorce.  He died in 1995, Wright in 2000.

Many writers have glowing tributes for the causes and poetry of Judith Wright, yet with some robust reserve.  According to Jane Sullivan, Georgina Arnott’s biography, The Unknown Judith Wright, disturbed some skeletons in the ancestral cupboard.

Wright had written a two-book history of her wealthy pastoral family, (based on her Grandparent’s lengthy diaries) the Wyndhams, which described them as “figures of serene achievement”. But Arnott revealed they probably dispossessed the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land where they settled in 1828 and may have taken part in their murder. Moreover, Arnott contended, Wright could have found evidence of such violence in her research.  Wright may not be the only writer to write against her ancestral past.

Jane Sullivan, quotes critic Kevin Brophy:Everyone loves Judith Wright … she was possibly our greatest poet”. Her biographer Veronica Brady said her poetry “speaks a sense of sacredness in the land”. Fellow poet Robert Gray said “she became the conscience of the country”.

Wright, insists poetry is for exploration; not exposition.  We are confronted with expressions of a poet’s unconscious insights into human experience, into the capacities of perception and feeling conveyed by the mode of  archetypal symbol, rhythm and sound which we have used to express our deepest feelings every since we began to sing.  A poem is so much more than the sum of its parts.  It should become a holistic experience affecting our gut, heart and mind - the visceral, emotional and cerebral.   Poets can unconsciously convey unintended insights .

Modern poets, struggle with breaking out of the formalist traditions.  Aristotle quipped that “rules are made for the guidance of the wise, and the blind obedience of fools". ** Chaucer** also knew how to follow a code of manners without becoming a slave to it.  Robert Frost claimed:  “Free verse is like playing tennis without a net”

Robert Lowell admits he “began to have a certain disrespect for the tight form, regularity seems to ruin the honesty of the sentiment and become rhetorical, taking away from the creativity.  The problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel”.

Some critical criteria for good poetry are: pleasure (Auden), honesty (Lowell) and resonance. (?)

**South Of My Days **

*South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

O cold the black-frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle
hisses a leak on the fire. Hardly to be believed that
summer will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler-roses,
thrust it’s hot face in here to tell another yarn-
a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.
Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.
Seventy years are hived in him like old honey.

Droving that year, Charleville to the Hunter,
nineteen-one it was, and the drought beginning;
sixty head left at the McIntyre, the mud round them
hardened like iron; and the yellow boy died
in the sulky ahead with the gear, but the horse went on,
stopped at Sandy Camp and waited in the evening.
It was the flies we seen first, swarming like bees.
Came to the Hunter, three hundred head of a thousand-
cruel to keep them alive - and the river was dust.

Or mustering up in the Bogongs in the autumn
when the blizzards came early. Brought them down; we
brought them down, what aren’t there yet. Or driving for Cobb’s on the run
up from Tamworth-Thunderbolt at the top of Hungry Hill,
and I give him a wink. I wouldn’t wait long, Fred,
not if I was you. The troopers are just behind,
coming for that job at the Hillgrove. He went like a luny, him on his big black horse. 

Oh, they slide and they vanish
as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror’s cards.
True or not, it’s all the same; and the frost on the roof
cracks like a whip, and the back-log break into ash.
Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.
No-one is listening
South of my days’ circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep. *

Written after she moved to Brisbane for her health, the poem reflects her return to her home station during the war, Wright saw the New England country for the first time as an artist celebrating a renewed connection the her native landscape, peopled by - rouseabouts, drovers, bullocks, stockmen and bushrangers.  Like Lawson or Paterson, Wright demonstrates a deeper level of consciousness, a sensitivity and respect for those resilient pioneers who founded this country.  She discovered her grandparents extensive diaries and much of her poetry excavates her ancestral origins together with the burden of Aboriginal dispossession.  “Cut off your family and how would you know who you are?”   (David Sedaris)

Her celebration of of the landscape includes: “*high delicate outline/ of bony slopes wincing under the winter, low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-/ clean, lean, hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced, willow choked”,.  *

..“landscape”. as a very limited concept and sprang from what Wright saw as the *“irreconcilable difference of viewpoint” between ourselves and the land’s original inhabitants, the Aborigines. For them “every part of the country … every mark and feature was numinous with meaning”. But the notion of landscape implies a division between the self and the land. In contrast with Aborigines what non-Aboriginal people “see in the landscape”, she thought, was “partial, inadequate and temporal vision, reflecting our own interests”. * The indigenous saw landscape integral to their whole history and being, to be protected rather than exploited.

It is a harsh environment of cold and heat, drought and floods.  *“the old cottage” *with its  “slung kettle hisses a leak on the fire” provides shelter and warmth.

Later she begins to question the premises and calamitous consequences of the destructive, extractive and plundering nature of the European’s preconceptions in contrast with the indigenous people - “we haven’t given ourselves time to understand the country - the trouble with our relationship to Australia is that we still don’t live here.

We all need to excavate and  cling to our heritage.  As a Sami protest goes: ”We walk in the footsteps of our ancestors.  If you take away our stories, then you wipe out our path to the future”  Or as  Brené Brown writes: “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do.”

Ceridwen Dovey was born white, in South Africa. migrated to Australia, at eight, then studied in Harvard also working as an Archeologist in Pompeii.  Her novels are an attempt to deal consciously with her cross cultural heritage and serendipitous privilege.

In life there are perpetrators, victims and beneficiaries, and we need to uncover the layers of self-deception and denial that justify the burden of moral guilt due our undeserved privilege.  We are so lucky to have been born in the time and place that we have, often to the detriment of the indigenous inhabitants, we deprived of their good fortune.  There exists a secret whispering in our hearts that historians, novelists and the rest of us, owe the dispossessed a moral duty to acknowledge and expose the truth of our fortunate existence.  The greatest debt we can repay is simply our respect, acceptance and inclusion.

Literature can give us the vocabulary to distinguish between various kinds of guilt perpetrated by our ancestors.  Some of it can be intergenerational complicity which can result in shame.  Dovey differentiates guilt as personal wrong doing, while shame is – what you are as a result of your privilege.  We may have original sin or have benefited through the complicity of our forefathers.  

There were many reasons why British settlers migrated to Australia.  Many came freely to take advantage of land.  Two groups came by force; convicts and Remittance men and women.  Generally the latter were misfits, who found it impossible to live within the confines of respectable society.  Often disinherited due to disgraceful conduct, or were an embarrassment to a family who could afford the out of sight out of mind policy and pay for it.they were sent to the colonies of America, Canada and later to Australia.  Some, who had no other talent were bought commissions in the army where they became incompetent officers.

The Remittance Man #

* The spendthrift, disinherited and graceless,*

* accepted his pittance with an easy air,*

* only surprise he could escape so simply*

* from the pheasant-shooting and the aunts in the close;*

* took to the life, dropped easily out of knowledge,*

* and tramping the backtracks in the summer haze*

* let everything but life slip through his fingers.*

* Blue blowing smoke of twigs from the noon fire,*

* red blowing dust of roads where the teams go slow,*

* sparse swinging shadow of trees no longer foreign*

* silted the memory of a greener climate.*

* The crazy tales, the hatters’ crazy secrets,*

* the blind-drunk sprees indifferently forgiven,*

* and past them all, the track to escape and nowhere*

* suited his book, the freak who could never settle.*

* The pale stalk of a wench at the country ball*

* sank back forgotten in black Mary’s eyes,*

* and past the sallow circle of the plains’ horizon*

* faded the rainy elms seen through the nursery window.*

* That harsh biblical country of the scapegoat*

* closed its magnificence finally round his bones*

* polished by diligent ants. The squire his brother,*

* presuming death, sighed over the documents,*

* and lifting his eyes across the inherited garden*

* let a vague pity blur the formal roses.*

The stark contrast between the mother country and the colonies is clearly depicted in this poem.  Wright sourced the construction from her grandparents diaries as the era of remittance men had ended by the turn of the century. 

Sanctuary – Judith Wright

Judith Wright remained  concerned about the environment.  Like Gerard Manly Hopkins, Binsey Populars**, she realised our capacity to destroy our habitat. Many of her poems speak of the natural beauty of Australia and condemn the European exploitive imperialism of natural Australian lands. She also registered her concerns about  white Australia’s apathy towards the treatment of the Aboriginal people.

This poem is set near Tamborine Mountain in the hinterland of Queensland’s Gold Coast.  It plays with the multi-dimensional meanings of the English language.

**Sanctuary          ** #

*         The road beneath the giant original trees*

*         sweeps on and cannot wait. Varnished by dew,*

*         its darkness mimics mirrors and is bright*

*         behind the panic eyes the driver sees*

*         caught in headlights. Behind the wheels the night*

*         takes over: only the road ahead is true.*

*         It knows where it is going; we go too.*

*         Sanctuary, the sign said Sanctuary -*

*         trees, not houses; flat skins pinned to the road*

*         of possum and native cat; and here the old tree stood*

*         for how many thousand years? that old gnome-tree*

*         some axe-new boy cut down. Sanctuary, it said:*

*         but only the road has meaning here. It leads*

*         into the world’s cities like a long fuse laid.*

*         Fuse, nerve strand of a net, tense*

*         bearer of messages, snap-tight violin-string,*

*         dangerous knife-edge laid across the dark,*

*         what has that sign to do with you? The immense*

*         tower of antique forest and cliff, the rock*

*         where years accumulate like leaves, the tree*

*         where transient birds and mindless insect sing?*

*         The word the board holds up is Sanctuary*

*         and the road knows that the notice-boards make sense,*

*         but has not time to pray. Only, up there,*

*         morning sets doves upon the power line.*

*         Swung on that fatal voltage like a sign*

*         and meaning love, perhaps they are a prayer.*

Compare this with GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS- Binsey Poplars

*                   felled 1879*

*          My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,                  (softened)*

*            Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,               (trapped by leaves)*

*            All felled, felled, are all felled;                                         (axe blows?)*

*              Of a fresh and following folded rank*

*                  Not spared, not one*

*                    That dandled a sandalled                                   (dangled a shadow)*

*                   Shadow that swam or sank                                (soft, interlaced)*

*          On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.*

*       *

*          O if we but knew what we do*

*           When we delve or hew —                                        (dig and chop)*

*             Hack and rack the growing green!*

*            Since country is so tender*

*          To touch, her being só slender,*

*        That, like this sleek and seeing ball*

*        But a prick will make no eye at all,*

*        Where we, even where we mean*

*                 To mend her we end her,*

*            When we hew or delve:*

*          After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.*

*          Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve*

*          Strokes of havoc unselve                                             (annihilate sense of)*

*             The sweet especial scene,                                       (unique)*

*     Rural scene, a rural scene,*

*     Sweet especial rural scene.*

An evocative lament for what is lost by senseless destruction of nature for plunder. 

Hopkin’s use of Sprung rhythm, inscape and internal rhyme attempts to induce empathy with his suffering.  The many repetitions of alliterative sounds emphasises his deep distress.

Due to the curse of Adam and Eve,* *Joshua 9:23 ** “none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

**inscape  **= a coinage of Hopkins meaning to describe the essence, rather than the appearance of things.

*Cut off your family and how would you know who you are?”   *David Sedaris

*Cut off your family and how would you know who you are?”   *David Sedaris

*Cut off your family and how would you know who you are?”   *David Sedaris