18 May 2015
I think poetry should be treated, not as a lofty art separated from life, but as a way of seeing and expressing not just the personal view, but the whole context of the writer’s times. For me, it has been a way of searching for understanding of my own life and of what was happening to me and around me.
Judith Wright, ‘Foreword’, A Human Pattern (1989)
‘… with love and fury’ is how the environmentalist, feminist, historian, literary critic, poet and secretary of the Treaty Committee, Judith Wright, often signed off her letters to friends. Love and fury are how all who care for Australia should respond to the centenary of Wright’s birth on Sunday 31 May 2015: love for her achievements and activism: fury at the official neglect; love for the people and causes she championed: fury at how far the world remains from setting those matters to right.
Judith Wright was born into the squattocracy of New England, a heritage she reconstructed in Generations of Men (1959); those stories, she said, ‘still go walking in my sleep.’ Working the land remained central to her being and to her understanding. She returned from the University of Sydney to help out on the Wright property when the war took the local labourers. Moving away from her family to live on Mt Tambourine (Qld), she had to supplement what she could earn from her pen with what she could grow. Her ’exile’ to outside Braidwood saw her work to restore the bush.
How she saw herself in relation to these three properties deepened her apprehension of indigenous Australians, though their presence always was what she calls ‘an undercurrent’ in her creativity. Her first collection, The Moving Image (1946), included ‘Nigger’s Leap: New England’, a reflection on the violence of the frontier. Ever the self-critic, Wright accepted that her first telling of the invasion had been inadequate and she returned to the war for Australia with The Cry for the Dead (1981), the year in which Henry Reynolds also drew attention to The Other Side of the Frontier.
Wright found solace in her friendship with Oodgeroo: ‘If we are sisters, it’s in this – our grief for a lost country.’ (‘Two Dreamtimes’). Like Oodgeroo, Wright turned lament into campaigning for a Treaty, serving as Committee secretary from 1979 to 1983, and publishing We Call for a Treaty in 1985. By then, she had taken some environmentalists to task for what she perceived as an unconscious racism in their claims about ‘wilderness’, as if indigenous Australians had never seen the Franklin. Her fury at those who censored talk of an ’invasion’ led her to title her 1991 thoughts on ‘the plight of the peoples who had lived here before us’, Born of the Conquerors.
Although Wright had made her reputation in the early 1940s as a ‘nature’ poet’, ‘nature’ for her was integral to human nature so that the well-being of each depended upon the other. In the mid-1970s, she again brought them together in ‘The Eucalypt and the National Character’:
Yes, we do perceive her as sprawling and informal;
even dishevelled, disorderly. That may be because
we are still of two minds about militarism and class-systems.
She can wait grimly for months to break into flower,
Or willingly bloom in a day when the weather is right.
She is artist enough to manage a graceful asymmetry;
But we are more apt to turn crooks.
The kind of country to which the crooks are reducing Australia has many measures – the rates of homelessness; indigenous infant mortality; tax dodging; domestic violence; subservience to global corporates and their war machines. A further measure is that no major cultural institution has made the Wright centenary an occasion for a critical commemoration. This neglect has several sources. One is a loss of connectedness, the triumph of NOW-ism. Too few of today’s campaigners to protect the Reef have read Wright’s The Coral Battleground (1977) in which she called the total ban placed by the Queensland Trades and Labour Council on exploration there ‘spectacular and unprecedented’. The Council had earlier levied all affiliated unionists to bring U.S. experts to testify to a Commonwealth government inquiry. Were any union to ban dredging today, it would be up for fines of a million dollars under Gillard’s un-Fair Work Australia, the pinnacle of her ‘Labor values’?
One more source of neglect is both specific to Wright as poet and general in its effects. The serial child-abuse that is NAPLAN eschews poetry and thereby kills ‘dreaming’ and stifles the imagination that is essential if we are to conceive of ways of living which draw on the best of which our species has shown itself capable.
Wright never chased gongs’, nor expected to become a mascot for the mighty. Her poem, ‘They’, mocks the political police who harassed her: ‘They look like people/ that’s the trouble.’ Had Whitlam appointed her Governor-General in 1974, she would have dismissed him before 11 November 1975, either for the mining of Fraser Island or for allowing the spy bases at Pine Gap and Nurrangar to stay.
Generations of Men had drawn on the reminiscences of Wright’s grandmother, recorded in the 1920s. Wright’s feminism found voice throughout her writing though highlighted in the collections Woman to Man (1949) and The Other Half (1966), which celebrate the ecstatic and the domestic. As did her friends Dorothy Green and Christina Stead, Wright found a bed-mate who became her soul-mate, in her case, the playwright and philosopher, Jack McKinney (1891-1966). His 1935 novel set in his experiences on the Western Front, Crucible, has just been re-issued.
Against the marketing of ANZAC-ery, we need to celebrate the patriotism that goes into battle against the despoliation of the natural and human environments. Wright’s love for Australia always insisted that we make every aspect of life as just and as sustainable as possible. Never once did she fall into the trap of celebrating ‘what is’. Her attachments to place was grounded in her criticism of what she named as ‘the greed’ and ‘the power’ that endangers poetry – indeed threatens ‘the survival of the earth’.
A society with any sense of self-esteem would be issuing a series of stamps to celebrate Wright’s several gifts to us: one for the Coral battleground; one for the Treaty Committee; and one for her poetry. Meanwhile, every teenager who takes GOLD gets one, as can anyone with no more skill than is required to take a ‘selfie’. The kind of Australia for which we should strive is one in which events like Wright’s centenary are national holidays.