JUDITH WRIGHT: POETRY AND ACTIVISM.
South of My Days, the biography of Judith Wright by Veronica Brady, and Wright's own memoir, Half a Lifetime, together prompt a consideration of her poetry in the light of her many-sided life. Wright's impassioned public concerns for `Australia', for the `environment' and for Indigenous peoples, all seem to spring `organically' from her personal living. Her passion to enlighten, persuade, and make a difference has driven her to write not only her dozen books of poetry but also much literary history and criticism. Brady chronicles a life of activism, lecturing, speechmaking, polemicising, committee work and fundraising, letters to editors and politicians, travelling to inspect and consult, office-holding and resigning.
Wright's own selection of essays, Born of the Conquerors (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991) gives a strong impression of her informed commitment to both environmental and Aboriginal causes. Her definitions of the `Euro-Australian' impact on Aborigines and their Australia are deeply historical and sharply contemporary. Wright was quick to see how the `wilderness cult' in modern Australia, with its National Park and tourism outcomes, conflicted with the land rights and needs (physical and spiritual) of Aborigines. Born of pioneer pastoralists, those conquerors of vast tracts of New South Wales and Queensland, she made herself their historian and their most moralistic critic. (The word conqueror resonates in several poems, notably `At Cooloolah', `Australia 1970', and `Two Dreamtimes'). Even if she had never touched poetry, her life would be -- though unenviably uncomfortable -- exemplary.
Crowded into this life-work, and crowded by it all, are the poems. Are they, too, communiques from the battle scenes, rallying cries, sermons and homilies, instruments of persuasion, expressions of anger and hope and despair, a troubled conscience? Are they calling to the converted, to the convertible, or after all speaking merely to the constituency of poetry-readers, that small well-meaning but not very political subset of people who read for pleasure? Has poetry shown itself to have a role or roles in the conversations of Australians about their country, its history, its injustices and its `improvement'? Latterly, Wright has proclaimed the importance of `the writer as activist' (Conquerors, 127). But from the first and always, she has thought of herself as committed also to poetry as `an expression of being' (Brady, 466). An account of Wright that ignores her poetry's intuitions of being (and of love, glory, joy and grace) would be drastically incomplete.
Wright, it is agreed, began as a `pure' poet and in midlife developed an activist's interest and stance. The story of Wright's achievement seems likely always to be written in terms of that duality. Thus Fiona Capp (Age, 28 August 1999) notes `her shift from detached poetic observer to hands-on activist', yet `attachment' B to her childhood landscape -- is what she registers in Wright's famous early poems. `Detached observer' is surely a misleading phrase here. Moreover, it was out of those early attachments that the mature commitments grew. In Yeats's great formula: in dreams begin responsibilities. The friendly critic's dream is that poems can be retrieved from the sequence of collections which will show that the causes of the activist can be served at the same time as the art of poetry with its dedication to `the inmost impulses of [the poet's] moral being' (Brady, 461).
In Wright's very first volume, The Moving Image (1946), her poetic occasions and subjects are close at hand in the country (settled generations previously) around Armidale NSW, while an all-involving Pacific war was on. These poems assume a rhetorical strategy derived from the masterly Irishman Yeats, whose Last Poems had appeared when Wright was twenty-four. Authority organises moralised landscapes. Her developing historical conscience takes her to `Nigger's Leap, New England'. Here she commands the scene itself to behave in accord with an atrocity too dark to be clearly retold in terms of perpetrators and victims:
be dark, O lonely air. Make a cold quilt across the bone and skull that screamed falling in flesh from the lipped cliff and then were silent, waiting for the flies.
With her imperative verbs, Wright enters into an active relationship, not only doing what Wordsworth said poets do, carrying relation everywhere, but dramatising the yearnings and energies of the poet and her will to change and connect. She speaks for her fellow New-Englanders and Australians of `what we should have known'. This is not only knowledge of the Aborigines as fellow-humans (`ourselves writ strange') but of the power of darkness `that tided up the cliffs'. Something ominous, an ironical perspective like that of 1930s Auden, with his ambivalent relish of the tide of history, swims in the closing figure:
Night floods us suddenly as history that has sunk many islands in its good time.
It seems almost an intuition that, should the Japanese have become the country's next conquerors, then history might serve us whites a similar fate. Not that Wright's early style permits the impurity of names and events to be discernible through the poetic chiaroscuro: even the atomic bomb is unnameable, as in `The Bushfire'. There is a contrast here with the poet Allen Curnow, Wright's great New Zealand contemporary. Twice the artist -- no easy plangency and chiaroscuro for him! -- but half the teacher, Curnow, as I argued in Arena Magazine last year, explored the violent advent of white mastery in his `new country' -- and let the Pacific war into poems packed with argument.
Wright's poems show less of their thinking. The tragedy of little Josie, Wright's `Half-Caste Girl', dead and buried but restless, is of a thwarted moral agent: `she used her love for lever; but the wall is cunningly made'. What the wall is cannot be suggested clearly in the stiff diction of early Wright. Perhaps it can be said that the seeds of activism are here but await the invasion of pressures from outside -- contemporary Australia -- to insist on a new rhetoric, an activist's stance. But these early poems suggest that mere `detached poetic observer' Wright never was.
Wright's partnership with Jack McKinney, veteran of WW1 and philosopher of the world crisis shapes much of her writing from 1946 onwards. Together they read Four Quartets, Owen Barfield and Jung, contemplated time and silence, discovered `deep ecology', nurtured a child and a one-acre garden, and extended Wright's territory. Everywhere imperatives appear in her poems: `What shall we do to save ourselves from pain?' (`Pain' 1949) -- be more like trees, `let the harsh wooden scales of bark enclose me' (`Child and WattleTree'); find `the heart's country' (`Spring after War'); `Never be satisfied', for from our pain `we spin a net we dream will hold the world' (`The World and the Child').
In every chapter of the biography the poet is to be heard saying Jack is right. Jack was right, the crisis worsens, the change is near in an environment ruined by the forces of greed. Wherever a temperament like Wright's finds itself, we can be sure of its local experience finding an environment so ruined. The crisis worsens but is also always forever being prolonged. Luckily this Jeremiah's poems are not jeremiads. Her experiments with anger, as in `Australia 1970' and her most anti-capitalist poem `At a Public Dinner' (1973) are genuinely rousing.
Poetry since Wordsworth has been largely the preserve of the romantics among us, fostered in youth by natural beauty which speaks of a harmony beyond the crude music of humanity competing for food and shelter, `getting and spending'. The role of the Romantic appealed to the young Wright: her monotonous plangency, the keynote of her early volumes, dooms them to please few readers nowadays. The anger of the activist would have rendered them harsh and unpoetical, in her ears and in Australian ears attuned only to non-modernist melodies. A little irony is acceptable, but liable to be misheard, as in the solemn institutionalisation of her `Bullocky' as lyric celebration of pioneer service and sacrifice. Much too subtly, her irony hinted that the bullocky was a religious maniac. Such subtlety is perhaps lacking in her later work, as she herself remarks:
In my last quarter let me be hag, but poet. The lyric note may vanish from my verse, but you have also found acceptable the witch's spell -- even the witch's curse. (`Easter Moon and Owl' 1976)
The curse on the continuing triumphalism of the Euro-Australian conquerors is part of the instrumental, activist aspect of her poems, which have continued to celebrate being. Wright's lifelong earnestness, which at times has made her publish some drab poems, has also enabled her to express her imperatives in poems that are both instrumental and celebratory. Though her style and stance would never influence younger poets, and she suffered long the disservice of being taught as the living monument of Australian poetry, her achievement in retrospect has the touching charm of representing a period now over. Her causes, of course, survive, and evolve requiring some much-needed attention from the few publicly aware creative writers in Australia.
Max Richards teaches courses in poetry and writing at La Trobe University.