“I wither and you break from me;
yet though you dance in living light
I am the earth, I am the root,
I am the stem that fed the fruit,
the link that joins you to the night.”
From ‘Woman to Child’ (1949), by Judith Wright
Judith Wright (1915-2000) was an acclaimed Australian poet also known for her environmental activism and as a campaigner for Aboriginal rights. I recently read Wright’s memoir Half A Lifetime and was captivated by her independence and the determination of her younger self to forge her own way.
Wright was born in Armidale in 1915. She attended New England Girl’s School and later studied at Sydney University. Wright left Sydney and spent the middle years of the Second World War in NewEngland before moving to Brisbane in 1943 where she found work at the University of Queensland. In 1946 Wright’s first book of poetry, The Moving Image, was published. In 1950 Wright moved to Mount Tambourine with her future husband Jack McKinney, and that same year Wright gave birth to their daughter Meredith. Jack McKinney died in 1966 and Wright lived in Braidwood, NSW until her death in 2000.
Wright was born 95 years ago on May 31, and to mark the day I have asked Sydney University’s Dr Brigid Rooney to answer a few questions about the legacy of this remarkable, unconventional poet, and particularly about Judith Wright’s relevance to women today.
What was remarkable about Judith Wright?
Judith Wright was remarkable, first and foremost, for the brilliance of her poetry – publication of her first two volumes, The Moving Image (1946) and Woman to Man (1949), met with almost instant acclaim, and many Australians (of various generations) encountered several striking poems from these early works when we were at school – such as ‘South of My Days’ (1945) and ‘Woman to Man’ (1946). She continued to produce remarkable poetry beyond these first collections, but they are perhaps less widely known, although increasingly some of the later poems and collections have become iconic for environmentalists and Indigenous groups – such as ‘Eroded Hills’ (1951), ‘At Cooloolah’ (1954) and ‘Two Dreamtimes’ (1973). Indeed her collection, The Two Fires (1955), was inspiration for a festival of arts and activism (established in 2005) in the NSW town of Braidwood where Wright lived during the last decades of her life. But she also offered an example of someone for whom the values relayed in her poetry seemed to fuse entirely with the choices and commitments she made in both her personal and her public life. She became a tireless campaigner for Indigenous and environmental causes, and – although she worked largely behind the scenes, writing letters, administering committees, lobbying politicians and so on – hers was also an influential voice for these causes in Australian public life, partly by virtue of the respect and admiration engendered by her poetry. Her poetry and public roles were reciprocal and mutually reinforcing.
What does Wright’s poetry offer a feminist analysis? What are the feminist themes that run through Wright’s work?
Some of my answer to this is contained in my response to your last question. I have many favourites among her poems. Wright’s poetry offers a powerful exploration of experiences that pertain particularly to the female body and female-oriented experiences of ‘time’ and of life cycles – of death and birth, of pregnancy, and desire, and the interconnections and rhythms of these processes or states. Her very acute observation of the natural world – of the land, of its plants and animals, its birdlife, of the seasons and the elements – is often mediated by this gendered experience. She moves from enclosed, intense, private and individual experiences, through symbolism, outwards toward that which touches the universal human condition. Her voice is captivating, magnetic, yet her versifying is often quite traditional, looking back to her favourite poetic models – the Romantics in particular, like Blake, Keats and Shelley, yet also to some of the modernists, like Yeats and Eliot. These male literary progenitors provided a poetic framework, but what she does with this framework is to convert and transform it to express a woman’s experience. Later she experimented with other poetic forms, from other cultures, from Japan and elsewhere, and they sit alongside these Anglo, often patriarchal models, quietly interrogating a world that operates too rationally and mechanistically to divide body from spirit, human from nature, and so on. From a feminist point of view, Wright’s work is both productive and ambivalent, an occasion for reflecting on the relationship – or tension – between traditional poetic forms or modes and her distinctive qualities of voice, imagery and thought.
What was the relationship between Wright and second wave feminism?
In summary, Wright was a very sympathetic supporter of feminism, and spoke from her position as a woman and as a feminist sympathiser. She did not become deeply or personally involved in activist forms of feminist campaigning. She was much in demand as a speaker, however, at literary and other public events, and she canvassed her views on the topic of women and writing, for example, at an Australian Society of Women Writers’ Biennial Conference in 1980.
In Half a Lifetime, Wright relates her bitterness at realising the different destinies open to boys and girls and yet as an adult she devoted herself to environmental and indigenous causes, particularly after she stopped writing poetry. Do you have any idea why she didn’t invest herself in the feminist movement?
This is a tough one and my thoughts on this come from my overall impression of Wright’s life choices and her writing. I think that her lesser engagement with feminism, despite her obvious sympathy with feminist goals, was partly to do with her generational position and experience, and partly to do with her own personality, inclinations and orientation towards others. Wright was a fiercely independent and strong-minded woman, yet in some ways typical of a generation of Australian women (if not also of other white, middle class women in other first world nations) whose careers fell between the two public surges of activism associated with first and second wave feminism. For this generation, youth and maturity encompassed two world wars and the Depression, and they had to negotiate separately and individually the complexities these circumstances brought for women around social destiny and career path. Judith Wright, as the fifth generation descendant of a white pioneering family, however, was also born into a privileged landed class. This circumstance imbued her with a double sense, of closeness to the land, and an increasingly acute awareness of the illegitimacy of white belonging, its basis in the historic dispossession of Aboriginal people. So care for the land and redressing the wrongs done to Aboriginal people were understandably her sustained and driving commitments and top priorities.
I also think that, for Wright, a more vigorously activist approach to feminism would not have been completely congenial, in personal and emotional terms. She was dutiful towards and bonded with a number of men in her life, yet also perfectly capable of standing up for herself and for her views. It seems to me that, in the earlier part of her life at least, she enjoyed loving connections with often mature, older men, either within her own family (father and brothers), or role models and life partners. She had deep, loving and lifelong friendships with a number of women of course, including her daughter, Meredith. Her first life partner and later husband, Jack McKinney, a World War One veteran and self-taught philosopher, was very much her senior in age. His philosophical orientation and passion attracted her. She took on and championed his in some ways eccentric intellectual endeavours, and his ideas entered her poetry. Her poems engage seriously and deeply with McKinney’s ideas, giving them a life and longevity that they might not otherwise have achieved on their own. It is clear from their letters that Judith and Jack enjoyed a profoundly loving relationship. After his death, and at a time when she had assumed both governmental and activist roles in the areas you mention, she developed another very close relationship and intellectual partnership with one of Australia’s most senior and influential public servants, H. C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs – knowledge of their relationship was long confined to themselves and a small inner circle but more recently, belatedly, has been revealed in the public domain. None of this ever precluded Wright’s interest in and sympathy for feminism, but I think that these orientations and positions militated against her making a very strong investment in the feminist movement as such.
What is her legacy to Australian women today?
I think Wright’s poetry, which conveys a woman’s perspective without being ‘feminine’ in a simple, domesticated sense, is perhaps her greatest legacy. It’s a legacy made more powerful and resonant through the energy with which she also contributed to and advanced those twin public causes – of caring for the environment and dealing with the ongoing impact of Australia’s colonial past and present. Her poetry – not just her miraculous early poetry but right through to the work of her maturity and older age – conveys the wisdom and experience of life, of birth, of love, and of the self in dialogue with the other. It possesses extraordinary lyrical power, a vivid clarity and an emotional truth that surely means it will continue to be loved by women (and by men), young and old, for a long time to come. Wright’s poetry is a legacy for all, but I suspect it holds a particular power for women. She has inspired innumerable younger women – especially poets and others – through her writing and her activism. I think women often pass their appreciation of Wright on to other women, to their daughters, and even to their sons. Inseparable from this legacy is the evidence of her active commitment to making the world a better place for both women and men, and for present and future generations. At times she expressed pessimism, in the face of the threats to humanity and to the natural world that she apprehended all around, and in some of her thinking in these areas she was ahead of her time. But her response to these threats was not to withdraw, but to engage and act, and this example might also be her legacy.
27 May 2010
Many thanks to Dr Brigid Rooney for both her time and her wonderful response.