Judith Wright was a prolific Australian poet, critic, and short-story writer, who published more than 50 books. Wright was also an uncompromising environmentalist and social activist campaigning for Aboriginal land rights. She believed that the poet should be concerned with national and social problems. At the age of 85, just before her death, she attended in Canberra at a march for reconciliation with Aboriginal people.
Rhyme, my old cymbal,
I don't clash you as often,
or trust your old promises
music and unison.
I used to love Keats, Blake;
now I try haiku
for its honed brevities,
its inclusive silences.
(from 'Brevity' in Notes at Edge)
Judith Arundell Wright was born near Armidale, New South Wales, into an old and wealthy pastoral family. Wright was raised on her family's sheep station. After her mother died in 1927, she was educated under her grandmother's supervision. At the age of 14 she was sent to New England Girls' Scool, where she found consolation from poetry and decided to become a poet. In 1934 she entered at Sydney University. Wright studied philosophy, history, psychology and English, without taking a degree.
When Wright was in her 20s, she started to became progressively deaf. Between the years 1937 and 1938 Wright travelled in Britain and Europe. She then worked as a secretary-stenographer and clerk until 1944. From 1944 to 1948 she was a university statistician at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia. At the age of 30 Wright met her lifelong partner, the unorthodox philosopher J.P. McKinney, 23 years her senior; they later married.
Most of Wright's poetry was written in the mountains of southern Queensland. Protesting the political policies of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Premier of Queensland, Wright left her home state in the mid-1970s, and settled to a remote property near the heritage town of Braidwood, south of Canberra, where she wrote many of her later nature poems.
During her career as a writer, Wright did not reject to produce hack work, school plays for Australian Broadcasting Comission and children's books, for her living. She lectured part-time at various Australian universities. In 1975 she collected her addresses and speeches in Because I was Invited. Wright was appointed a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanites and an emeritus professorship of the Literature Board of the Arts Council of Australia. Wright's memoir, Half a Lifetime, covered her life until the 1960s, and appeared in 2000. Wright died of a heart attack in Canberra on June 26 at the age of 85. Her ashes were scattered around the mountain cemetery of Tamborine Mountain. Wright had owned a strip of rainforest nearby, which she donated to the state so it could be preserved as a national park.
Wright started to publish poems in the late 1930s in literary journals. As a poet she made her debut with The Moving Image (1946), in which she showed her technical excellence without burdens of fashionable trends. Most of the poems were written in wartime - in 'The Trains' Wright took the threat of the war in the Pacific as a subject. The main theme in the volume was the poet's awareness of time, death, and evil on a universal scale. With the following collections Wright gained a reputation as a wholly new voice in literature with a distinctly female perspective. The title poem from Woman to Man (1949) dealt with the sexual act from a woman's point of view. 'The Maker' paralleled the creation of a poem and the creation of a child. Several of her early poems such as 'Bullocky' and 'Woman to Man' became standard anthology pieces. Wright also wrote love poems to her husband. His death in 1966 and her increasing anxiety of the destruction of the natural environment brought more pessimistic undercurrents in her work.
I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust
the drying creek, the furious animal,
that they oppose us still;
that we are ruined by the thing we kill.
(from 'Australia 1970')
Wright's poetry was inspired by the various regions in which she lived: the New England, New South Wales, the subtropical rainforests of Tamborine Mountain, Queensland, and the plains of the southern highlands near Braidwood. A new period in Wright's life started in the mid-1950s: "The two threads of my life, the love of the land itself and the deep unease over the fate of its original people, were beginning to twine together, and the rest of my life would be influenced by that connection."In The Two Faces (1955) she took Hiroshima as an example of man's power to destroy even the cycles of nature. Wright's activism on conservation issues led her to focus on the interaction between land and the language. According to Wright, "the true function of art and culture is to interpret us to ourselves, and to relate us to the country and the society in which we live." She started to see that her mission was to find words and poetic forms to bridge the human experience and the natural world, man and earth. "Poetry needs a background in which emotional, as well as material values are given their due weight; and the effect of this shallowness of roots is easily traceable in Australian writing, with its uneasy attempts to solve or to ignore the problem of its attitude to the country." Alienation from the land meant for Wright crisis of the language. She criticized the education system for failing to teach students the pleasures of poetry, and promoted the reading and writing of poetry in schools. Realistically she also expressed doubts about the power of poetry to change the scheme of things.
In the early 1960s Wright helped to found Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. She fought to conserve the Great Barrier Reef, when its ecology was threatened by oil drilling, and campaigned against sand mining on Fraser Island. In her passionate poem 'Australia 1970' Wright expressed her feelings of disappointment and anger, seeing her wild country die, "like the eaglehawk, dangerous till the last breath’s gone, clawing and striking." The Coral Battleground (1977) was her account of the campaign to protect the "great water-gardens, lovely indeed as cherry boughs and flowers under the once clear sea.” In The Cry for the Dead (1981) Wright examined the treatment of Aborigines and destruction of the environment by settlers in Central Queensland from the 1840s to the 1920s.
As a literary critic Wright enjoyed a high reputation, and edited several collections of Australian verse. She was a friend of Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, whose work Wright helped her to get published. Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965) was Wright's pioneering effort to reread such early Australian poets as Charles Harpur, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Henry Kendall.
Wright received several awards, including Grace Leven Prize (1950), Aurtralia-Britannica Award (1964), Robert Frost Memorial Award (1977), Australian World Prize (1984), Queen's Medal for Poetry (1992). She had honorary degrees from several universities. In 1973-74 she was a member of Australia Council.