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Judith Wright (1915-2000)

 

Prolific Australian poet, critic, and short-story writer, who published more than 56 volumes of poetry and short stories. Judith Wright, whose work was deeply rooted in the landscape of her native Australia, was 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 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. Later she wrote of her family affectionally in The Generations of Men (1959). Wright was raised on her family's sheep station. After the death of her mother in 1927, she was educated under the supervision of her relatives. At the age of 14, after her father remarried, she was sent to New England Girls' Scool, where she found consolation in poetry, publishing in 1933 her first poem. In 1934 she entered Sydney University, where she studied philosophy, history, psychology and English, without taking a degree.

When Wright was in her 20s, she became progressively deaf. Between the years 1937 and 1938, she 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 3,0 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 policy of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Premier of Queensland, Wright left her home state in the mid-1970s, and settled in 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 hack work, school plays for Australian Broadcasting Comission or children's books, as a means of livlihood. She lectured part-time at various Australian universities. In 1975 she published a collection of her addresses and speeches in Because I was Invited. Wright was appointed a foundation fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and an emeritus professor of the Literature Board of the Arts Council of Australia. Wright's memoir, Half a Lifetime (2000), covered her life until the 1960s. 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. Her daughter Meredith McKinney edited with Patricia Clarke a selection of letters by the author and Jack McKinney, entitled The Equal Heart and Mind (2004).

Wright started to publish poems in the late 1930s in literary journals, such as Sydney Morning Herald, Bulletin, and Meanjin Papers. She made her debut in 1946 with The Moving Image, in which she showed her technical excellence free from the burden 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 her subject. The main theme 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 works 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 over the destruction of the natural environment introduced more pessimistic undercurrents in her work. Wright's lover for 25 years was  Dr H.C. "Nugget" Coombs, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, political adviser, and advocate for Aborigines. Coombs was trapped in an unhappy marriage and only close friends and family members knew of the relationship.

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 lyrical work was inspired by the various regions in which she lived: New England, New South Wales, the subtropical rainforests of Tamborine Mountain, Queensland, and the plains of the southern highlands near Braidwood. The natural world, like in the poems of Pablo Neruda, was the canvas to which she projected her relationship to her country. T.S. Eliot's influence can be seen in Phantom Dwelling (1985); other poets that influenced her were Wallace Stevens and W.B. Yeats.

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. Realistically, she also expressed doubts about the power of poetry to change the scheme of things.

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. "I think one of the best disciplines I know of, for young Australians brought up on a diet of English poetry, is to study Chinese and Japanese poems," she adviced an aspiring writer, Fiona Cook, who later became a novelist and wrote a book of the landscapes which inspired Wright.

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. A the time she expressed her concern about the secrecy surrounding the Australian Labor Party's uranium mining policy, she began to believe that her mail was interceped. As Wright wrote in Born of the Conquerors: Selected Essays (1991), mining was a major issue with the States, "including Labor States such as South Australia, where the proposed Roxby Downs uranium and gold mine was within land historically owned and occupied by the Kokath people. Their protest against this invasion of their territority was ignored."

The passionate poem 'Australia 1970' expressed Wright's 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. In 1991 she resigned as patron of the Wildlife Preservation Society because of its failure to support Aboriginal land rights.

As a literary critic Wright enjoyed a high reputation, and edited several collections of Australian verse. She was a friend of the Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, whose work Wright helped 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.

When I was a child I saw
a burning bird in a tree.
I see became I am,
I am became I see.

(from 'To a Child')

Wright received several awards, including the Grace Leven Prize (1950), the Australia-Britannica Award (1964), the Robert Frost Memorial Award (1977), the Australian World Prize (1984), the Queen's Medal for Poetry (1992). She had honorary degrees from several universities. In 1973-74 she was a member of the Australia Council.

For further reading: My Blood's Country: A Journey Through the Landscape that Inspired Judith Wright's Poetry by Fiona Capp (2010); 'Singing up Country in the Poetry of Judith Wright and Pablo Neruda' by S. Cooke, in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 23, Numb. 4 (2008); South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright by Veronica Brady (1998); Bridgings by R. Lucas and L. McCredden (1996); Judith Wright by Jennifer Strauss (1995); Flame and Shadow by Shirley Walker (1991); The Poetry of Judith Wright by S. Walker (1980); Critical Essays on Judith Wright, ed. by A.K. Thomson (1968)  

Selected works:

  • Australian Bird Poems, 1940
  • The Moving Image: Poems, 1946
  • Australian Poetry 1948, 1948 (editor)
  • Woman to Man, 1949
  • The Gateway, 1955
  • William Baylebridge and the Modern Problem, 1955
  • A Book of Australian Verse, 1956 (ed., revised edition in 1968)
  • New Land, New Langue: An Anthology of Australian Verse, 1957 (editor)
  • Kings of the Dingoes, 1958
  • The Generations of Men, 1959 (illustrated by Alison Forbes)
  • The Day the Mountains Played, 1960
  • Australian Bird Poems, 1961
  • Birds: Poems, 1962
  • Range the Mountains High, 1962
  • Charles Harpur, 1963
  • Country Towns, 1963
  • Judith Wright, 1963 (selection and introd. by the author)
  • Five Senses, 1963
  • Shaw Neilson, 1963
  • City Sunrise, 1964
  • Preoccupations in Australian Poetry, 1965
  • The Other Half: Poems, 1966
  • The Nature of Love, 1966
  • The River and the Road, 1966
  • Henry Lawson, 1967
  • Birds, 1967 (illustrated by Annette Macarthur-Onslow)
  • Poetry from Australia, 1969
  • Witness of Spring: Unpublished Poems by Shaw Neilson, 1970 (selected by Judith Wright and Val Vallis from material assembled by Ruth Harrison; edited by Judith Wright)
  • Collected Poems, 1942-1970, 1971
  • Alive: Poems 1971-72, 1973
  • Because I Was Invited, 1975
  • Half Dream, 1975
  • The Day the Mountains Played, 1975 (2n ed., illustrated by Patricia Braben)
  • Conservation: Choice or Compulsion?, 1975
  • Fourth Quarter, and Other Poems, 1976
  • Boundaries, 1976
  • The Coral Battleground, 1977
  • The Double Tree: Selected Poems, 1942-1976, 1978
  • Reef, Rainforest, Mangroves, Man, 1980
  • The Cry for the Dead, 1981
  • Journeys, 1982
  • We Call for a Treaty, 1985
  • Phantom Dwelling, 1985
  • Many Roads Meet Here, 1985
  • Rainforest, 1987
  • New Zealand After Nuclear War, 1987 (with Wren Green and Tony Cairns)
  • A Human Pattern: Selected Poems, 1990
  • Born of the Conquerors: Selected Essays, 1991
  • Magpie Summer, 1991
  • Going on Talking, 1992
  • Through Broken Glass, 1992
  • Judith Wright: Collected Poems 1942-1985, 1994
  • The Flame Tree, 1994
  • Going on Talking: Tales of a Great Aunt: A Memoir, 1998
  • Half a Lifetime, 2000 (edited by Patricia Clarke)
  • The Equal Heart And Mind: Letters Between Judith Wright And Jack Mckinney, 2004 (edited by Patricia Clark, Meredith McKinney)
  • With Love & Fury: Selected Letters of Judith Wright, 2006 (edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney)
  • Portrait of a Friendship: The Letters of Barbara Blackman and Judith Wright, 1950-2000, 2007 (edited by Bryony Cosgrove)

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