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Judith Wright
1915-2000
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Prolific Australian poet, critic, and short-story writer, who published more than 50 books. Wright 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 a march in Canberra 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 Sydney University. Wright studied philosophy, history, psychology and English, without taking a degree.

When Wright was in her 20s, she started to become progressively deaf. Between 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 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 nature poems.

During her career as a writer, Wright did not reject hackwork, and she wrote school plays for Australian Broadcasting Commission and children's books. In addition 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 Humanities and an emeritus professorship of the Literature Board of the Arts Council of Australia. Wright's memoir, Half a Lifetime, covers her life until the 1960s, and was published 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 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 revealed her technical excellence. Most of the poems were written in wartime - in 'The Trains' Wright takes the threat of the war in the Pacific as her subject. The main theme in the volume is the poet's awareness of time, death, and evil on a universal scale. With her following collections Wright gained a reputation as a new voice in literature with a distinctly female perspective. The title poem from Woman to Man (1949) deals with the sexual act from a woman's point of view. 'The Maker' paralles the creation of a poem with the creation of a child. Several of her early poems such as 'Bullocky' and 'Woman to Man' became standard anthology pieces. The death of her husband in 1966 and her increasing anxiety about the destruction of the natural environment introduced 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: 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 began 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 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 began to believe that her mission was to find words and poetic forms that would bridge the human experience and the natural world, man and earth. For Wright alienation from the land produced a crisis of 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 the 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 expresses her feelings of disappointment and anger upon seeing her wild country die, "like the eagle hawk, / dangerous till the last breath's gone, clawing and / striking." The Coral Battleground (1977) is 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 examines the treatment of Aborigines and the destruction of the environment by settlers in Central Queensland from the 1840s to the 1920s.

As a literary critic Wright enjoyed a respectable reputation, and edited several collections of Australian verse. She was a friend of Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, whose work Wright helped to get published. Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965), is Wright's pioneering effort to reinterpret such early Australian poets as Charles Harpur, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Henry Kendall.

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

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')

For further reading: 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) - For further information: - Australian poet Judith Wright (1915-2000): an appreciation by Tony Cornwell - Judith Wright by Joan Williams.


Selected works:
  • Australian Bird Poems, 1940
  • The Moving Image, 1946
  • ed.: Australian Poetry 1948, 1948
  • Woman to Man, 1949
  • The Gateway, 1955
  • William Baylebridge and the Modern Problem, 1955
  • ed.: A Book of Australian Verse, 1956 (revised edition in 1968)
  • ed.: New Land, New Langue, 1957
  • Kings of the Dingoes, 1958
  • The Generations of Men, 1959
  • The Day the Mountains Played, 1960
  • Australian Bird Poems, 1961
  • Birds, 1962
  • Range the Mountains High, 1962
  • Charles Harpur, 1963
  • Country Towns, 1963
  • Five Senses, 1963
  • Judith Wright, 1963 (introduction by the author)
  • Shaw Neilson, 1963
  • City Sunrise, 1964
  • Preoccupations in Australian Poetry, 1965
  • The Other Half, 1966
  • The Nature of Love, 1966
  • The River and the Road, 1966
  • Henry Lawson, 1967
  • Birds, 1967 (with Annette Macarthur-Onslow)
  • Poetry from Australia, 1969
  • Witness of Spring: Unpublished Poems by Shaw Neilson, 1970
  • Collected Poems, 1971
  • Alive, 1973
  • Because I Was Invited, 1975
  • Half Dream, 1975
  • Conservation: Choice or Compulsion? 1975
  • Fourth Quarter, and Other Poems, 1976
  • Boundaries, 1976
  • The Coral Battleground, 1977
  • The Double Tree, 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, 1990
  • Born of the Conquerors, 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, 1998
  • Half a Lifetime, 2000

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This biography was written by Petri Liukkonen.

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