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Notes on Poems of Judith Wright

Notes on Poems of Judith Wright
‘Eve to Her Daughters’
As we prepare to celebrate Easter once more, my thoughts lead me in search of
poetry that might express spiritual mystery, meaning of life. I’ve chosen a poem for
this post from our Australian poet, Judith Wright; it’s called, ‘Eve to Her
Daughters’. It’s written in a conversational voice where I can imagine Eve (from
Adam and Eve and the fall of man), is sitting down and trying to explain to her
daughters how and why she and Adam see things differently – female sensual
intuition vs male mechanical logic. Judith Wright’s is suggesting in this poem that
mankind and earth is being led to eventual destruction at the hands of the male of
the species through a humanistic belief that scientific discovery is salvation and that it
is achieved purely by man without a God providing revelation. The religion of science
with its dependence on proof (‘demonstration’) allows no place for faith and hope in
the spiritual unknown. But women - obedient, ‘submissive’; we, with lesser
‘jealousy’, lessor ‘ego’, have not broadened the separation with God to such a point
that we no longer believe.
In her life, Judith Wright was very active in conservation, the antiwar movement in
the 1960’s and the plight of the Aboriginal peoples. Her frustration with what is
happening in the world (economic rationalism; environmental disregard) comes
through in Eve to Her Daughters. Yet note that even woman-kind with her more
attuned sensual sense still cannot speak with certitude, so Eve (after blaming Adam
for acting pig-headed), continues to question the meaning of life, ‘perhaps the whole
elaborate fable … perhaps nothing exist but our faults?’
Poetic form and structure
Wright is well-known for the various elegiac modes she explored during her career.
She wrote in less formal poetic modes later in her career. For instance, ‘Bullocky’
(p.17) displays a regular metre and rhyming scheme, within which the romantic,
nature-inspired imagery of a past experience signals the formal elegiac mode of the
poem. In contrast, ‘The City’ (p.274) consists of an informal structure and tone, with
the irregular line structure conveying the sense of corruption and disorder of the city.
Students can be asked to discuss how the imagery represents its respective place/s
as idyllic or unnatural.
Rhyme and sound devices – alliteration, consonance, assonance,
The mournful and meditative effects achieved by long vowel sounds can be
demonstrated with ‘At Cooloolah’ (p.140), with phrases such as ‘Cooloolah’s twilight’,
‘heir of lake and evening’ and ‘time past’. End rhymes/half-rhymes/alliteration
emphasise the consideration of violent events and unfathomable loss that are the
themes of the poem; for example, ‘wars/fears’, ‘ghost/past’, ‘spear/fear’.
Wright often assumed a third-person omniscient (wise and authoritative) persona, as
in the poems ‘Metho Drinker’ (p.50) and ‘Bullocky’ (p.17). Yet the persona she used
could, at times, be playful (‘Magpies’, p.169) or satirical (‘Brief Notes on Canberra’,
p.351). In ‘Woman’s Song’ (p.27) and ‘Woman to Child’ (p.28), the voice of the poem
conveys the intense intimacy that befits a mother speaking to the child in her womb.
In these poems, as in others, she addresses the subject of the poem directly and so
conveys the intimacy of dialogue. Consider the responses elicited from the intimacy
established in the first lines of ‘Woman’s Song’: ‘O move in me, my darling/for now
the sun must rise;/the sun that will draw open/the lids upon your eyes’.
Wright is famous for her use of rich nature imagery. This not only includes detailed,
poetic descriptions of places and creatures, but also the way she often personifies the
landscape to suggest the natural connection between humankind and the natural
world. Consider the following lines, for example, from ‘South of my Days’ (p.20): ‘. . .
part of my blood’s country,/rises that tableland, high delicate outline/of bony slopes
wincing under the winter’.
Wright often uses biblical, classical and literary allusions. In ‘Bullocky’ (p.17), for
instance, consider the effect of biblical allusions in creating a mythic land/mind-scape
that the bullocky inhabits with ‘fiends and angels’. Students can be guided to consider
what this representation of the itinerant worker might suggest about Wright’s values
and beliefs, and how this representation of a lost world is contiguous with the biblical
notion of ‘The Fall’ .
Use of parallels and contrasts
This technique is nicely demonstrated in ‘Two Dreamtimes’ (p.315), by the way that
the poem traces the similarities and differences between the lives of Judith Wright
and fellow activist/poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker). Wright asserts that the
love of the land that she and Oodgeroo share make them ‘shadow sisters’, while
acknowledging, ‘I am born of the conquerors, you of the persecuted’.
https://readingaustralia.com.au/lesson/wright-collected-poems/ (19/9/17)
Ways of reading the text
Eco/environmental reading
From her earliest writing, Wright is preoccupied with nature and places, but it is
useful to trace the forms that preoccupation takes. Wright depicts landscape at ‘close
quarters’, repeatedly returning to write about the places where she lived, often in
intimate portraits of particular locales or small creatures. In their specificity they
often signify wider truths of human and natural existence. The related, more troubling
side of Wright’s passion for the natural world is the poetic manifestation of her ecoactivism. While only some of her poems deal directly with the destruction of nature,
even the poems less overtly ‘political’ are most certainly eco-poetic in that they
poeticise the innate and metaphysical value of the natural world. In the spirit of
critical inquiry, students can be asked to consider whether or not they think that
Wright over-simplifies the processes of industrial development and environmental
Race readings
The profound empathy behind Wright’s depiction of Indigenous Australians has
inspired the admiration of many and was evidenced by many friendships Wright held
with a number of Indigenous people. However, using the methods of critical reading –
reading ‘against the grain of the text – one could argue that some of Wright’s earlier
poems on this subject, such as ‘Half-Caste Girl’ (1946, p.19,) tend to infantilise
Indigenous experience or sentimentalise/aestheticise their suffering. One might also
argue that Wright, in her profound love of nature and the land, tended to ‘Indigenise’
her experience in a way that was unjustified; loving nature does not mean that one’s
experience is ‘Indigenous’.
Gender readings
Judith Wright was writing poetry during a time when Australia was, as has been
widely recognised, a discriminatory and sexist place. Yet Wright’s valorising of the
‘natural’ function of both child-bearing and rearing could be described as an
‘essentialist feminist’ perspective – the belief that giving birth to and raising children
is inherently empowering. Wright’s own forays into the public sphere, including the
act of writing poetry itself, were powerful acts of resistance to patriarchy. In a critical
reading, one might consider the ways in which these two modes of Wright’s life could
come into conflict.
Consider, for example, the following quote from Germain Greer’s The Female
Eunuch(1970) in relation to Wright’s poems:
‘A housewife’s work has no results: it simply has to be done again. Bringing up
children is not a real occupation, because children come up just the same, brought up
or not.’
Class readings
Someone from a less privileged existence than Wright’s (she was, after all, a member
of the rural land-owning class with a university education) may find some of her
depictions of rural life condescending. Rather than the hardship of the bush offering a
spiritual or transcendent experience for poor itinerant workers, one might argue
instead that they endured lives of unrelieved misery. Such considerations can affect
responses to romanticised visions of the Australian pioneer such as that depicted in
one of Wright’s early poems, ‘Bullocky’ (p.17), revealing to some extent Wright’s
complex class position.
Still, it must be remembered that Wright became a committed socialist and this
political commitment emerged markedly in later activity. Her later poetry and prose
contributions to public discourse led her to be considered a champion of the Left. The
eulogies from left-wing publications (World Socialist Web Siteand Green Left Weekly)
reveal the high regard the political Left had for Wright’s activism and creative output.
Reading through discrete critical ‘lenses’
The following paragraph describes some interesting features of Wright’s career and
readers will notice how categories such as gender and race politics are part of an
integrated discussion. While it can be a useful critical and intellectual practice to ‘read
against the grain’ of a text using critical lenses, such as those above, it is worth
remembering that it is artificial to separate the gender/class/race aspects of a text.
One of the most obvious facts about Wright’s work is the way that her energised
political engagement cannot be separated from her poetic output. From the earliest
moments in her career, many of her poems were linked to historical/political events
including World War II, the nuclear attacks on Japan, the nuclear threat of the Cold
War, the Indigenous Rights movement of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. Arguably,
however, it is as if many of these poems didn’t find their optimum moment of
reception until the rest of Australian culture ‘caught up’ with some of the key issues
of Wright’s social critique some 30 or so years later. This prolonged national and
pedagogical engagement with Wright’s work, spanning at least half a century,
prompts us to consider the poet A.D. Hope’s reference to Wright as a ‘sybil’ in 1972.
While elements of Wright’s poetry have doubtless proved prescient, it is productive to
consider A. D. Hope’s famous epithet, particularly in the way that a ‘sybil’ is a term
for a specifically female seer or prophet, and implies that her insights are in some
sense mystic or even mystically feminine. While Wright wrote many poems that
communicate the realm of the personal, the subjective and the individual, it is also
clear that much of the energy, insight and virtuosic poeticism of Wright’s poetry come
from processes that are keenly intellectual, erudite and analytical. While Hope may
not have intended to diminish Wright’s achievement through this act of nomenclature,
to represent her insights as somehow instinctual or ‘channelled’ from a divine muse
not only implies a degree of sexism, but detracts from the serious knowledge that
underpinned her work, including her engagement with Australian literary forebears,
British Romantics, and the wealth of classical and biblical allusions that shaped much
of her work. It could be claimed that Wright’s work has been the subject of study in a
way that might be thought of as opportunistic, only called upon when it serves a
particular purpose. Fuller studies of Wright’s complex and diverse body of work, as
might customarily be performed for a male writer or artist, have been absent until
more recently.
As representative of Australian culture
Judith Wright’s work was introduced to many Australian students in the 1970s and
1980s thanks to her omnipresence in English textbooks and anthologies, particularly
through her nature poetry and her poignant lyrics concerning the passing of the
patterns and rituals of Australian pastoral life. Few children would have progressed
through primary and secondary schooling without reading at least some of her nature
poems, such as ‘The Killer’, ‘Hunting Snake’, ‘Trapped Dingo’ or ‘Magpies’ – their
combination of rich poeticism and brevity make them perfectly suited to the
classroom. The much anthologised early poems ‘Bullocky’ and ‘South of My Days’ are
euphonious and elegiac. Inspired by Wright’s childhood as part of a New England
farming family, they combine a lament for the end of the old ways of rural existence,
with a romantic homage to the authenticity of human experience gained from the
pared-back starkness of rural life. With such frequent inclusions in English programs,
it is as if Wright – that great lady of Australian poetry – had assumed her preordained place in the English classroom textbook and the Australian Literary Canon,
alongside Banjo Patterson’s romantic visions of ‘The Bush’ and Henry Lawson’s lyrical
renditions of pioneering hardship.
However, the Australia of the 1990s to 2000s saw social changes that led to Wright’s
work as a poet-activist come to the fore in a way that problematised the notion of
Wright as the suitably apolitical ‘lady’ poet of Australian English, encouraging
educators to turn to the thematically dense and conscience-pricking stuff of Wright’s
collective body of work. Firstly, the 1993 Mabo decision and other key moments in
Indigenous rights brought Wright’s poems of Indigenous dispossession to the fore.
With the nation’s growing awareness of the longstanding abuse and exploitation of
Indigenous Australians, Wright’s poems such as ‘Bora Ring’, ‘Nigger’s Leap’, ‘New
England’, ‘The Ancestors’, ‘At Cooloolah’ and ‘The Dark Ones’ assumed a greater role
in high school classrooms. Of particular cultural resonance was Wright’s difficult and
painful assessment of her own complex part in Indigenous dispossession, particularly
as she uncovered the history of her pioneer-pastoralist forebears. In a connected
way, a renewed focus on environmental activism in the face of increasing evidence of
global environmental devastation grew in prominence in the first decade of the
2000s, and many of Wright’s poems of nature and place, most of them published at
least three decades earlier, emerged and/or re-emerged in the classroom. They
remain fresh and topical in their sophisticated eco-philosophy and spatial sensitivity.
https://readingaustralia.com.au/lesson/wright-collected-poems/#next (19/9/17)
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