Australia's Lyric Poet Plays a Public Role

Article excerpt

If Shelley was right when he wrote, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," it may be apt that Judith Wright, one of Australia's most distinguished poets, now lives in her nation's capital, not too far from Parliament Hill.

Once upon a time she almost had a political role - well, make that a quasi-political role. Her fellow poet Les Murray has revealed how Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's private secretary called one day in the early 1970s to ask for Mr. Murray's nomination for governor- general of Australia. "I immediately proposed Judith Wright, adding that the 'constituency' which might see itself as complimented by her appointment was a wide one: women, country people, conservationists, poets, and artists generally," he writes in an essay, "The People as Sovereign."

Whitlam went another direction with the appointment, but Ms. Wright has nonetheless played a public role. She is an example of the kind of cultural figure who informs a country's understanding of itself. Her issues are Australia's issues: immigration, population, justice for Aboriginals - but also rural people's concerns, such as low commodity prices.

Now she has written a memoir, "Half a Lifetime" (Melbourne: Text Publishing), which sheds light not only on the autobiographical roots of her lyric poetry but the experiences that have formed and informed her public agenda.

She grew up near Armidale in New South Wales, as a privileged daughter of landowners from England who had been in Australia for generations - but not as many generations as the Aboriginals her family had dispossessed from their traditional lands.

The two great influences on her life

By the mid-'50s, as she was in her early 40s, Wright writes, "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."

A book begun as a "sort of" family album for her daughter, Meredith McKinney, "Half a Lifetime" is a meditation on the "I" that sees, observes, and then distills observation into poetry.

It is also a love story. "My true love came, and not too late," she has written in an autobiographical poem, "Counting in Sevens."

Her book is also about the search for meaning in life - meaning she ultimately found in her 23-year intellectual and emotional partnership with Jack McKinney, one of many deep thinkers looking to help repair a world gone badly wrong in the 20th century. McKinney, a World War I veteran and an uncredentialed philosopher operating outside the usual academic circles, poured much of his life energy into a work titled "Towards the Future," which Wright ultimately was able to get published after his death as "The Structure of Modern Thought" (Chatto & Windus, London).

Wright herself, the first Australian to win the Queen's Medal for Poetry, has a long list of publishing credits, ranging from "The Moving Image," her first collection of poems, which appeared in 1946, on through "Going on Talking: Tales of a Great Aunt," which came out in 1998. Although she insists, "I'm no longer a poet because I've stopped writing," the title of her memoir tantalizes with the suggestion that another "half" may at some point be forthcoming. The story of how her "two threads" have continued to wind together in more recent decades would be an interesting one, too. …