Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

2: Judith Wright and the Limits of Her Tradition

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

2: Judith Wright and the Limits of Her Tradition

Article excerpt

WE expect much of Judith Wright; she is an icon of twentiethcentury Australian literature and poetics. The popularity of her earlier work is unrivalled in Australian poetry; some of those poems are among the most widely anthologized works in Australian literature.1 Wright pioneered criticism of Australian poetry, and revolutionized the possibilities for Australian feminist poetics. A decade after her passing, she remains an inspiration for many environmental and Aboriginal-rights activists. Importantly for our purposes here, her work provides a space for these two discourses to meet in ways rarely experienced elsewhere in the mid-twentieth century.

Wright was too aware that environmentalism does not necessarily exist harmoniously with Aboriginal affairs. It frustrated her that many environmentalists were unable to accept the validity of "any kind of vision" other than their own.2 She understood that for any landscape poet in Australia "questions of ownership, the usage to which the land is put and the results of that usage must be of utmost importance."3 One's relationship to ?nature' could not be separated from one's relationship to Australia's brutal colonial history, so Wright would scoff at claims that settler connections to country approached something resembling those experienced by Indigenous Australians. "After so short an occupation," she wrote, "with 40,000 years of the previous occupation at least, the land we took as, to quote an early colonial dispatch, ?intended by Providence as a sheep-run' is scarcely a credit to our feeling for it."4 In Aus1 tralian poetry, argues Martin Harrison, no one has paralleled Wright's ability to create a "dialogic space with Indigenous poetries."5 What her work points to, then, and the reason it provides the aforementioned political movements so much inspiration, is what Philip Mead calls "the possibility of an ?environmentally-grounded poetics'." In Australia, such a poetics incorporates not only the issues of environmental sustainability and long-term land use but also the "unsettling and unresolved question of land rights."6

However, I will argue here that, despite her best attempts, much of Wright's poetry has perpetuated an Australian colonialist poetics. Her failure to adequately critique in her poetry what she sees as such pressing issues in her critical prose suggests a disturbing disjuncture between poetry and politics in Australian culture.7 Wright's poetic response to the crisis of Western modernity (manifested as over-consumption and environmental destruction) is very similar to the response of earlier Romantics. Like them, Mead writes, she chooses to "infmitise," moving images of experience and landscape out of the immanent realm "and onto the ground of the infinite, figured as myth." Often Wright's poems are driven by

the well understood imperative within the Romantic aesthetic to subíate the contradictions of the material and historical world into a dream of human essence and subjective transcendence.8

These "contradictions" that lead Wright to seek "subjective transcendence" point to a profoundly important rupture between the poet's body and the country in which it moves. The rupture enables Wright to observe country poetically, but it also ends up preventing the act of observation from having much impact on the structure of her poetic expression.

This situation is perhaps best highlighted in a poem like "At Cooloola" (from The Two Fires, 1955):

The blue crane fishing in Cooloola's twilight

has fished there longer than our centuries.

He is the certain heir of lake and evening,

and he will wear their colour till he dies,

but I'm a stranger, come of a conquering people.

I cannot share his calm, who watch his lake,

being unloved by all my eyes delight in,

and made uneasy, for an old murder's sake.9

A key feature of "At Cooloola" is the limitation of the speaker's vision. The subject is prevented from an easy embrace of the world by the world itself: she is "unloved by all [her] eyes delight in. …

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