Phillip Hall Reviews Judith Wright, Georgina Arnott and Katie Noonan

By | 30 October 2016

In the course of this research Arnott has uncovered eleven pseudonymous poems from Sydney University student journals that can now be identified as having been written by Wright. Arnott shows how these poems reveal that some of the themes and stylistic approaches of her first two collections were in place a decade earlier. The editors of the new Judith Wright: Collected Poems must surely wish that they had first spoken with Arnott before releasing their ‘definitive’ collection.

Arnott follows the lead of Jennifer Strauss and Philip Mead in arguing that in concentrating exclusively on Wright’s achievements as a poet her wider contributions, as a public intellectual, have not been properly recognised. Others are also following the lead of Strauss and Mead, and now Arnott, in reassessing the achievements of Wright as a public intellectual. Tom Griffiths in his new book, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft, writes that the discipline of history is a ‘high-wire, gravity-defying act of balance and grace’ and proceeds to nominate his favourite Australian historians and to eloquently describe how they work. Judith Wright is one of his fourteen nominees.

Griffiths shows how Wright reconciled her commitments to poetry and political activism by writing history. He argues that this process began in 1942-43 when she left Sydney University and returned to New England to work the land with her father. Griffiths writes that the ‘threat of Japanese invasion sharpened her sense of belonging’:

And she reinhabited it at a time when it was visibly hurting – the dramatic dust storms and drought of the early ’40s engulfed the land. Also, she was exposed through her father to the stories of Aboriginal dispossession. So she was doubly haunted: by the fate of the Indigenous people whose land was now her family’s, and by the fate of that land – her extended body – falling apart.

Griffiths reminds us that Wright’s early poetry was very popular and critically acclaimed but as her ‘activism quickened’ so her poetry was said, by the voices of conservatism, to have suffered. He notes that ‘one of the ways her career has been characterised is that she sacrificed her [poetry] for her politics; her politics not only stole time from her [poetry], but it was perceived to diminish the quality of what [poetry] she could do’. Griffiths argues that ‘the two fires, the two passions that burned within her’ were reconciled in the writing of history. He does not, however, address the issue of whether her poetry did ‘diminish’ throughout her career.

John Kinsella has been commissioned to write the foreword to the new Collected Poems that does recover several poems not included in the previous Collected Poems. It is so necessary to have this collection covering the period 1942-1985, and thus keeping Wright in print. And as with the previous Angus & Robertson edition, this one presents Wright’s poetry in chronological order, with clearly listed table of contents and index of first lines. The cover, perhaps predictably, features a spray of flowering gum, and the colour pink is highlighted in the blossom and Judith Wright’s name. This is visually appealing, though also conservative and stereotypically feminine, thus downplaying Wright’s reputation for radical activism. The editors have, however, given Kinsella free license to respond to this aspect of Wright’s work in his foreword. He argues forcefully that:

One cannot separate Wright’s poetry from a political agenda, even in her earliest poetry which is less compensatory, less prone to self-critical considerations of her world as made by her family, and families like hers; of the destructive effect of “pioneering” on the peoples whose land was stolen, and of the damage done to the ecology of those places.

But Wright is a poet in whom all aspects of the human condition are present in even the most scathing analysis of human greed and foibles. A poet of apparent formal conservatism in equal strength to her political radicalism, Wright needs to be formally reread if one is to fully understand how much she was actually pushing the limits of formal diction and prosody in order to say what she felt needed to be said. It is true that later in her life she expressed doubt about innovative poetics, but this probably came out of a sense of exclusion, and maybe, too, of being misread in her dynamism.

And if a skeptic needs further examples of how powerful is the presence of Wright’s poetry, including her later efforts, within contemporary culture then they should turn to the latest offering of the Brodsky Quartet (Ian Belton, Paul Cassidy, Daniel Rowland and Jacqueline Thomas) and Katie Noonan, With Love and Fury. This recording is a glittering, groundbreaking, moment in Wright appreciation.

Noonan has fine form in the reimagining of poetry into musical performance. In 2004 she collaborated with Paul Grabowsky to record a jazz selection of Dorothy Porter’s work, under the title Before Time Could Change Us; and in 2011 she recorded First Seed Ripening, with Elixer, a selection of poetry by Tom Shapcott. And so now Noonan has commissioned nine composers (Elena Kats-Chernin, David Hirschfelder, Paul Dean, Andrew Ford, Iain Grandage, Paul Grabowsky, John Rodgers, Carl Vine and Richard Tognetti) to each select a Wright poem and powerfully reimagine it as a piece of classical music (she has added a tenth composition herself). Of the ten poems chosen for this ambitious project, two poems are selected from Wright’s 1973 collection, Alive, and one from her 1976 collection, Fourth Quartet. In rendering all ten poems into song lyric, Noonan has approached Wright almost reverentially. Two titles are changed: ‘Old Woman’s Song’ from Wright’s 1963 collection Five Senses becomes ‘Late Spring’; and ‘Space Between’ becomes ‘Failure of Communication’. There are few changes to Wright’s expression and the lyrics are reprinted in a booklet that accompanies the production. As Noonan says in her acknowledgments:

Thank you to the incredible Judith Wright for living her life with such love and fury and for birthing words that I believe are still the beating conscience of our nation today. Your legacy is an inspiration and I dearly hope your dream for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians comes true in my lifetime and that we continue to fight for protecting our precious environment.

With Noonan’s singular, soaring voice coalescing from out of the transcendent musicianship of the Brodsky Quartet, this recording highlights just how timeless Wright’s poetry is. As Kinsella reminds us:

With the power to write of “issues” as [Wright] did, it is easy to forget that [she] was a great poet of love and affirmation, and a great celebrator of beauty, especially in nature. Often this is anchored in the brutal irony of the abuse of nature … or with foreboding and warning, but in the end it was an expression of the sublime.

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