Judith Wright, 1915-2000
BY JIM MCILROY
Judith Wright, one of Australia's greatest poets and a life-long fighter for Aboriginal rights and environmental and social justice, died on June 25 in Canberra Hospital after a long illness. Her death marks the passing of one of the giants of the country's progressive cultural life.
Fellow poet Robert Gray said, "She fulfilled the highest role of the poet, she was the conscience of this country". Another poet, John Tranter, stated, "What she has left us is a spirited body of writing and a model for a humane and committed concern for the future of the human race".
Dr Veronica Brady, Wright's biographer, said, "It's very sad in a sense, with someone like Judith Wright, the spirit doesn't die ... Judith Wright's poetry came out of a deep passion for the land, for the community and for decency and justice."
Dr David Brooks, senior lecturer in Australian literature at the University of Sydney, said Wright was one of two Australian poets, with A.D. Hope, considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. "She was a stand-out figure. She stood against the boys' club of Australian poetry and was allowed in because she was so good. Her work will live. It is not marked by the trappings of a particular period."
Born of the pioneering Wright family of New England, NSW, celebrated in her family history Generations of Men, Wright developed a deep identification with Aboriginal people's struggle for their land rights. She became a life-long friend of Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, then Kath Walker, and wrote that they were sisters in their "grief for a lost country".
Wright threw herself from the 1970s into the campaign for the signing of a treaty with the Aboriginal people, a demand only recently highlighted again by the massive reconciliation march across Sydney Harbour Bridge. That walk was Wright's last public appearance.
Wright was also a passionate environmentalist. A committed member of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in the 1960s, she was an early campaigner for a number of ecological causes, in particular to protect the Great Barrier Reef, which she detailed in her 1977 book The Coral Battleground.
She wrote to a friend. "If the Great Barrier Reef could think, it would fear us ... Slowly but surely we are destroying those great water-gardens, lovely indeed as cherry boughs and flowers under the once clear sea."
Wright was critical of the way poetry was taught in schools, but like so many others I recall Judith's poems as the soul of Australian poetry from my school days.
Judith Wright will be remembered both as a wonderful poet and as a major progressive figure in the life of 20th century Australia.