Friday, September 07, 2007

Judith Wright's "For a Pastoral Family" - and "Skins"

This post continues my irregular series on Judith Wright, again inspired by a good post by Neil. I do not have a full copy of this poem, something that I must rectify. Again, I thought that I might usefully add a little context to the discussion.

Before reading this post, I suggest that you read Neil's post first. You might also read a rather interesting piece from the Cordite Poetry Review found by Neil that provides useful biographical material on Judith, as well as a commentary from an external perspective.

A year or so back I brought Judith Wright's autobiographical memoir Half a Life Time (1999). I bought it with anticipation, I read it with a degree of sadness.

We all interpret and reinterpret our own lives in the light of experience and events. Things change. As they do, we change. Here Neil quoted a much later poem, Skins, a poem that I had not see before.

The poem begins:
This pair of skin gloves is sixty-six years old,
mended in places, worn thin across the knuckles.
You can see here how she retains her superb control of English.The poem goes on:
Snakes get rid of their covering all at once.
Even those empty cuticles trouble the passer-by
Note the references to the "empty cuticles". This is critical to the point she wants to make in the poem.
Now she says:

Counting in seven-year rhythms I’ve lost nine skins
though their gradual flaking isn’t so spectacular.

So she is comparing herself to the snake. This lays the basis for her final, tart, jab at those who were critical of her later, more political, writing.
You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?
They dropped off several incarnations back.
The difficulty for Judith is that you cannot easily disentangle yourself from your own life or family, nor can you stop people interpreting your work through their own current frames.

When I look at her work as a whole, I have not read all of it, I can see a gradual erosion in optimism, a darkening. You can see this simply by comparing Generations of Men (1959), Cry for the Dead (1981) and Half a Life Time (1999).

Part of this came from her growing political activisim. Her focus on the Aborigines and on environmental issues is well documented. Personally I find this later material much harder to read because I cannot disentangle my own views on issues from the writing.

I am not sure exactly when For a Pastoral Family was written, 1979 or 1980, not long before the publication of Cry for the Dead. This is message poetry, but one (as I see it) with an edge of bitterness. One part of the poem says:
Our people who gnawed at the fringe
of the edible leaf of this country
left all the margins of action, a rural security
and left to me
what serves a base for poetry,
a doubtful song that has a dying fall
The language is superb. Read it out loud several times and you will see what I mean.

I will talk about family - caught in the and left to me - in a moment. For the present, you will see what I mean by message poetry. To see a little more, go back to Neil's post and read out loud the words from To My Generation. There is a real passion there, captured in superb English.

To understand Judith, you have to understand her family. I tread cautiously here because in all families there are different views. While I knew many members of her family including her father, I did not know Judith. Her (Judith's) daughter may well have a different perception to me.

As I see it, there were two family members who had a particular influence on Judith.

The first was the matriarch, Charlotte May, who essentially built the family fortune. Judith knew about powerful women. This made her exclusion from the male line of succession doubly difficult.

The second was her father, P A Wright. Everybody called him PA, if not to his face. His sense of committment, his dedication to development and the New England cause was profound. In a comment on his post Neil wrote:

I find it fascinating that Judith Wright followed a line of thinking about such things as the environment and Aboriginal Australia before such things really became “fashionable”. You could say her poetry led her down that path.
One of the points that I have made to Neil in our on-going and enjoyable debates on Australian intellectual life is that certain concerns did not arise out of a vacuum. In Judith's case, she had a father who (among other things) was involved in environmental issues. His concerns may not have been quite those that exist today, but he did fight to create his own national park, the New England National Park, the second(I think) in NSW. I will write this story up a little later.

PA died in 1970. At this point, Judith's exclusion from the land she loved became absolute. Then, towards the end of her life, she had to deal with the loss of the family properties.

First came the loss of Jeogla and the V1V branch (V1V was the brand) of the family. A little later came the loss of of V2V and Wallamumbi itself.

I do not want to comment on the commercial issues involved. Richard Wright with his partner was my first ever consulting client. Both Richard (ViV) and David (V2V) Wright had a passion for good cattle and have played a major role in the development of breeds and of new objective measurement techniques. Both became involved in expansion plans that brought the empires down. Both suffered from the bastardry of the banks.

To Judith with her love of country, this was a disaster. In the words of the ABC Dynasties program talking about brother David Wright:
By December 2000, he had lost it all — his properties, his cattle and his wife to cancer. His sister, the poet Judith Wright, watched in despair and died soon after.
I suppose that I have come a fair distance from talking about Judith's poetry. But (to my mind) you cannot separate her from her family and the broader history of New England.

After thoughts

Re-reading this a little later, I do not think that I have the balance exactly right.

Judith's father died in 1970. This was the second important death in a few years, for her husband Jack McKinney had died in 1966.

I knew that Jack McKinney was older, but had forgotten by how much. He was born in 1891, only two years later than Judith's father (1889). It seems to me that Mr McKinney, her daughter along with her family and the family country formed a core in her life. So she lost her husband, then her father and finally at the end her family country.

Tracing all the influences on a life is always hard. I used the New England National Park example to indicate that her love of the environment did not just appear, but had its roots deep in her past. I think something similar holds with her support for Aboriginal causes.

How do I explain this?

I have a problem here in that her work is so often forced into modern thought structures that can actually impede interpretation. Further, and as I suggested in the post, Judith's own interpretations shifted over time.
I think that we have to look at her writing and especially her poetry across several dimensions.

One is literary. Whether one agrees with her or not on particular issues, the power and passion of her words is tangible, a living thing. So we need to understand and study this.

But this does not make her writing valid as a historical expression. Her poem Bora Ring paints an evocative picture of a vanished race. Yet the people she spoke of were still alive, their traditions were still alive, at the time she wrote.

I cannot continue now. I have to cook tea. I will try to continue as a new post.


Browsing, I found that Ramona Koval had done an interesting interview with Judith just before her death that traces some of the effects of time on her thought.

Entry Page for posts about Judith Wright's poetry.

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