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Postwar women writers making their mark
By Susan Sheridan
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2011 Susan Sheridan
All rights reserved.
Judith Wright sets her course
Judith Wright's early poetry, when it began to appear in magazines during World War II, struck readers as the work of a mature poet, with its unselfconscious acceptance of Australian history and landscape as its inevitable and natural milieu. Poet and critic Bob Brissenden described her as 'the typical poet of the forties: the decade in which Australian poetry came of age and learned to forget that it was adolescent and antipodean'.
Yet this apparent confidence in herself and in her place in the world was hard won. Recalling herself as she was in 1937, a young woman of twenty-two, Judith Wright wrote in her autobiography, Half a Lifetime: 'my year in Europe had thrown any hopes I had for the future either of my writing or of the world itself into confusion'. It was clear to her that war was inevitable, 'a fact that had not dawned on most Australians':
Remembering the posters in Munich, the hushed apprehension in Vienna, the rally in Nuremburg, the Blackshirts in London, I wondered how long it would be before the Spanish war experience overtook those of my friends who had labour sympathies, let alone socialist views.
Before this trip she had spent several years at the University of Sydney, attending classes in English, philosophy and anything else she thought would prepare her to be a poet. This was her ambition: the fact that she could not enrol formally, because her failure in mathematics had prevented her from matriculating, did not faze her. An inheritance from her grandmother enabled her to live independently in Sydney, first in a boarding house run by a distant relative then in rented rooms near the university. She avoided the Women's College, where she feared her new freedoms would be curtailed. She read voraciously. Auden, Eliot, Yeats and Dylan Thomas became her favourite writers.
Returning to Sydney after her year in Europe, out of touch with her old university friends and gripped by despondency, Wright looked in vain for direction from other Australian poets. Slessor's poetry she thought 'masculine, tough or glittering or self-absorbed, and I did not want to write in the least like that.' She visited Mary Gilmore, another possible mentor, but 'she seemed a little too everyday, too homely', and Judith thought her work 'too simple, too Georgian, a new damn-word picked up in England'.
Over the next four years, working at a series of inconsequential jobs in the city, and discovering to her dismay that she was going deaf, she wrote little. The war broke out. She had 'one or two irrelevant love affairs; uniforms are a potent concealer of realities and an incitement to sex, as indeed is war itself'. In one poem from this time, 'The Company of Lovers', she depicted wartime affairs in a more sombre light:
Death marshals up his armies round us now. Their footsteps crowd too near. Lock your warm hand above the chilling heart and for a time I live without my fear. Grope in the night to find me and embrace, for the dark preludes of the drums begin, and round us, round the company of lovers, Death draws his cordons in.
Her despondency only began to lift as the train carried her back to New England in early 1942 to help her father on the family property, Wallamumbi, while her two younger brothers were serving in the armed forces: 'I found myself suddenly and sharply aware of "my country." These hills and valleys were – not mine, but me; the threat of Japanese invasion hung over them as over me; I felt it under my own ribs'. Now she was 'on a different track. Such poems as I had written came of a new identification with the land and its inhabitants'. 'Dust', written at this time, begins:
This sick dust, spiralling with the wind, is harsh as grief's taste in our mouths and has eclipsed the small sun. The remnant earth turns evil, the steel-shocked earth has turned against the plough ...
The final stanza underlines the concurrence of this new consciousness of the country and her urgent desire for a different future after the war:
... Our dream was the wrong dream, Our strength was the wrong strength. ... We must prepare the land for a difficult sowing, a long and hazardous growth of a strange bread that our sons' sons may harvest and be fed.
By the end of a second freezing winter at Wallamumbi she was anxious to move on again. This time she looked north to Brisbane, which had become a hub of the Pacific war effort and, as a consequence, focal point for the new cultural turn towards the Pacific and to the United States rather than Britain.
When 'The Company of Lovers' and three other Judith Wright poems arrived on his Brisbane desk in July 1942, Clem Christesen, editor of the new literary journal, Meanjin Papers, must have been delighted. Here was a war poem by a woman responding with clear-eyed intensity to the heady concurrence of sexual passion and fear of death. This was the first of a series of her poems that would appear in his journal and help to make its name as the leading Australian literary magazine of the 1940s. In turn, it was Christesen who in 1946 published her first volume of verse, The Moving Image, which brought her the attention of wider audiences and the praise of influential reviewers. This book, soon to be followed by Woman to Man (1949), quickly established Judith Wright as a leading poet of her generation.
The relationship between Judith Wright and Clem Christesen was important for both of them, but it had its difficulties, and they reveal conflicts below the surface of their mutual successes. Their association began well. Judith wrote from New England, sending poems and praise for Meanjin Papers which, she wrote, was providing poets with a means of reaching the public, so vitally important 'if the regimentation and mental brutalization of war are not to overcome us altogether'. And indeed, by the time 'The Company of Lovers' was published in the magazine's eleventh issue, most of the established names in Australian literature had appeared in Meanjin, including Mary Gilmore, Miles Franklin, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Rex Ingamells and RD FitzGerald. So too had several of Wright's contemporaries who would soon become well known – John Blight, Rosemary Dobson, Dorothy Hewett. As well as poetry, the magazine published debates about nationalism and the future and reviews of recent Australian books. But it was struggling financially, as Christesen told Judith in the course of their correspondence. She sent a donation of three pounds and later, when she had secured a job in the Universities Commission in Brisbane, wrote offering her services to Meanjin as an unpaid assistant editor in her spare time.
Clem Christesen and his wife Nina helped Judith find a place to live in the war-crowded city. It was a small room in the riverside suburb of New Farm, recently vacated by Dorothy Auchterlonie, another poet who had been Judith's fellow student at the University of Sydney in the 1930s and had been sent to Brisbane to run the ABC news service. She and Judith had not become close friends at university because Dorothy had been an evening student, and here again their paths diverged as Dorothy was leaving Brisbane for Sydney and marriage. Despite their many common interests, it was not until the 1960s in Canberra that the two women formed a strong friendship.
As if freed up by the warmth and squalor of wartime Brisbane, Judith wrote poems that looked back on her New England years, poems such as 'South of My Days', which would become a landmark in Australian poetry for its expression of intense love for country, here imagined as a sensitive creature, 'delicate', 'wincing', 'hungry':
South of my day's circle, part of my blood's country, rises that tableland, high delicate outline of bony slopes wincing under the winter, low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite–clean, lean, hungry country ...
Unlike New England, Brisbane also offered a lively literary scene. Barrett Reid, leader of the Barjai group of young writers and artists opposed to social and aesthetic conservatism, invited Judith to speak about poetry and the New World Order which, they hoped, would transform the postwar world. Here she met Barbara Patterson, who later married the painter Charles Blackman and became a lifelong friend. At the Meanjin office, which was located in the Christesens' house, she met such Brisbane writers as James Devaney and Paul Grano, and visiting American poets Harry Roskolenko and Karl Shapiro. At about this time she probably also met poet John Blight, who remained one of her few literary correspondents.
Most importantly, it was in the Meanjin office that she met Jack McKinney, the man who became her life's partner. Clem Christesen had asked her to read McKinney's manuscript, 'Towards the Future', because he was considering publishing it but did not know what to make of this 'wild philosopher' who had no degree or academic position. Judith was drawn to, and puzzled by, this work, which 'looked farther afield than anything I had read for new ways of thinking'. And then she met the man himself, 'a small slender man with white hair and remarkable blue eyes', who left his conversation with Clem to follow her into the kitchen and help with the washing up. He had read her poems and asked to meet her. Unlike other men of her acquaintance, Judith said, Jack 'shared his enthusiasms and ideas as though I was an authority'. His ideas excited her because he was taking on the task of rethinking basic concepts of Western culture, something that she also believed must be done 'if we were ever to break free of nationalism, wars, money worship and the domination of material possessions'. To accept the challenge to become Jack's 'helper and adviser' would, she felt, give her poetry the philosophical grounding it needed.
Yet the more convinced she became of the rightness of Jack's direction, the more reluctant Clem was to commit himself topublishing 'Towards the Future'. Judith had no doubt where her loyalties lay, even though she said that for her nothing was simple. 'A practically penniless wayside philosopher twenty-three years older than myself was the man I wanted and he, in his calm, decisive manner, had chosen me as helper and companion.'
She had become deeply disillusioned with Clem. Her letters from her Meanjin period stress her fondness for Nina, while she compared 'gradually waking up to what C really is' to Christina Stead's heroine realising the perfidy of her former lover in the novel For Love Alone. At first she might have felt a degree of hero-worship from a distance, but, if so, it did not survive the face-to-face relationship in Brisbane. The two writers shared a common commitment to forging a new literature for the postwar world, but she soon discovered that Clem would not treat her – a woman only a few years his junior, whom he acknowledged to be a fine poet – as an equal. Judith was not used to the offhandedness he displayed.
She became more critical, thinking Clem too impressed by people with university degrees or power. She thought his judgments uncertain, even while acknowledging that he kept the journal open to new ideas. She could see that Clem was insecure and irascible, that his commitment to the journal overrode all other considerations. He was forever falling out with its backers and his former co-editors.
In 1945 the Christesens left Brisbane for the University of Melbourne, where Meanjin seemed assured of a more financially secure future. As the war retreated, Brisbane looked like falling back into its former dullness and distance from the centres of power, and Clem wanted to build Meanjin's status as a national journal. Judith refused his invitation to move to Melbourne with Meanjin as its paid editorial assistant, preferring to stay in Brisbane with Jack McKinney and devote herself seriously to her writing.
She offered Clem the manuscript of her first book of poems, The Moving Image, and he undertook to publish it. The process was beset by what seemed to her unconscionable delays, and by the time the book saw the light of day fifteen months later, relations between poet and publisher were chilly. When Judith wrote several times requesting some kind of contract that would put their arrangement on a businesslike basis, he took umbrage, interpreting her request as a slur on his integrity. The written agreement finally appeared in October 1946, along with the book.
There was a further misunderstanding: Clem was told that Judith had criticised the price of the book, and wrote that he was deeply hurt. Her reply began, 'Tut, man, don't take it to heart.' She explained her comment (that five shillings was a lot of money for someone like her, earning as she did no more than the basic wage) but did not apologise. She told him that she had applied for a grant to write a novel about Hunter River history and named him as a referee: 'Is that all right with you, or not?' The brisk tone of this letter (and of an earlier one that began, 'So you want an Index, do you?') indicates that she was by no means intimidated. Although in Half a Lifetime she claimed that she was a mere female in Clem's eyes, the young Judith clearly knew how to crack the verbal whip when necessary.
Continuing demand over the years for permission to reprint poems from The Moving Image – 'South of My Days', 'Bullocky' and others – kept the correspondence between Wright and Christesen alive, but they never maintained their early friendship, or even a literary partnership.
The Moving Image, containing twenty-three poems, was dedicated to Judith's father and featured an epigraph from Plato that explains its title: 'Time is the moving image of eternity.' The long title poem in three parts announced this philosophical, even cosmic, dimension of the book and no doubt reflected the influence of Jack McKinney's ideas. The other shorter poems, written between 1940 and 1944, variously allude to the opposition of life and death, and many carry a reminder of the war during which they were written, as in 'Waiting':
Day's crystal hemisphere travels the land. From starfrost to starfrost the folded hills lie bare and the sheep move grazing or stand. How can the sirens of danger pierce this air? Only the parrots exploding in green and scarlet shatter its glass for their shrill moment's flight.
The underpinning ideas give new depth to Wright's fresh perceptions of Australian landscape, creatures and people.
The Moving Image was reviewed enthusiastically by many of the leading names in Australian literature, both established (James Devaney, Marjorie Barnard, critic AR Chisholm, poet and Bulletin literary editor Douglas Stewart) and emerging (poets Rosemary Dobson, Nan McDonald). It was reviewed in the Age and the Adelaide Advertiser as well as the Sydney and Brisbane papers and journals. Books of poetry were widely reviewed at the time, but in this case reviewers were unanimous about the maturity and polish of the verse. An article on contemporary Australian verse in the British journal Poetry Review singled Wright out for praise, based on this book.
Mary Gilmore and Vance Palmer, among others, welcomed it warmly. Palmer commented that although Wright used traditional forms, 'she is modern in that she gives new shapes to things,' and concluded, 'I think she is the most richly gifted poet this country has produced for years.' Although Marie Pitt reported that she did not like the 'sense of failure and lack of magic', Mary Gilmore praised her as 'the outstanding girl or woman poet in Australian today', adding: 'She has wrung my heart so many times ... she is not over-driven by emotion. Emotion is controlled and suggested; it is subterranean.'
Among Wright's contemporaries, the book won plaudits for its rich imagery, masterly handling of rhythm and fresh vision of Australian landscape and characters. Although its serious philosophical bent was not entirely to Douglas Stewart's taste, Nan McDonald's response was positive. Her review pointed out that the dominance of the war in these poems only emphasised the darkness that was always there: Wright's consciousness of peril and death 'inevitably breeds an intense awareness of life'. Rosemary Dobson called the poems 'sure and beautiful', 'a harmonious fusion of mind and eye'; she also remarked on the design of the book.
Judith Wright's 'equality of heart and mind' with Jack McKinney brought her, she wrote, beyond happiness, a faith in the future – in 'the human capacity to create and affirm life' – that enabled her to go on writing: it was 'enough to provide me with a step-ladder out of my solipsistic despairs about the nature of life and meaning'.
Moreover, there was no doubt about it, I was in love – in love with a man and a mind, even though I had renounced any idea of ever marrying with my deafness and the warnings my surgeon had given me about the doubtful chances of bearing a child after my pelvis had been crushed [by a fall from her horse when she was a teenager].
Excerpted from Nine Lives by Susan Sheridan. Copyright © 2011 Susan Sheridan. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Judith Wright sets her course 23
Chapter 2 Thea Astley: Charting a new country 51
Chapter 3 Dorothy Hewett's second run 81
Chapter 4 Rosemary Dobson: A clear vocation 105
Chapter 5 Dorothy Auchterlonie Green: Woman of letters 131
Chapter 6 Gwen Harwood takes on the poetry pundits 157
Chapter 7 Jessica Anderson: Success delayed 183
Chapter 8 Amy Witting's struggle to say "I" 207
Chapter 9 Elizabeth Jolley: An outsider comes in from the cold 233
Select Bibliography 261