The making of a poet

Was Judith Wright born with a humane ear and a campaigner's temerity? How her early experiences shaped this environmental activist and campaigner.
Book Info
The Unknown Judith Wright
Georgina Arnott
University of Western Australia Publishing

In the time before supporting indigenous land rights and being green was the presumed position of most informed Australians, Judith Wright was someone whose voice was both disruptive and important. Judith Wright: poet, landrights campaigner, environmental activist. Someone whose opinion once counted for such a lot, her name was considered as a possible Governor General almost 40 years before Dame Quentin Bryce was appointed.  And yet a quick poll of my circle of under 25s reveals that most young Brisbanites have never heard of her, unless it's 'Isn't there a building named after her in the Valley somewhere?'

Judith Wright has been claimed as a heroine.  In her poetry, especially the collection Woman to Man (1949) she placed the woman's perspective and the female experience of desire and intimacy at the centre of her work in a way that was startling, confronting and powerful. Later in her life her energies were focused on envionmental campaigns (Cooloola National Park, the Great Barrier Reeef) and on supporting the demands of Indigenous Australians for a political voice, recognition and landrights.

As she was born into the landed aristocracy of New England, she has been seen as an outsider to her family, someone who was born with an instinctive sympathy for the dispossessed and politically marginalised.  In fact her early life, including her three years as a student at Sydney University in the mid 1930s, has scarecely been subjected to any biographical enquiry.  We have merely been encouraged to accept the myth of Judith Wright as born campaigner and champion of human rights.

Through Georgina Arnott's meticulous historical research and well crafted story we can now see the young Judith in this realistic and flawed picture. We see her as a human being just like each one of us: the product of a personal journey and experiences which shaped the past she sought to disengage from as an adult. For readers interested in the feet of clay of one of the country's most widely read and studied poets, The Unknown Judith Wright will bring this woman to life in a real and uncompromising way.  I commend it.

Reviewer: Pamela Greet