Poetry and Public Apology
Judith Wright in the 20th Century
Talks / Lecture
Dr Bridget Vincent explores the relationship between Judith Wright’s poetry and her activism, based on new research in Wright’s personal papers. While Wright was careful to keep a distance between her poetic and political commitments, the archives reveal surprising rhetorical continuities between the poetry and the aesthetic dimensions of her other writings.
Dr Bridget Vincent is a National Library of Australia Fellow in Australian Literature, supported by the Eva Kollsman and Ray Mathew Trust
Speakers: Robyn Holmes (R), Bridget Vincent (V)
Audience: (A) – no mic
Location: National Library of Australia
R: Thank you, it’s delightful to see so many people here this afternoon for another in our Fellowship presentations, we’ve had like a winter series, one after another and beautifully varied audiences and some repeat people coming back which is just lovely. So tonight’s presentation is by Dr Bridget Vincent who is the 2016 National Library Fellow in Australian Literature supported by the Eva Kollsman and Ray Mathew Trust. The Trust was set up by this wonderful benefactor, Eva Kollsman, in honour of Ray Mathew, an Australian poet, very appropriate for tonight, and is there really to support writing and a study of Australian literature at the National Library and we’re incredibly grateful for such a bequest.
As we begin we acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and recognise their continuing culture and contribution, and thank their elders past and present and extend this respect to other indigenous people present. Our acknowledgment of traditional custodians is especially pertinent as Bridget turns our attention to the relationship between Judith Wright’s poetry and her political activism, much of which of course was dedicated to issues around indigenous land rights, justice and recognition.
We also acknowledge tonight the presence of Judith’s daughter, Meredith McKinney, over here – Meredith, wave. She’s very self-effacing but she’s a longstanding friend and researcher at the National Library and of course she’s given Bridget really open access, full access to the personal papers at the Library of her mother which we thank you for, Meredith.
While Judith Wright’s rich personal papers have been used for multiple research topics and publications Bridget brings to us a quite new perspective to this inquiry. She’s been exploring and analysing the continuities and differences in Wright’s writing of poetry and her political writing.
When Bridget applied for the Fellowship she was a McKenzie Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne but by the time of the actual award she’d been appointed to the University of Nottingham in the UK as Assistant Professor of Modern Literature, teaching and researching poetry in particular. As a result she’s had to spread her Fellowship across the two summer European breaks at the beginning of her new appointment so thanks, Bridget, for flexibility, I think, and thanks to the National Library staff who made that possible.
Like many younger scholars in the Humanities Bridget has forged a globally mobile career. She did her undergraduate studies and PhD at the University of Melbourne, her Master’s at the University of Chicago in the US, PhD and postdoctoral affiliation at the University of Cambridge where she also taught for several years then back to Australia and now back to the UK. During her postdoctoral research in Melbourne she also founded an outreach program called the Australian Youth Humanities Forum aimed at widening participation in the humanities. And she herself has really modelled and grasped such opportunities as a young leader in the profession and we congratulate you on that, Bridget.
Her case study of Judith Wright forms part of a larger project across English, Irish and Australian poetics, modernism and the civic role of writing in the late 20th century. When she left her research at the Library unfinished a year ago she wrote quite movingly about how much Wright’s passion for the power of literature to redress past wrongs had revealed itself in the archive. And we sometimes forget that Fellows’ research can form an emotional journey for them as well as a process of intellectual discovery so I think you're delighted to be back at the Library resuming this research and we’ve only just recently welcomed you back.
So we greatly look forward to this discussion of poetry and public apology, please welcome Dr Bridget Vincent. Thank you.
B: Thank you very much, Robyn, for that very generous introduction which is I think highly typical of the kind of welcome that Fellows receive at the Library.
I’d like to start by reiterating Robyn’s acknowledgment of the first Australians on whose traditional lands we’re meeting and to pay respect to their elders past and present. And as we’ll see from tonight’s discussion this kind of act of acknowledgement is especially relevant when we’re talking about Judith Wright and her definitions of justice. I’d like to thank wholeheartedly the National Library of Australia for the extraordinary opportunities that this Fellowship has presented and for the support and inspiration that I’ve received from everyone associated with the Fellowships and the staff of LG1 in the Library but particularly Robyn Holmes, Margy Burn, Marie-Louise Ayres, Beth Mansfield, Patricia Reynolds, Genola Burns, Alison Massey, Andrew Sargent and Isabelle Johnston. In Special Collections Katrina Anderson has been particularly helpful in suggesting avenues of research. I’d like to thank the donors for supporting new work on Australian literature. And thanks particularly again to Meredith McKinney for her generosity in talking with me about her mother’s legacies, both literary and political. And finally a brief thanks to the people who’ve helped me to make Canberra my kind of second home, Sarah Heyward, Cameron Hook, Lyn Cavali.
Since the middle of the 20th century the phenomenon of public apology has become increasingly prevalent and visible as we’d all know. When we think of public apology we tend to think of ceremonial governmental events, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the iconic genuflection of Willy Brandt at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, and of course Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations. Alongside these official apologies there has been a surge in literary representations of public apology. We have books like [Jame Kitse’s] 6:44 Disgrace, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Gail Jones’ Sorry and of course many of the poems of Judith Wright.
Now these literary representations of public apology present something of a scholarly conundrum. One of the questions my research asks is do these representations simply describe the apologising process or do they participate in it in some way? Might these literary works pre-empt, advance or modify the more official processes of social change? Judith Wright’s work offers a rich case study here, not only because she’s one of Australia’s foremost activist-writers or writer-activists, though I think she’d probably be uneasy about whether to include that hyphen and where to put it, but also because as a longstanding advocate for the rights of Aboriginal people she was acutely aware of the need for a national apology. Indeed at one point she even wrote one of her own.
At the end of her 1999 memoir, Half a Lifetime, there is a paragraph set out on its own page as a kind of afterword. It reads as follows, to all the peoples of the old and true Australia on whose land I have trespassed and whom by being part of my own people I have wronged, I plead forgiveness. To all of them I owe that overweighing debt of life itself and to all of them now I bend my head and say sorry, sorry above all that I can make nothing right. Did she make nothing right, though? That’s my central question. And one of the questions motivating my research is what is the status of this paragraph as a political gesture? Is this a representation of an action or an action in itself?
Now one of the questions that is useful to sort of come back to, one of the concepts at work whenever we ask a question like this, is the concept of the speech act or performative phrase as defined by the linguist, J L Austin – with apologies to anyone already familiar with the idea of speech acts, and I imagine there’d be a few of you, I’ll just a give quick overview of this before talking about why Wright’s archive is particularly significant in this context – so a speech act is a phrase which in being spoken doesn’t constitute utterance alone but performs actions in the real social world, and hold our fire with potential raised eyebrows about where real is anyway. But Austin gives the following examples to utter the phrase I promise is to perform the act of promising, to say I bequeath this to you, I bequeath is to perform the act of bequeathing, and in a wedding the phrase I do or I now pronounce you married is the act itself which marries the couple, you can’t have the wedding without it.
Similarly the act of apology is performed through the articulation of the phrase of I apologise or I am sorry. You know so far so intuitively sensible but it gets a bit more complicated because in setting out his definition of performative speech Austin explicitly excluded those speech acts uttered as part of an artistic work. He argues that if any of these phrases are spoken for instance on stage they do not count as performatives. The audience understands an actor’s promise as an artistic representation rather than a genuine act with genuine consequences. Austin writes a performative utterance will for example be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage or if introduced in a poem, indeed, or spoken in a soliloquy.
Now of course this makes intuitive sense that if someone is pronouncing a couple married on stage the two actors are not really being married in their offstage lives. But, and this is where it gets tricky and interesting, while the performative phrase marrying the couple in the play might not bind the two actors in real life it may in some cases still constitute some kind of social intervention especially if these representation is at odds with the political realities of the time and place of performance. Consider for instance a representation of a mixed race marriage in 19th century America, for instance, or same sex marriage in contemporary Jamaica or indeed Australia. The question then becomes what do speech acts in works of literature or drama do? Surely they don’t do nothing, surely Wright’s apology and Half a Lifetime didn’t do nothing even if it didn’t do quite the same thing as Rudd’s apology. What then is the act in an artistic speech act and how is giving an answer to this different from giving a general account of the social powers of literature?
So these are some of the theoretical problems for which Wright acts as a particularly interesting case study. The relationship between public sphere speech acts like Rudd’s apology and speech acts in literature like Wright’s apologies in her prose and poetry. But more broadly I’m trying to think through how the dynamic between literary and political language in speech acts might speak to the larger questions of the relationship between writing and activism because not all of Wright’s contributions could be reduced to reflections of speech acts, of course.
Now Wright’s work is especially well placed to shed light on these problems. If we look again at her apology in Half a Lifetime we can already see how this one paragraph complicates J L Austin’s clear distinction between literary and real, non-literary speech acts. After all, the very form in which she’s making this apology could be considered at once literary and non-literary. It’s a memoir, it’s a type of literary writing but at the same time it’s of course defined by its element of the nonfictional.
Furthermore the audience that Wright gains for her apology was earned in part or in very large part through her literary work, we don’t think you know we think poet and historian, Judith Wright, not historian and poet, Judith Wright, I’d say, so the audience that she gained for her apology was gained in large part through her literary work which raises the question of whether in this case and more broadly Austin’s artistic, non-artistic division is defined solely by the genre in which the writer is working or by the speaker’s identity as an artistic figure. I mean I kind of think she only got a reply for all of those letters that she wrote to politicians because she was Judith Wright, the poet. So while some of Wright’s most important statements of public apology were made in prose form it was her civic authority as a socially conscious poet which earned an audience for her ideas.
Now most importantly Judith Wright’s work complicates J L Austin’s ideas about the relationship between the literary and the real because her activist work around apology and redress for indigenous people emerges through many different kinds of rhetorical occasion, through literary writing, non-literary writing and writing which complicates the boundary between the two. So one of the arguments I want to make is that Wright’s explicit apology in something like Half a Lifetime forms part of and indeed can’t be understood without the gestures of redress that she makes elsewhere in her poems and her historical writings.
Now thinking about what these wrongs are is really important here so part of the wrong that many of Wright’s poems acknowledge is not only the original and ongoing acts of violence and dispossession but also a lack of record and acknowledgement. Now Wright explicitly positions her historical books as a contribution to the reparation of this wrong of silence. In a collection of essays called Born of the Conquerors she stresses the quote suppression of the real story of the great pastoral invasions of inland Australia. We see this again in her – in one of her other important pieces of nonfiction, We Call for a Treaty. As in her other writings Wright places explicit emphasis here on the lack of historical discussion. She writes, the story of the overrunning of the continent without any attempt at compensation, agreement or even bargaining by the land-takers was hushed by most early historians.
And among the verbal wrongs to which her historical writing in the cry for the dead responds are the deficiencies in Wright’s own earlier family narrative, Generations of Men. In a 1977 letter to Nugget Coombs Wright talks about this kind of reparation of her own deficient memorialising, she talks about repairing her earlier lack of knowledge. She’s writing this letter from on the road – she was on a research trip – and she’s reading old diaries with a new perspective. She writes I’m finding the diaries depressing reading this time ‘round. Knowing more than I did in 1949 it’s fairly easy to read between the lines. Clearly the pastoral industry at the beginning depended far more on the Aboriginals than has ever been acknowledged. Well I shall add it up, finally.
Wright notes this lack of recognition in her own consciousness when she writes to Oodgeroo Noonuccal in one of her most famous poems, Two Dreamtimes. She writes, so it was late I met you, late I began to know, they hadn’t told me the land I loved was taken out of your hands. And many of her other poems reflect on this same idea in quite a direct way, mentioning coverups of massacres in lines like the following, the wrong involved is a major massacre but also the wrong of the fact that it was ignored. Did we not know their blood channelled our rivers and the black dust our crops ate was their dust? We should have known. The night that tidied up the cliffs and hid them had the same questions on its tongue for us.
In many of these poems breaking the silence takes place through representations of natural phenomena which are figured as witnesses, silenced or houses of testimony to which the poet gives voice. Wright’s poems cast a forensic light on the landscape, peeling back the surface layers of the earth in order to show the past acts that they concealed and preserved. And we see this in the poem Bullocky, for instance, grass is across the wagon tracks and plough strikes bone beneath the grass, and vineyards cover all the slopes where the dead teams were used to pass. So after describing a bullock driver’s habitual routines and specific moments Bullocky here opens out onto the present in which signs of the past remain but are buried when the poet metaphorically unearths them.
Similarly in At Cooloolah Wright counterpoises the surface level of the present with the historical memory underneath, walking on clean sand among the prints of bird and animal I am challenged by a driftwood spear thrust from the water. So we see how in all of these poems the poem itself acts as a kind of silence-breaker, helping to translate the stored memory of the land. And just from looking at a couple of these key poems, before we even get into the archive, we can already see that Wright’s prose apology would have had much less force without these other gestures of kind of belated remembering and redress.
This much we can see from Wright’s published materials. The archive in turn sets these gestures in a broader, richer and in some ways more surprising set of contexts. In the Wright archive I’ve been primarily looking at the very extensive collection of letters. The Wright papers contains a large collection of incoming letters to Wright and they’ve been preserved in a manila folder or several manila folders which Wright herself wrote on and she put letters worth keeping, understatement of the year.
What’s been richest though is the set of letters collected in other people’s papers. Most importantly these are the letters that Wright wrote to Nugget Coombs which were made public only a few years ago but there have also been very illuminating letters from Wright in other collections, particularly the papers of Nonie Sharp, Dymphna Clark and Jan [Gamidge] 21:32 and the broader papers of a group called the Aboriginal Treaty Committee.
Now these archival materials enrich our view of the relationship between art and activism that’s visible in Wright’s published work but most importantly that archival material complicates in useful ways this distinction that I began with, between real social actions and literary language. So you know when we think back to J L Austin making this kind of division, what do you do with a letter in the archive that thinks very poetically about the view outside the window before saying I’ve got a fantastic new paper that needs to be circulated about the protection of Fraser Island you know is that art? Is that politics? Is that both? Of course it’s both. And the question is in what is it useful to sort of categorise these things?
So what the archive shows ultimately is the extent to which Wright saw the problems that she was working with as themselves having linguistic origins as well as linguistic means of redress and this is the part that I didn’t quite understand quite as much before I read the letters. You get a very, very strong sense that it makes absolute sense for a writer to be engaging with these problems because these problems are problems that don’t just originate in but are perpetuated by language, by things like the choice to use the word settlement instead of invasion, by the use of little lies that allow for deception etc, by jargon, by historical coverups which is ultimately you know a lack of language. So what came across in these letters was a real sense that the problems themselves are linguistic.
Now how did this manifest itself? So this is particularly evident in her discussions of indigenous rights in her updates in a sort of semiformal private but also public in – publication called the Network of News for Supporters of Aboriginal Rights. I say private because it was you know very much something that was produced by a network of people who knew each other but it was also sort of circulated beyond this so its place in the public sphere is also something that could be kind of contested. But what’s interesting about this is that she’s absolutely vigilant and absolutely scathing about linguistic crimes so – so this is – yeah, this is an ad that the Aboriginal Treaty Committee took out so she was part of this group and so this Network of News was part of the same sort of set of activities.
Now this is one of the pages from the Network of News and we see here her being this vigilant, she says – she’s talking about the wording for the act establishing the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and she notes that Aboriginal people were not adequately consulted on its wording. She writes the issue was delayed until the act for establishing the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation could be examined. The act as usual was rushed through both houses of parliament before Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been able to inspect and consult on its wording and implications. As might have been expected it is a bad act. This is - you know she pulls no punches – this is apparent in its first clause which reads, Australia was occupied – so this is her quoting from it – Australia was occupied by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who had settled for thousands of years before British settlement at Sydney Cove on the 26th of January 1788. Emphasis added, says Wright, ever scholarly.
And then she says underneath, underlined, it is not possible to settle a country which is already settled. So we see here this emphasis on language. And wording itself as part of the problem – not the extent of the problem but a significant part of the problem, comes up again and again in the letters. For instance she laments, in a letter to Coombes on the 29th of January 1988, that the government seems to be standing firm on the opposition attempt to change the wording of the parliamentary resolution recognising prior Aboriginal occupation and the need for self-determination. So this wording keeps coming up.
And this is evident even in her editing of one of Coombs’ documents which he sent to her to have a look at. And she stresses the difference between the linguistic gestures of recognition and guarantee. She writes in an undated fax about a document setting Australia in relation to New Zealand, she says I think it is fine, the document – I think it is fine but would suggest the following, a reference to the Aboriginal Peace Plan published in the current Aboriginal Law Bulletin, June 1993, a temperate and good document especially on recognition and protection of rights, and a clause on no extinguishment without consent. Now here – this is her emphasis on language here – I think that the fact that the Waitangi Treaty does not only recognise but guarantee protection is highly important. So we see this, even just in her discussions with Coombs.
And on a slightly lighter note I was very much struck by this letter from a young person - she had many, many letters from young people - and you know I wrote to you last year - this is from a David Lee, it’s in 1983 – I wrote to you last year expressing my enjoyment of your works. I completed my HSC last year and am currently training to be a primary infants teacher etc and he sent her a little elephant, a little present. It represents the fight against the extinction of endangered species. Terrific. So it’s full of sort of heart-warming things like this. And Wright accordingly writes back, very magnanimously, and one of the things she does just while she’s there is just to make sure that this young person is aware that when he writes about a trip to New Guinea – so he says in December I shall be going to New Guinea with a group of friends, etc, to do some practical teaching, she doesn’t miss an opportunity to say best wishes for your New Guinea visit. By the way they call it New Gini now, just all you know never missing that opportunity, it’s a sort of useful endless vigilance.
Now, okay. So letters like the ones that I’ve been discussing so far highlight the fact that for her both the problems and the solutions have their roots in language and the concepts that language allows us to have. And she writes for instance about a category called Aboriginal uses in relation to land. She says I’ve done a sort of brief document for the conservation strategy advocating a new category of land use, Aboriginal uses. So here she’s inaugurating a concept and thereby putting - sort of sending out a new idea into the world.
Now just as she’s acutely aware that categories of language can create categories of thought she’s also very much aware of the lies which can be propagated through language in the form of jargon and she uses direct quotation to highlight this with very caustic precision. In a 1988 letter to Coombs she writes – and she cites the language that they use in order to skewer it – she writes of the long delays over land claims and the setting up of a Treaty Issues Directorate and possible Central Coordinating Unit.
So the contributions of people who work with language like Wright become particularly important when the wrongs themselves are at least in part verbal ones. Sometimes these wrongs involved the wrong wording but just as often, and this is going to be my focus for the next sort of moment in the talk, they involve not wrong wording but a lack of wording, an absence of language, a silence in the historical record. And the remedy for this was Wright’s very energetic Research Information Circulation publication. You could just about have a new agitate organise – yeah you know you could have sort of new yeah research – it’s not as zingy.
Now an emphasis on the idea on the dissemination of information as a political act of activism as involving a kind of reparative redistribution of facts emerges really strongly throughout the letters and this was another thing that I hadn’t quite realised until I read the letters. So in an article – yeah, in an article that she wrote for Aboriginal Treaty News, a different publication, she’s really clear about how important this form of activism has been in her life. She actually says I regard the four-and-a-half years of working with the Aboriginal Treaty Committee as perhaps the most useful part of my life. Whatever else we may have done or not done we have provided much of the necessary research and information on the issue. I find it so interesting that she talks about the importance of this in her whole life, this sort of one of the most important things she’s done - because we provided the research. Because we provided the information. And she sort of says that quite explicitly.
And in her letters she frequently mentions this process of research and collation, photocopying, admin that went into preparing treaty-related information for this Network of News. For instance she wrote to Coombs in 1982, went into Canberra on Tuesday, picked up the enormous file of news clippings for the next Treaty News. I’m still sorting it out and trying to get a line on it.
In this 1987 letter to Coombs we see her collating and passing on others’ articles as part of a group process of rigorous private self-education. She says I’m taking the copy of the resolution to be photocopied in Canberra on Wednesday and will distribute it around the environment movement there and in Queensland where no doubt there has not been proper reportage of the conference. She says in the same letter, I also – I have a new issue of Land Rights News with a good article by Richard. Wish I were more mobile and able to work longer, says Judith Wright. And I could use that material better. And she says – about another piece of information, I shall send copies of the resolution to Treaty 88. There is also an article by Garth in the April issue of the Aboriginal Law Bulletin on the background of the Victorian legislation which is very interesting.
A 1991 letter to Jan [Gamidge] shows Wright responding to a perceived need for activists to educate themselves as she passes on a list of readings. She says the references below should help Aboriginal rights supporters and conservationists faced with hard questions to inform themselves a little more on these matters. And she reflects here in this letter on – with a kind of pragmatism about the attendant limits on this kind of activism. I mean she certainly – she believes that it’s necessary but she’s sort of aware that it only actually works if it responds to a collective need in other people to educate themselves in similar ways. She writes if you know any others who may be interested switch to them instead, I don’t see any use in the network idea unless it actually works. Do you?
Now it’s important to remember that there was a kind of Catholic dimension to this activism in the form of information-sharing and self-education. She didn’t do this only around indigenous rights and the conservation of specific wilderness areas, she did this around everything so issues like ozone layer – so the same kind of instincts are visible in this letter that she wrote in 1975, I’ve sent the copy of the Climatic Impact Assessment Program Panel report on ozone problems to Jeff Mostly, suggested that the ACF ask the Academy of Sciences whether anything is being done in Australia to check what amount of production of halo carbons goes in Australia and to phase it out in accordance with some US action. So this seems to be sort of her process, find out about a problem, see how you might distribute information to help in its solution.
Now Wright’s emphasis on the importance of circulating information was formed against a backdrop of concern about this kind of lack of historical memory that I was talking about before. She wrote to Coombs in an undated letter, I remember the woman who remarked to me after reading The Generations that she hadn’t realised there was a time when Queensland had no railways. The notion of a time when there wasn’t a Queensland would have been quite beyond her. No wonder we learn nothing from the past, as far as most people are concerned there never was one.
Wright’s sense of the gaps in the historical record extends beyond Australia itself to the region as a whole. She writes about our ignorance, about the history of Fiji, for instance. In 1987 she writes to Coombs as follows, I find very few people I talk to, and I talk to a few, have any idea how the Indians got into Fiji. It is long past time that Australian educational systems and historians turned their education from the kings of England to the local scene.
This interest in a global lack of historical observation in Australia and the region is reflected in a 1992 letter to Dymphna Clark, remarking on a belated interest that her work was starting to gain overseas. She writes, I’m finding tremendous belated interest in the subject, her – The Cry for the Dead – from overseas. I’m finding this especially remarkable from Great Britain where the whole thing originated but which they have totally ignored since the middle of the 19th century. An interview is to come out in a literary journal there covering all that stuff which they refuse to read in The Cry for the Dead and certainly in We Call for a Treaty. Late indeed to start boning up on that, she says wryly.
She frequently stresses that part of this lack of historical attention was down to a continuing media coverup, particularly around indigenous justice and the environment. In a 1978 letter to Coombs she mentions the publication, The National Review, which like it or not is the only journal which is doing anything about reporting the Aboriginal situation. Similarly in a 1992 letter to Dymphna Clark she talks about The Age, she says I note that very few if any people who are Aboriginal supporters get their responses to it published anywhere but in The Age so there’s a sense of sort of coverup. So against the backdrop of this media and historic silence Wright’s commitment to truth-telling as an ethical end in itself comes out particularly clearly and becomes particularly important.
And I’ll read – it’s kind of a long paragraph but it’s worth reading to get a sense that showing how things are is not just a kind of move setting up the game but it’s the game itself and whether or not you know it actually achieves your ultimate ends is less important than the fact that you have to lay the groundwork. She writes in this letter to Coombs – it’s quite philosophical – she says – she’s talking about his involvement in a Royal Commission – she says I think the Commission may be of extra value just because it can expose the power structure and the pecking order and protection and privilege you speak of. It’s the culmination after all of what we’ve been after for so many years. The material want that treats the world as if it were only there to satisfy us and we were what it was all made for. You can’t expect the submissions to reflect anything else except in rare cases because that is what they think the Commission is for. But to be able to expose some of this motivation to the light might help, don’t you think?
And letters like these show Wright’s ultimate ambivalence about her ability to make much change. There’s a consistent sense in the letters that social repair on the level of language is necessary even if it’s not sufficient as the analytic philosophers would put it. That it’s a good in itself.
In a number of letters you see her wondering about whether her activism has done any good and lamenting the time it’s taken from her poetry-writing. She often mentions this tension in her life between writing and activism. In a 1981 letter to Coombs she says now I must try to become a literary woman again for a bit. Having caught up with the correspondence I'm getting pangs of guilt for having written so little this year. This is in 1981.
Similarly she wrote to him in 1975, my 60th party will be an occasion for me to announce it’s time I stopped doing so much and got back to my proper business, whatever that may be. But it’s not exactly conducive to verse, this being an activist. But then on the other hand in a 1981 letter to Silvana Gardener she wrote wryly, I really shouldn’t have anything more to do with mere literature, it’s too time-consuming.
And she wrote – I think one of her best quotations about this was in a letter to Coombs in 1988 – they’re talking about a book by Zola and she says I haven’t read that Zola but I will see if it’s available. But of course one can’t alas change the world by writing good books, only bad ones, perhaps. But then she says I fear that even in Zola’s day it was too late for change. So there’s a sort of sense that even if you can’t be sure that what you’re doing is going to achieve something you have to kind of continue in a sort of beleaguered hope.
And towards the end of her life she reflects on what they have managed to achieve. She writes to Coombs in this undated letter, we do seem, in spite – sorry, that’s not spire, that’s spite – in spite of your dubious views to be getting a bit of a stranglehold on some things. Who would have thought that things would have got so far when we started in 1978? Yes, I know, it should have got further long ago but relatively speaking I do think it’s been a very successful couple of years.
And she wrote similarly in 1975, when one thinks that the most we can hope for from all of this – she’s talking about environmental protection here – is the prevention of further mining, it seems a terribly wasteful procedure. But it’s better than nothing and thanks for getting to help – helping to get it, however wearing it may be.
So what emerges from the Wright archive then is I think an enlarged sense of what redress for past injustices might look like. To come back to the problems that I started with as defined by Austin and his idea of speech acts it seems that this framework, I’m not just kind of setting up a straw man, it’s a useful one, Austin’s idea of apology as a kind of speech act that has certain conditions that have to be in place in order for it to be fulfilled but it becomes particularly rich to probe around at the edges of this, to think about how these literary speech acts that Austin excluded so confidently might actually be valuable. And we see this you know we see this in her poems, we see this in her prose writings and we also see this in the literary dimensions of her letters because surely she couldn’t have been so active had she not been such a kind of bracing and effective rhetorician in all those letters, all of that information distribution.
So where Austin saw speech acts as happening only in very strictly defined forms of communication Wright’s archive shows that an account of apology and redress can’t be complete without an account of this wider constellation of utterances. But more than this, these letters leave us with a widened sense of where activism can be found, that it can be found in the obvious places but it can also be found in the scrutiny of the fine linguistic details that allow injustices to take hold in the first place. And I think this is where coming back to the Library for me as a literary scholar who works on poetry, who is always being charged with political inefficacy, what are you doing wasting your life working on modern poetry? You know? An encounter with this kind of archive, that shows you how a detailed intellectually informed, rigorous engagement with literary and linguistic detail can have an eventual political payoff, acts as a kind of vocational encouragement to young scholars.
So I always used to be very snobby about people who do a kind of Messiah criticism but I – but you know there is – I said to someone halfway through this Fellowship that there is a bit of an element of admiration criticism coming into this and I think that’s kind of okay.
So thanks again to Robyn and the wonderful team at the Library for this opportunity, it’s been - as I hope to have shown just from this talk, it’s been very, very enriching for my book project. And just to leave you with another slightly light-hearted sense of where activism can be found, in the archive there are all of these cards that - amongst the letters there are these beautiful cards some of which have you know botanical drawings of flowers on them, some of which have wildlife protection slogans and you get a sense that Wright’s energies and political indignation never let up, that even if she’s sending off a funny card to a friend it’s in support of the long-footed poteroo and she’s even making a joke about short-sighted politics so this – I think this little document emphasises the fact that activism can come in very, very many forms when you’re Judith Wright. Thank you very much.
R: Oh that was inspirational and I sort of have two feelings immediately, one is your delicious and wonderful advocacy near the end for studying poetry but also the second of where are our artists? Stand up and be counted because you do feel like Judith Wright lives in the moment, not just in the past, and all the issues she was dealing with and was so strongly an advocate for are still in the public light, very definitely in the public light in today’s politics, so artists, stand up, is kind of what I take away from your marvellous lecture. So thank you so much, Bridget.
Okay, I think we’re open for questions or comments or if Meredith wants to make a comment we’ve got loads of people in the room –
A: What do you see as the legacy of Judith Wright?
B: Yeah, yeah. Well I think it’s really interesting that you’re asking this question at this particular moment because I think you would probably get quite a different answer even five years ago or 10 years ago. I think it’s safe to say that there is certainly a resurgence of scholarly interest in Wright around her politics but also there’s a resurgence in scholarship which links her to other modernists in ways that haven’t been done before, particularly by a lot of kind of young Australian scholars who are you know thinking about her in relation to certain kind of theorists of the Frankfurt School so there is I think renewed scholarly interest, and scholarly interest which sees new things in her, but I think there’s also renewed cultural interest, I think that’s fair to say, in that there you know when we see this in the way in which her writing was set to music by Katie Noonan recently. We see this in the new book by Georgina Arnott about her early life so I think there’s increasing interest in her as a figure but also as a kind of transnational modernist, yeah so I feel quite optimistic about interest in Wright at the moment. I’d be interested in you know what other people sort of think about this ‘cause – but that’s my sense, yeah. Thank you, thank you.
A: <inaudible> 0:050:40?
B: Yeah well think you should think about – thank you, that’s a useful observation. You could think about it from a number of angles. I think first the one thing that it’s important to say is that where is the agency in the word lost you know to what extent was that a loss and to what extent was that coverup? And I mean I think your point asks implicitly what we can do you know with the archives and I think it’s important to think about the difference between the time in which Wright was working and the present in that on the one hand I think it’s useful to take Wright’s approach as a kind of model on an elemental level, on a sort of fundamental level, ie seeing the distribution of information as a form of truth-telling, I think that’s something that we can take from her and apply to this situation that you’re describing to all kind of situations of archival recovery but also recognise that in some ways any direct recommendations about the form of this that you would draw from Judith Wright are of course dated because you know she needed to make these networks of newsletters because there were was no internet.
And you know when I think about what can be done and you know thinking about this in the National Library and there are other people here who are more qualified to talk about this than me but when you think about you know Trove, when you think about digitisation, those are things that Wright had only the merest inkling about, I would say but – so I think there the sense that we get from Wright is to make the most of that information but to do that in a way that comes out of the kind of technology that developed after her death, I’d say. Yeah, does that –
A: <inaudible> 0:053:29.
B: Yes. I’m trying to control my eyerolling reflex when people say things like that, yeah, sigh.
A: <inaudible> 0:53:49.
B: Yeah, he just needs to try a bit harder. I mean I do think there’s a – no, no, I roll my eyes about this ‘cause I have been doing that for 20 years but I do think there’s something serious to say about the challenge involved in getting any kind of political information from a poem, that part of what makes a poem useful as a political utterance is that element of difficulty, of you know learning more about the language itself through a kind of vigilant engagement with those lines. And that that difficulty might turn you away if you want something really easy but if you stay with it, that there’s something to be gained there for your own cognition, yeah.
A: <inaudible> 0:55:00.
B: Oh well I think she would have been great and I think she – yeah and I think she would have hated it so I think both of these things. I actually seem to remember she talks a bit about this in the letters. Yeah and – well certainly about you know about royalty and about rela – you know the relationship with government and as ever she takes a very pragmatic line and I think she probably would have accepted and she probably would have u – I don’t know, Meredith might be able to shed light but she would have used that I think to further the kinds of justice that she was interested in while at the same time you know lamenting the kinds of structures of privilege that you know that would put her there rather than say Oodgeroo Noonuccal or – yeah. Yeah, thanks.
A: <inaudible> 0:56:07.
B: Great, thank you, that’s a really thoughtful nuanced contribution, thanks. So I agree and I think what’s really interesting there is the difference between poetic utterance and utterance in other literary forms so when you have a poem as you say there’s the potential for that to be a kind of direct utterance by the poet through the poetic speaker of the poem so you know when Wright says you know but I, born of the conquerors you know she’s not talking about an imagined figure, she’s very much talking about I, the historic Judith Wright. But of course the interesting thing about poetic speakers is that they can align with authors in that way or they can involve a persona that’s not the historical author at all. So there’s a kind – so I think you're really right to raise this problem because there’s a kind of slippage between any utterance that you can pin down to the author and the utterance that you get from the persona, from the sort of poetic speaker in a way that is different in a novel say where you know you might have the narra – you might have a character saying something and then the narrator putting a kind of ironic spin on that, say and showing that you know if someone – and I think the – a perfect example of this actually comes up in the novel that I mentioned, [Kitse’s] Disgrace where there’s a public apology.
Who’s read Disgrace? Okay, a few people so for anyone who hasn’t so there’s a very interesting scene in Disgrace where the main character is pushed into giving an apology for sexual harassment and assault and the status of the book as a whole of [Kitse] as a writer is very ambiguous in relation to the beliefs of that character. So some you know some auth – some sort of critics have seen the character, Davie Lurie’s apology as being kind of damned by [Kitse], the author but others see the tone of the book as sort of suggesting that this is actually all a little bit – the product of political correctness and so yeah, I think you’re absolutely right to raise the fact that there’s a difference there between poetic speakers, that as soon as you talk about performative utterances there’s a difference between poetic speakers in literature and other forms of literary eye speaking. Thanks, yeah. Does that answer your question? Yeah, that’s interesting, thanks. Yeah.
A: <inaudible> 1:00:18.
B: Oh thank you, that’s very useful, thinking about commemoration of Wright herself and you know this idea of historical silence that Wright’s so interested in relation to other people. You know we might think about where the blind spots are in the commemoration of Wright and it’s absolutely unsurprising that they’re there you know given some of the things that she says in the letters about feeling very culturally dislocated from some of her extended family members, yeah. Thank you.
A: <inaudible> 1:02:32.
B: Where do I think it came from in her? Yeah, yeah, this is – yeah. I mean it’s hard to speculate about this. I can only say - I think what I can kind of read off from the letters about values which is that everywhere she turned she seemed to react whenever she encountered any kind of injustice and that was a – this sort of emphasis on fairness you know seems to be a very, very longstanding character trait. But as to her education, that – it could be quite interesting to think about that because you know you could make certain kinds of speculation about how her reading shaped her moral mind and one of things that you could potentially I think quite persuasively say there is that she you know by virtue of some of the kind of work that she was doing with Jack McKinney around large philosophical systems, she was always thinking about how - I think we can say she was always thinking about how specifics that you encounter in ordinary life and modern life relate to larger abstract patterns.
And so this reflex in her moral thinking to refer everything to a large pattern, particularly if it was a kind of unjust pattern, is perhaps to do with the kind of very you know work that she was doing from a young age around a kind of philosophy that looked at the world both from up close and from a distance and – which reminds me as well that another thing that you could say about that is when you say up close I think there’s a kind of commitment to empirical truth, to observing the world as it really is and part of that comes from her scientific observational cast of mind as well, and that that – that for her is a moral thing. If you’re sort of thinking about where her humanity in the political sphere comes from in her cast of mind, I think that’s another strand there as well ‘cause there are all these letters I – that’s another talk – that she exchanged with conservation biologists and she – I think she could never be accused of being one of these conservationists who have a kind of romantic and naïve attachment to the bush. Like she had a very scientific interest in the detail around her and that had a - I think that was part of this moral process of truth-telling, observe the details and pass them on. I think that – does that make sense?
A: <inaudible> 1:06:22.
B: No? Okay. Yeah, sure and we’ll leave room for the last question. Yeah, I mean I think – well I think there are two things that we can talk about there. I’m not going to get into this in a lot of detail but I think the word coverup in a lot of the cases that Wright was dealing with is very much warranted, I think. I think sometimes there’s a lack of - certainly in certain cases there might have been a lack of information but I think where Wright’s concerned, when she’s thinking about for instance massacres that were undocumented you know I think coverup is quite clearly the right word for a lot of these genocidal events. But I think you can do a bit with your comment about linguistic problems, though because there I think you can possibly make it a useful distinction between a problem that is wholly linguistic and a problem that’s linguistic in origin and I think what I’m saying here is that Wright is interested in the ways that problems that manifest themselves in all kinds of ways can also be traced to a linguistic kind of origin so yeah so that’s a useful intervention, yeah, thanks.
A: <inaudible> 1:09:32.
B: Yeah, or in origin. Okay, thanks, we’ll have to wrap up – there was a final –
R: I think we had one –
B: There was one question, I think – yeah, no, go ahead.
A: <inaudible> 1:09:48?
B: Yeah, that’s really helpful, that’s very interesting and yeah, you can’t think about poetry or indeed you know the category of the lyric without thinking about the history of it as an oral form. I mean I think if – yeah, that – it’s very interesting to feed that back to Dale Austin because he is so interested in you know speech acts that are in speech you know that are oral, you know. And he’s interested in how they work when they’re written down but he’s prim – his model is based on interpersonal spoken communication and therefore if anything poetry of all literary artforms might be you know a particularly good place to start, yeah, thanks. That’s interesting. Alright.
R: We are going to call it quits. I can see that the degree of audience engagement with this topic and with Bridget’s talk is that to say that your very close reading of this incredible archive that we have as well as the poetry brings both Wright into a bigger picture kind of issue, brings Wright into a global kind of view that you’re working on to bring Wright into an international perspective on public apology and poetry but also is very, very engaging from kind of cultural and literary perspectives. And I think with that I want to say a tremendous thank you to you for such insightful reading of an archive because that alone has given us a tremendous – I suppose an inspiration for why we appoint fellows like you. So thank you, Bridget.
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