CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA — If Shelley was right when he wrote, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," it may be apt that Judith Wright, one of Australia's most distinguished poets, now lives in her nation's capital, not too far from Parliament Hill.
Once upon a time she almost had a political role - well, make that a quasi-political role. Her fellow poet Les Murray has revealed how Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's private secretary called one day in the early 1970s to ask for Mr. Murray's nomination for governor-general of Australia. "I immediately proposed Judith Wright, adding that the 'constituency' which might see itself as complimented by her appointment was a wide one: women, country people, conservationists, poets, and artists generally," he writes in an essay, "The People as Sovereign."
Whitlam went another direction with the appointment, but Ms. Wright has nonetheless played a public role. She is an example of the kind of cultural figure who informs a country's understanding of itself. Her issues are Australia's issues: immigration, population, justice for Aboriginals - but also rural people's concerns, such as low commodity prices.
Now she has written a memoir, "Half a Lifetime" (Melbourne: Text Publishing), which sheds light not only on the autobiographical roots of her lyric poetry but the experiences that have formed and informed her public agenda.
She grew up near Armidale in New South Wales, as a privileged daughter of landowners from England who had been in Australia for generations - but not as many generations as the Aboriginals her family had dispossessed from their traditional lands.
The two great influences on her life
By the mid-'50s, as she was in her early 40s, Wright writes, "The two threads of my life, the love of the land itself and the deep unease over the fate of its original people, were beginning to twine together, and the rest of my life would be influenced by that connection."
A book begun as a "sort of" family album for her daughter, Meredith McKinney, "Half a Lifetime" is a meditation on the "I" that sees, observes, and then distills observation into poetry.
It is also a love story. "My true love came, and not too late," she has written in an autobiographical poem, "Counting in Sevens."
Her book is also about the search for meaning in life - meaning she ultimately found in her 23-year intellectual and emotional partnership with Jack McKinney, one of many deep thinkers looking to help repair a world gone badly wrong in the 20th century. McKinney, a World War I veteran and an uncredentialed philosopher operating outside the usual academic circles, poured much of his life energy into a work titled "Towards the Future," which Wright ultimately was able to get published after his death as "The Structure of Modern Thought" (Chatto & Windus, London).
Wright herself, the first Australian to win the Queen's Medal for Poetry, has a long list of publishing credits, ranging from "The Moving Image," her first collection of poems, which appeared in 1946, on through "Going on Talking: Tales of a Great Aunt," which came out in 1998. Although she insists, "I'm no longer a poet because I've stopped writing," the title of her memoir tantalizes with the suggestion that another "half" may at some point be forthcoming. The story of how her "two threads" have continued to wind together in more recent decades would be an interesting one, too.
In a recent Monitor interview at her studio apartment in Canberra, she gave her views on a number of topics. She describes herself frankly as a pessimist on many fronts, and half-apologized at one point for "not being very cheerful."
On restitution for Aboriginals: "It would be virtually impossible to make things right.... We have always been their oppressors and we will always be. We aren't going to give it [the land] back."
The situation with land rights for native people is "much the same as in America - the same dilemma altogether" - the belated desire, in some quarters at least, to do right by native peoples but only if it can be done at no cost.
She sees Mabo and Wik, two high-court decisions broadly favorable to native title claims, as effectively undercut by recent legislation. "I have done a lot of battling on behalf of Aboriginals in the past ... but it's rather a lost cause." She's not sure a change of government would help: "Even Labor isn't particularly good" on the defense of native land rights, she finds. "Government after government has given me promises - not one has been fulfilled.
On this vast but fragile island continent, thought by many to be supporting about as many human inhabitants as it can, she views immigration policy and environmental policy as linked issues.
Those concerned about overpopulation include not only Pauline Hanson's One Nation which calls for the end of special treatment of aboriginals, but also many on the social and cultural left. Wright says, "You could say I'm a supporter of zero population growth. Australia doesn't need more people. I don't think it can support the number of people it has. The whole country is degenerating - water, forests, soils. Meanwhile, we take in more and more people all the time."
Australia's role in Asia
"The massing of population in the cities is hard on the country.... I'm a country person by nature, having been brought up there."
For some decades now, progressive thinkers have been saying that Australia needs to find its place among its Asian Pacific neighbors. Australia's adventure in East Timor, where it headed the United Nations force sent in to restore peace after the independence referendum debacle, was seen by many as a milestone in the country's maturity in foreign-policy leadership. Wright is skeptical: "[Australians] don't have a place in Asia," she says. "At the moment they're rather lost."
On why Australia just said "No" to a republic in a referendum last Nov. 6: "The 'yellow peril' [the perceived threat of an influx of Asian immigrants] has always been a factor in any political situation here. People want to cling to the monarchy so they won't feel so alone.
"Before the referendum, everyone said, 'We're all going to have a republic,' and then they voted the other way. Scaredy-cats," she says derisively. On the prospect of further attempts at constitutional reform: "I don't think there will be any opportunities to break free from England for a number of years."
Constitutional reform has never been popular here, she says. The 1967 referendum on the issue did put Aboriginal issues under federal jurisdiction - a tactical move not unlike American civil rights activists' efforts to pursue their legal cases in US federal rather than state courts.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society