The poetry of Judith Wright
The poetry of Judith Wright
That every poem relates implicitly to a particular dramatic situation is a comment able to be accurately applied to the poetry of well-known Australian poet, Judith Wright. Whilst Wright’s poetry covers many different themes relating to Australian society, it is clear that Wright, in many of her poems, makes clear reference to certain events. These are often, however, explored in different forms, be it a stage of life, an intense experience or a critical event. This is certainly true for two of Wright’s well-known poems, ‘The Dark Ones’ and ‘A document’, each relating to two entirely different situations and issues, but nonetheless relating to an important factual event which has shaped the poet’s opinion or a created event or situation which allows for the facilitation of expression of the issues to be discussed.
‘The Dark Ones’ relates clearly to a situation in the town which has obviously left a rather prominent imprint in Judith Wright’s mind. The theme explored is one of a certain shock at the situation of there being such a division in society and the fact that the Aboriginal people are, in the poem, being treated as second-class citizens whom are a little like ‘the pests’ and certainly not like human beings. Wright’s message, in the voice of the persona, is one of disgust that society thinks and behaves in this way, and points out the fact that change is required and that until it is made, life cannot go on.
The structure is rather incoherent, as refected by the different lines of thought expressed in each line, and creates a mood which is tense and rather awkward for both the Whites and Blacks, representing the fact that given the situation, they are unable to think properly and rationally. The persona makes clear the fact that the Anglo-Saxon population believes fully in their superiority and that they are being inconvenienced by having these ‘savages’ bombarding their town for the collection of their pension and shows the deep differences between the two cultures because even though they are on the ‘other’ side of the road, life cannot continue on with the knowledge of their presence. In many respects, one can relate this to Wright’s passionate fight for Reconciliation which was, and the poem represents a case: that for as long as there is no reconciliation, the lives of Anglo-Saxons will continue to be disrupted.
Wright pays homage to numerous techniques which have the underlying goal to create a mood of disruption and dismay. The rhyming scheme is constant: for each four line stanza, with the first line rhyming with the third and the second with the fourth. The second stanza is constructed as two separate stanzas in rhyming scheme, often leaving the reader rather confused and unenlightened on the situation, strengthening Wright’s message further of a society in utter dismay.
Word Choice is imperative to the representation of society. The title clearly represents the impersonalised attitude towards the ‘other’ people with the use of ‘ones’, and the fact that they aren’t similar but are instead a different breed who are entirely dissimilar. ‘Dark’, likewise, can be interpreted on different levels. On a rather superficial reading, it is clear that it is a reference to the Aboriginal populations’ dark skin. But by the same token, ‘dark’, in Anglo-Saxon society, brings a certain range of negative connotations of a rather secretive society which is unenlightened of the world, more specifically to the more prevalent set of Anglo-Saxon societal expectations and customs which have principally controlled Australian Society in the past 100 years.
Symbolism too plays an important role in expressing this message. The persona makes clear her belief that the Aboriginal people of Australia are looked upon by the Anglo-Saxon community negatively, alike a pest with “something leaks in our blood” in the first stanza, which can, depending on the reading, be interpreted a number of ways. Clear is the underlying message of ‘unfinished business’ which will continue to ooze and cause problems, but moreover is the fact that the Anglo-Saxons believe the Aboriginals are poisoning society. The use of blood is symbolic of pain and trouble and it shows that unless treated, it has and will continue to be utterly problematic for both people, causing a great deal of pain and anguish for the Aboriginal people, as reflected by the last line of the first stanza with ‘like the ooze from a wound’.
In the second stanza, the Aboriginals are portrayed to be rather silent and dumb from the perspective of the Anglo-Saxon society with ‘mute shadows glide’, a powerful image which makes note of the ‘dark nature’ of the Aboriginal people and the fact that they feel guilty and uncomfortable, not saying anything and people who are unable to lead themselves, but who must follow the direction of the Anglo-Saxon Australians who control the country. The portrayal of the Aborigines as being like shadows is exceptionally powerful and highly important to the construction of the poem, and it is again portrayed in the third stanza with ‘like a shadow cast’, imagery which suggests that the Anglo-Saxons are in fact scared of the Aboriginals and believe that they are a threat to them.
One is, upon studying the third stanza, aware of the fact that the Aboriginals are identified as the ‘night ghosts of a land only by day possessed”, again indicating that they do not belong where they are, and also the fact that they are caught between two worlds: their traditional Aboriginal Society and the contemporary Anglo-Saxon society which prevails. According to the third stanza, it is also portrayed that the Aboriginals are perceived as being night, a negative time when they are able to haunt the Whites, and a time which traditionally, Anglo-Saxon myths and fairytales have associated with terror and uncertainty, a further indication of the fear Wright represents the Anglo-Saxons as having.
Despite this fear, however, Wright represents the Anglo-Saxons very negatively and the fourth stanza reveals the binomial opposition with new light. “Day has another side” represents the belief that the Anglo-Saxon population has a secret agenda. The fifth stanza is exceptionally powerful, making rather cutting remarks about the beliefs, values and attitudes of the Anglo-Saxon society. ‘from faces of pale stone’ represents several attributes. Firstly, the imagery of stone represents a certain unwillingness to change and an inability to remould, perhaps a reference to reconciliation and the fact that they lack depth, are superficial, cold and unfeeling.
Whilst ‘The Dark Ones’ deals with an event focussing on the cultural battles between cultures, ‘The Document’ can have its meaning and message interpreted on different levels, but whilst still relating back to the overall theme of the Australian environment. The event of signing away the forest has obviously had deep impacts on the persona, and will most probably continue to do so. It highlights the difficulties society face, especially in terms of their mental thoughts, in a continuous battle against emotion and rationality – and the events and consequences it will lead to. In able to portray this message of the human battle of the mind, a poet’s use of a specific dramatic event is imperative and, given Judith Wright’s passionate love of the environment and her desire to protect it and educate society on it, the two topics work harmoniously to create a point of view, a way of life and the associated impacts of such actions.
The tone set in ‘A Document’ is one of very authority and formality and in a way represents the magnitude of importance a document possesses – once it has been signed, it is the final word. But through this air of formality within the poem, the reader is also acutely aware of the struggle in the voice of the poem: a struggle between emotion and reason. This struggle is imperative to the understanding of the poem. The mood of unhappiness and formality is set immediately with the first line “Sign there, I signed, but still uneasily” which instantly captures the difficulty of having to carry out the deed and also the necessity of carrying out such an action in this struggle, with the different thought processes of rationality and emotion conflicting.
The emotional connection with the forest and land in general is very evident and it is personified to great extents. ‘A flesh-pink pliant wood” gives the tree human qualities, being referred not as a biotic commodity, but rather a living and sensitive human being. In the last stanza, “the bark smells sweetly when you wound the tree” portrays the trees with a certain innocence and inability to protect themselves, furthering the reader’s understanding of Judith Wright’s passionate battle to save them, and also the fact that few people around her were, at the time of writing, being of assistance, positioning the reader to be guilty of their actions, represented by the persona’s comment of ‘wounding the trees’.
To add drama to the poem, the persona’s struggle of emotional against rational thoughts’ battle is represented by alternating these conflicting mental thoughts through the lines, creating a difficult and rather tense situation which is confusing and also testament to the difficulty such a situation possesses, able to be related to life in the twentieth century where by cutting down trees often brings a better economic situation but the difficult situation of being sentimental and preserving the environment. It is obvious that the persona is aware of this, and the rather insignificant document symbolises a real and often worldwide problem facing the world 30 years ago and one which will face the world in 30 years to come.
This dramatic battle is intensified by the rhythm which exemplifies a mind, heart and soul caught between two decisions. But for much of the poem, emotion seems to rule the thoughts of the persona, but occasionally there are cases of enjambment when the rhythm is broken, allowing the ‘rational side’ to come to light, and place the persona into a position of even greater difficulty, further heightening the dramatic nature of the poem. This is further heightened with the use of Caesuras which act as a chance for the persona to justify their actions and feelings, as reflected by “but to help the notion I signed the document”, starting halfway through and ends halfway through a line, indicative of the persona’s justification again.
Simile is used in the first stanza “Those pale-red calyces like sunset light” which refers to the calyces uniting the petals which hold the flower – represents the fact that it is nature which holds the world and society together and once it is destroyed, society will be destroyed with it. The struggle with reality is difficult and often results in contradictions and the end result of the poem is one of guilt that the persona feels but the fact that this guilt is not enough to stop the situation, and that life must put emotionality aside and focus on reality, as reflected by the signing of the document.
That poems relate implicitly to particular events or a change of life is arguable, but less ambiguous is that they relate explicitly. It is clear that the poetry of Judith Wright relates to Australian society: it’s actions, its faults and its operations and much of this knowledge and understanding must have come from individual events experienced over her life. But more particularly, events are able to express the real situations faced and therefore act as a very powerful message of the issues a poet is trying to express.