A Book of Answers XXIII: Judith Wright

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The story of this exchange of verses is rather complex. In 1956 James McAuley, then about to launch a new literary magazine, Quadrant, wrote and asked me for a contribution for his first number. He suggested something on the discursive mode in poetry. As it happened he had hit on an idea I was already contemplating—only as the theme of a poem rather than as an article. The poem would never have been finished in time, so it was turned into a prose article: “The Discursive Mode, Reflections on the Ecology of Poetry”, which was later republished in a revised form in The Cave and the Spring, a set of essays on poetry which came out in 1965. It was here apparently that my friend Judith Wright picked it up and was inspired to write the reply which she has allowed me to reprint here. The argument of “The Discursive Mode” was that the forms of poetry are related to one another, in fact form an ecology comparable to that exhibited by the world of plants, and that just as indiscriminate felling of forests may lead to erosion and a desert ecology, so the disappearance of the great forms of poetry, such as the epic, in the last two hundred years has led to a desert ecology of poetry in which only small stunted forms like the personal ejaculation or, that monstrosity of our time, the “free-verse” lyric survive. I suggested at the end of the essay that to restore the eroded landscape a revival of hardy and courageous verse satire might be efficacious as a first step.

Now this is conservation talk, and Judith is not only one of the best poets in the country but its leading conservationist. In that same year I was living on the Greek island of Hydra when the editor of the literary page of the Sydney Morning Herald sent me a copy of Judith’s poem and asked if I would care to reply in kind. At first I thought: No, I never reply to criticism, and then I thought: But I would always reply to Judith! Hence the lines that follow.

TO A.D. Hope

Poetry’s forests are all felled,
its trees can sink no roots, you say.
By neither root nor fallow held
the heart’s earth dries and blows away.
Its sand and rock and clay lie bare.

Plan then to rehabilitate.
We’ve made a desert: obviously
we must confirm this altered state
and make a new ecology
with thorn-bush and with prickly pear.

Import the cactus and the aloe,
mark out these sands with ordered stakes.
A desert fauna soon will follow
Of scorpions, rats and tiger-snakes
O what a garden will be there.

Then after patient centuries
comes the glad era: Desert Man
will wake to find the forest’s trees
returned, the world restored by plan,
The Cave and Spring as once they were?

No: let’s consult authorities
before importing any pest.
They’ve worked on problems such as these
and know what suits our climate best.
To ask them would be wise and fair.

The Workers answer from the field:
“Use willing small low-growing things—
the evening-primrose seeding wild,
The faithful grass that spreads and springs
And drinks the dew and needs no care.”

To Judith Wright

Judith, my treasure, my wonder, my delight,
What prompted you to give me such a nip?
The editor of this literary page
Thought I might wish to challenge you, but no!
On the great roof of Michelangelo
The prophets and the sybils do not fight.
They speak with different voices for their age;
And poets, I trust, are of that fellowship.

How should I answer you? you, who swept like rain
Over the arid landscape of our verse
—Six inches at Ayers Rock or the Barcoo—
And, overnight the lyric everywhere
Covered the ground with blossom, filled the air
With scatter and chatter of bright wings again;
You, who give grain and vines where once there grew
Saltbush and spinifex and Paterson’s curse.

And set, with a sybil’s smile, your watershoot
Of song here in my valley of dry bones?
Plant on, but let me plant in my own way:
Tamborine Mountain is grand for a green thumb;
On Sinai, in the dry years when they come,
Nothing but thorn and cactus can take root;
But they survive where tenderer bud and spray
Shrivel to dust among the burning stones.

Plant what we will, we do not plant in vain.
Be prodigal then: God’s plenty is our share;
Be Ceres, careless at her golden store;
Be to my desert, what you have always been:
Mons Visionis towards Gilead’s distant green,
My bow of promise through drought-breaking rain,
My pillars of cloud and fire sent on before,
My cornucopia, my chrysostom, my despair.

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