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Judith Wright was born in Armidale, New South Wales the eldest child of Phillip Wright and his first wife Ethel, but spent most of her formative years in Brisbane and Sydney. Wright was of Cornish ancestry. After the early death of her mother, she lived with her aunt and then boarded at New England Girls' School after her father's remarriage in 1929. After graduating, Wright studied philosophy, English, Psychology and history at the University of Sydney. At the beginning of World War II she returned to her father's station to help during the shortage of labour caused by the war.
Wright's first book of poetry, The Moving Image, was published in 1946 while she was working at the University of Queensland as a research officer. At this time she also worked with Clem Christesen on the literary magazine Meanjin. In 1950 she moved to Mount Tamborine, Queensland, with the novelist and abstract philosopher Jack McKinney. Their daughter Meredith was born in the same year. They married in 1962, although Jack was to live only until 1966. For the last three decades of her life, she lived in the New South Wales town of Braidwood.
With David Fleay, Kathleen McArthur and Brian Clouston, Judith Wright was a founding member and, from 1964 to 1976, President, of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. She was the second Australian to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, in 1992.
In "In the Garden", Fiona Capp revealed the story of the 25-year secret love affair between two of Australia's most well-known and well-loved public figures, "the famous poet-cum-activist" Judith Wright and "the distinguished yet down-to-earth statesman" H. C. "Nugget" Coombs. She had moved to Braidwood in order to be closer to Coombs, who was based in Canberra.
She started to lose her hearing in her mid-20s, and became completely deaf by 1992.
Judith Wright was the author of several collections of poetry, including The Moving Image, Woman to Man, The Gateway, The Two Fires, Birds, The Other Half, Magpies, Shadow and much much more. She was a lover of nature too.
Her work is noted for a keen focus on the Australian environment, which began to gain prominence in Australian art in the years following World War II. She deals with the relationship between settlers, Indigenous Australians and the bush, among other themes. Wright's aesthetic centres on the relationship between mankind and the environment, which she views as the catalyst for poetic creation. Her images characteristically draw from the Australian flora and fauna, yet contain a mythic substrata that probes at the poetic process, limitations of language, and the correspondence between inner existence and objective reality.
In 2003, the National Library of Australia published an expanded edition of Wright's collection titled Birds. Most of these poems were written in the 1950s when she was living on Tamborine Mountain in southeast Queensland. McKinney, Wright's daughter, writes that they were written at "a precious and dearly-won time of warmth and bounty to counterbalance at last what felt, in contrast, the chilly dearth and difficulty of her earlier years". McKinney goes on to say that "many of these poems have a newly relaxed, almost conversational tone and rhythm, an often humorous ease and an intimacy of voice that surely reflects the new intimacies and joys of her life". Despite the joy reflected in the poems, however, they also acknowledge "the experiences of cruelty, pain and death that are inseparable from the lives of birds as of humans ... and [turn] a sorrowing a clear-sighted gaze on the terrible damage we have done and continue to do to our world, even as we love it".
Wright was well known for her campaigning in support of the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef and Fraser Island. With some friends, she helped found one of the earliest nature conservation movements.
She was also an impassioned advocate for the Aboriginal land rights movement. Tom Shapcott, reviewing With Love and Fury, her posthumous collection of selected letters published in 2007, comments that her letter on this topic to the Australian Prime Minister John Howard was "almost brutal in its scorn". Shortly before her death, she attended a march in Canberra for reconciliation between non-indigenous Australians and the Aboriginal people.
In June 2006 the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) announced that the new federal electorate in Queensland to be created at the 2007 federal election would be named Wright in honour of her life as a "poet and in the areas of arts, conservation and indigenous affairs in Queensland and Australia". However, in September 2006 the AEC announced it would name the seat after John Flynn, the founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, due to numerous objections from people fearing the name Wright may be linked to disgraced former Queensland Labor MP Keith Wright. Under the 2009 redistribution of Queensland, a new seat in southeast Queensland was created and named in Wright's honour; it was first contested in 2010.
On 2 January 2008, it was announced that a future suburb in the district of Molonglo Valley, Canberra will be named "Wright". There is already a street in the Canberra suburb of Franklin named after her. Another of the Molonglo Valley suburbs is to be named after Wright's lover, "Nugget" Coombs.
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