Poet reaches across time

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Poet Geoffrey Lehmann has collected 56 years of his poems.
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The Australian poet Geoffrey Lehmann was born in 1940 and grew up in Sydney. After attending Sydney Church of England Boys' Grammar School, he studied arts and law at Sydney University, where he and fellow poet Les Murray edited university magazines Arna and Hermes.

A tax lawyer by training and a former partner with international accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, Lehmann has published 10 books of poetry and one novel and edited numerous anthologies, including the monumental Australian Poetry Since 1788 (2011) with fellow poet Robert Gray.

Lehmann has been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and has won the Grace Leven Prize for Poetry three times, the first time for his first collection The Ilex Tree (1965), which he shared with Les Murray. In Poems 1957-2013, Lehmann speaks not only with himself, through the revising of his own early poetry, but with friends, family and other poets, through recollection, apostrophe or ventriloquism. The result is a richly expansive yet touchingly intimate series of conversations across time.

But why revise poetry that's already been published? Isn't it too late?

"I felt that some poems were not as well written as they could be," Lehmann says. "I always had a second life as a lawyer and then tax lawyer with a large accounting firm. So I probably didn't have as much time to fine-tune as perhaps other more full-time poets. That's one of my excuses. It's just that I am one of a group of people who revise. Others don't."

Another poet who had a "second life" as a lawyer was the American Wallace Stevens, who worked for an insurance company. Lehmann includes a witty conversation between himself and Stevens via Thirteen Ways of Looking at Twelve Cinnamon Buns — a reference to Stevens' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — and its pendant "response" written in Stevens' voice.

"Yes, I make the point, where I write as Wallace Stevens at the end of that poem," Lehmann says, "that Stevens never wrote poems that were at all personal. So I had Stevens, in his reply to me in the poem, rebuking me for writing poems about myself and saying he always kept his life and poetry in separate boxes. Sometimes poets do manage to keep their lives separate from their poetry but that's not something I've been able to do."

For which we should all be grateful. Otherwise we would never have had such beautiful poems as Lehmann's deeply personal Parenthood, in which he concludes that "I could clutch as they recede and fret for the push of miniature persons./And claim them as children of my flesh - but my own body is where I must live'.

"I always find that there are various voices I write in. Eventually those voices wear out and you start writing in a new one." Lehmann says.

Geoffrey Lehmann Poems 1957-2013 is published by UWAP ($30).

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