The Secret Life of Francis Geyer

A mysterious package arrives at the offices of Archipelago magazine

OK. Let's turn to the offices of Archipelago magazine,. The Tasmanian Ministry of the Arts has generously provided the publication with an extra $15,000 for a special issue dedicated to the life of the famous Hobart poet, Gwen Harwood. The issue is due at the printers in a couple of weeks time and your sense is that the articles lack a little sparkle.

Sorting through the morning's mail, you notice a curious package. The postmark is local but it lacks a sender's address. Inside is a manuscript on recycled paper titled The Grit in the Oyster. There is no author listed, nor is there an accompanying letter.

There's a subtitle: The Secret Life of Francis Geyer `Francis Geyer'?. The name rings a bell. Wasn't that one of Gwen's many pen-names, along with Walter Lehman, Timothy Klein and Miriam Stone? Hadn't she used the name Francis Geyer very early in her career, some say, to test whether it was easier to get published as a male poet, though others say it just helped her publish more poems. Perhaps it was just sheer devilishness-whatever.

The biographical subject elected for presentation is arguably the most complex of characters. A love-sick poet, cast into the vortex of desire in language, finds escape only by shedding what he holds most dear: his name. Francis Geyer-a reality turned fiction.

To Rodney: Francis Geyer really existed!? Are you curious?

The Preface may shed more light:

To Rodney: Are you convinced?

Francis Geyer portraitLet's catch up on the secret life of Francis Geyer. Since leaving Budapest in 1945, Francis Geyer had wandered the world seeking obscurity. In 1958 he arrived in Hobart as a private piano teacher. One of his pupils was Gwen Harwood, then at the very early stages of her poetic career. Geyer was more than a little attracted to his winsome pupil and sent her a series of anonymous poems.

The Supplicant

Gwen guessed their origin, but also recognised the literary merit. She decided to diffuse Geyer's ardour by treating his poems professionally and posted them to a number of literary magazines. The one we just heard was published as `The Supplicant' in the Bulletin 14th December 1960.

Opening the Bulletin to find his own name printed under the poem was a life-shattering experience for Francis Geyer. He was suicidal and dramatically appeared on Gwen Harwood's front door with a knife to his throat. This was a sensitive time with the Sydney Orr case in full swing and she dare not risk another scandal. She asked Geyer if he was filling to forgo his name forever. Of course, nothing would please him more. So she offered to take up his name as one of her own pen-names. The solution appeased Francis Geyer, though trauma had caused irreversible damage to his health and he died within a year.

Thus, by some freak of fate, began Gwen Harwood's illustrious career of a poet. To cover Geyer's tracks she published more poems under his name-the poems about the eccentric Hungarian music teacher she named Kröte. And just in case anyone thought this aberration was exceptional, she invented other poets. Francis Geyer was in a sense, the grit in the oyster: the irritant of fate that stimulated Gwen Harwood's poetic talents to form the entrancing body of work we inherit today.

Here's the conclusion:

Well, doesn't that set the cat among the pigeons!

To Rodney: Would you publish any of this biography, author unseen?

To Margaret: Rodney calls you up to seek your advice. What do you say?

Meanwhile, another mysterious package arrives at Gekko

Dede Pol © 1996
Last modified 27 Apr 2003
This product is assisted by the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.