In February 2008, family, poets and close friends of his generation, along with those who only knew John Forbes through his writing, gathered at Gleebooks in Sydney to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death. The event was packed in a way that events for few living poets would be and was clear testimony to the enduring admiration, respect and love for Forbes, both as a person and as a poet of vital and enduring importance.
John Forbes was born in Melbourne, in 1950. Owing to his father’s work as a meteorologist, during his youth the family moved between Melbourne, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Townsville and then Sydney, where Forbes went to the Catholic De La Salle Brothers schools at Caringbah and Cronulla. Having decided to become a poet in his teens, after high school he studied English Literature, Latin and Philosophy at the University of Sydney, dropping Latin for Fine Arts in second year. He later claimed that he regretted not that he had taken up Fine Arts but that he had given up Latin, reasoning that he should have dropped English instead as he “never found it very useful for the process of writing”.
After his undergraduate degree, he travelled in Europe, working at various jobs in England and Greece, before returning to Sydney in 1976 to write a Masters thesis on Frank O’Hara. At twenty-seven, at the end of a Commonwealth Postgraduate Scholarship, he chose to abandon the Masters, and combined various jobs – as a labourer, storeman and packer, souvenirs salesman, all-night service station attendant and finally a removalist – with his vocation of poetry.
He lived in Sydney during the 1970s and early 1980s, becoming the friend and critic of poets including Gig Ryan, Ken Bolton, Laurie Duggan, Pam Brown, Alan Wearne, Carl-Harrison Ford and John Tranter. During this time, he also travelled to Europe on a Literature Board grant. In 1989, Forbes moved to Melbourne, where he taught poetry and wrote literary reviews to support himself. In the 1990s, he travelled again to Europe, once as Writer-in-Residence in Rome, and then in 1997 to teach at Loughborough University, visiting Peter Porter in London, John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan in Cambridge, and attending the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry. In 1998, having returned to Melbourne, Forbes died of a heart attack at the age of forty-seven.
Forbes’ poetry was first published in New Poetry in 1971. By the time his first collection, Tropical Skiing, was published in 1976, his work had drawn a considerable following that has since continued to grow. In 1974, with Laurie Duggan, he started the little magazine Surfer’s Paradise, which ran to four issues. Forbes’ second collection, Stalin’s Holiday, was published in 1980, followed by the award-winning The Stunned Mullet (1988), New and Selected Poems (1992), and the posthumous Damaged Glamour (1998) and Collected Poems (2002).
Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan are apparent and often referenced influences on Forbes’ work. The latter Forbes claimed helped him escape “the talented earache of Modern/Poetry”. Throughout Forbes’ work references from and allusions to classical, medieval, Modernist and postmodern poetry are carefully wrought and talked into place with a wild and cogent array of the contemporary, from James Dean to the Ramones to Kraftwerk, from Bex to the HMAS Australia to Cultural Studies, from Art Deco lamps to the Ton-Ton Macoute haircut to the Goliard poets to “the throaty/chatter of the quad ZSU”. Matisse, Muddy Waters, Judith Butler, Virgil, the Cambridge Poets, Paul Keating, Ovid et alia alight across Forbes’ work. The range and voraciousness of the references coalesce rather than collide into a commentary, as insightful and entertaining as it is acerbic and profound, not simply on Australia or poetry, but on the contemporary itself, from the systems of thought that got us here to their political and cultural manifestations – not least the dominance of America and the underlying isolation and unrequited hopes (in love, yes, but also in relation to the present and societal) of the individual. While often speaking to an Australian audience, his insight and points of recognition translate beyond his nation:
I wish we could be nicer
like the Americans
instead we are caught
a European sense of style
you can always be at home in
& the Aborigines’ knack
of passing the time—they know
that nothing matters too much
between now & forever, unlike
the industrious American
who looks around & sees
that Fate applies her chisel
to his own particular face
so when he stares back at Her
he’s warm & essential
Forbes’ work is frequently deeply funny, fueled by a use of irony and satire that is tough and socially aware, and determined by vulnerability or self-deprecation rather than elitism or pretentiousness. It is knowledgeable without being in any way defensive or pompous. Carl Harrison-Ford noted that Forbes was “distrustful of even a whiff of high seriousness”, and yet his poems, with their humour and staggering twists of thought and image in narratives riddled with similes that confound as they illuminate, are serious in intent and application while remaining demotic and familiar. For example in Forbes’ ‘Ars Poetica’:
celebrate your indifference
with a packet of lollies
or a Ton-Ton Macoute
haircut. It’s almost
pure debauchery, as prayer
is for example: your heart
is full of hatreds more
intricate than fractures
in shatter-proof glass.
or in the portrait of Melbourne (cum-self-portrait), in which humour and pathos emerge from the bathos of recognising a self-image out of time with its predicament:
The incessant trams are the colour of the skin
after a course of suntan pills and your opinions
have to change a lot, like the weather but more
deliberately; where fashion is argued for, is
true love like two speech balloons that merge,
even before the attached figures have met?
At least your blinding headaches will modulate to a
slow wastage of the self, as your drugged &
artificial suntan fades. Then a voice you’ve never
heard before—your own—will say: ‘Be a caricature,
John, and not a cartoon, if you want to lose
your nostalgia for the sensual, glaring sun!’
Forbes’ seriousness is visceral and cranked, an at-times bodily experience of the mind making sense of the influx of the limitations and excesses of the corporeal, the cultural, the poetic and the political alike. It is poetry that celebrates as it lowers the High and raises the Low in culture (if those terms still hold value, and if not then it’s very much thanks to the work of poets like Forbes). Ivor Indyk noted that his poetry was characterised by an “uninhabited joy . . . voracious in its hunger for sensation and happiness” and that he was “the most innocent” of Australian poets, while Don Anderson described his vision as “constantly making the ordinary extraordinary”.
Comments by some critics that his work tends toward obscurity strike me as peculiar and strange. Forbes’ poetry speaks precisely and clearly in the language and reality of his moment. His work presents a recognisable Australia (albeit one that Australians may not always choose to identify with) in a colloquially deft and exact, culturally adept and democratic way. While Forbes’ work defies expectations, it is never willfully opaque or needlessly or meaninglessly allusive, elusive or self-referential. Perhaps of all recent Australian poetry, Forbes’ work is most successful in casting together a picture of contemporary Australia remarkable for its clarity and depth, while remaining human, immediate and personal. Cassie Lewis perhaps summed up this quality of Forbes’ work while recalling her lessons with him: “One comment John made was that poetry should ‘look out, not in’. And that by looking out you understand what’s in you, just as when you gaze out a window onto a street new things occur to you.”
Laurie Duggan wrote that Forbes “was his own harshest critic”. His Collected Poems is a testimony to this much-noted critical rigour with which Forbes approached his poetry and the work of others. In editing these pages, Forbes’ Collected Poems presented the unusual problem of there being very few, if any, poems that it would be easy to omit. As Gig Ryan writes elsewhere, his Collected Poems is “comparatively ‘slight’, yet unlike in the work of most poets there are very few failures”. Ken Bolton noted, “Good poetry is hard to write. John wrote so very much of it – and so very little else.” Forbes’ work is so immediate, graceful in a way that is at once ferocious and well-tuned, exacting of language, speaker and reader alike; it rarely, if ever, repeats itself and never falls into the trap of too easy a style. As a result, the omission of any poem feels like an injustice to the reader.
Of course, that made editing the selection easy in one sense, knowing that every poem should be included and would find readers. That said, I hope readers outside Australia coming across Forbes’ work for the first time here will chase up the rest of it in the Collected Poems and will heed Alan Wearne’s tribute to Forbes: “among any of those born 1940–1960, anywhere in our language, I have yet to find lyrics of more finesse than those of John at his best. If he is still little known off-shore then it’s for the rest of the world to catch up.”
I would like to make a special note of thanks to John Forbes’ family who have supported the publication of this issue of Australian PIW, with especial thanks to Edward L. Forbes and Michael Forbes for helping with manuscripts of the poems and the photograph. I would also like to thank Forbes’ excellent publishers, Brandl & Schlesinger, for their support. MB
Collected Poems 1970–1989, Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 2002
Damaged Glamour, Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 1998
New and Selected Poems, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1992
The Stunned Mullet, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1988
Stalin's Holidays, Transit, Sydney, 1980
Tropical Skiing, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1976
Books on Forbes
Ken Bolton (ed.), homage to john forbes, Sydney: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002
Meaghan Morris, Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes, EmPress, Sydney, 1992
John Forbes interview with Cath Kenneally September 1991, published in Otis Rush
John Forbes’ page on APRIL with links to poems, reviews, essays and tributes from friends
‘Luminous substrate: The Poetry of John Forbes’, an essay by Ted Neilsen
Brandl & Schlesinger, John Forbes' publishers