John Forbes 1950-1998

by Philip Mead

© all rights reserved

To everyone who knew him or his work, the news of John Forbes’s sudden death on January 23 this year came as a great shock. A victim of a massive heart attack, he collapsed at his home in Melbourne while talking with friends. Like his close contemporary and fellow poet, Robert Harris, who also was struck down by a heart attack (in 1993), Forbes seemed to be in the middle of a writing life that had already contributed so much to Australian literary culture and that promised even more.

John Forbes was born in Melbourne in 1950. His father, Leonard Forbes, was a civilian meteorologist with the RAAF and the family, including his mother Phyllis and three younger brothers, lived for short periods in northern Queensland, Malaya and New Guinea. Up until the 1980s, though, when he returned to live in Melbourne, Forbes spent most of his life in Sydney, including going to school in the Shire. He went to Sydney University at the end of the 60s and quickly gravitated towards that lively group of younger writers associated with New Poetry magazine, Exiles bookshop and Watters’ gallery: Robert Adamson, Martin Johnston, John Tranter, Kate Jennings, Pam Brown, Susan Hampton, and many others. These were all writers for whom, however diverse their styles and personalities, the Sydney libertarian tradition and the anti-Vietnam war movement provided a context.

More specifically, in terms of poetry, they were a group for whom Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry was a crucial influence. Forbes began some higher degree research work in the Sydney English Department on Frank O’Hara, under the supervision of James Tulip, but never submitted this critical work. However the poets whose work he first read in Allen’s anthology, particularly Berrigan, Ashbery and O’Hara, remained with him as an important influences. In the 80s, he was also a vital part of the highly successful performance of contemporary writing at Sydney’s Harold Park Hotel.

In the 1990s, while he was living mainly in Melbourne, Forbes was associated with Scripsi magazine and with other poets involved in intense and experimental work like Gig Ryan, Laurie Duggan and Alan Wearne. Incapable of careerism, Forbes derived some support for his writing from meagre Australia Council grants, publishers’ mites, and occasional residencies, readings and tours. To survive, he also had to work long stretches at hard, unskilled jobs, such as furniture removal. Something of the origin of his aesthetic education in Sydney in the heady years of the late 60s and early 70s — a time whose banner might have read, quoting Blake: “Poetry fetterd fetters the human race!” — never left him. He would have poured highly articulate ridicule on the idea, but poetry was for him, if only by default, a kind of vocation. Somewhere in there, Forbes clung to the highly romantic ideal of poetry, not just as a way of life, but as an important current in the politics of revolution, as a possible human instrument of new vision and new language.

In its weird conjunction of the mainstream and the ephemeral, the bibliography of Forbes’s work reflects poetry publishing practices over the past few decades. His first collection,Tropical Skiing, a pamphlet of twenty-two pages in the Angus & Robertson “Poets of the Month” series was published in 1976. It includes four line drawings by Ken Searle, illustrations to the poem “Four Heads and how to do Them.” It also includes “Topothesia,” the stunning imitation of the Ashbery of Rivers and Mountains.

The second collection was On the Beach, another pamphlet published by Sea Cruise Books in 1977. Most of this collection was included in Forbes’s first full-length book collection Stalin’s Holidays brought out under the Transit Poetry imprint, in 1981, whose publisher was John Tranter. In 1988, Hale & Iremonger (Sydney) published Forbes’s The Stunned Mullet. This publication, which includes six line drawings by Frank Littler, was supported by the Australian Bicentennial Authority. In 1992, Harper Collins (sub-imprint Angus and Robertson), published New and Selected Poems by John Forbes in their A & R Modern Poets series. Together with selections from Tropical Skiing, Stalin’s Holidaysand The Stunned Mullet, this contained sixteen new poems.

In addition to these publications Forbes’s work has been produced in various ephemeral and small press formats for example, roneo-ed, then photocopied occasional magazines likeLeatherjacket and Surfers Paradise, in one-off roneo-ed or photocopied and stapled editions like Drugs (Black Lamb Press, 1979) and thin ice & other poems (Surfers Paradise Press, 1989), and in many of the small magazines of the 70s and 80s. At the time of his death Forbes was finalising a new collection of poems, Damaged Glamour to be published by Brandl and Schlesinger (Sydney).

Forbes was at times a prolific reviewer of contemporary poetry, art and in other areas in which he had a hobbyist interest, like popular fiction, defence policy and military hardware. There are probably scores of reviews by Forbes scattered throughout the Sydney and Melbourne major dailies. His critical knowledge was strongest about contemporary poetry and contemporary Australian writing about art. His advocacy of the value of critical work in places like Art & Text in the 80s, and of the work of cultural theorists and critics like Meaghan Morris, Paul Carter, Eric Michaels and Paul Foss has been an important lifeline for the moribund discourse of Australian literary criticism.

Forbes was one of the most brilliant of contemporary Australian poets and an intellectual leader amongst a generation of writers that had reoriented Australian literary culture away from the derivative and parochial and towards the lively and innovative movements in twentieth-century thought and artistic practice. As a younger member of the “Generation of 68” Forbes contributed to the renovation or creation of various institutions of Australian writing, including magazines and small press publications, reading events, publishing houses, arts funding bodies and literary festivals. Never able to be domesticated, though, by any institution, Forbes’s most brilliant contribution is in his poems.

Forbes has been fortunate in that Meaghan Morris, in the foreword to her Ecstasy and Economics (1992) has offered a sketch, in sparkling and airy prose, of a critical framework for Forbes’s work. For Morris, a poem is a social fact and in Australia, as she rightly argues, close reading of our cultural texts — whether visual, linguistic, symbolic, historical, or built — has yet to receive the seriousness and concentration characteristic of fully grown-up intellectual work.

I see “reading” as a way to confront [Cultural Studies’] difficulties.
Ironically, no text is more bleached of cultural particularity than the one
which relentlessly theorises “difference” without ever once stumbling over some
stray, material fact — a poem, a press photo, a snatch of TV news — that
could, in its everyday density, take “theory” by surprise. […] My choice is
to turn to this craft, to Australian materials, and to the history in ordinary
words, for a critical understanding of “international” cultural theory, as well
as of everyday life.
This is the double understanding, and the intellectual surprise that
I find in John Forbes’s poetry.”1

Morris provides in Ecstasy and Economics an exemplary reading of two Forbes poems in particular, “Watching the Treasurer” and “On the Beach” in relation to their complex web of specific Australian allusions and to their “formal” power as poetry. In a move which is crucial to any persuasive reading of Forbes’s poetry of the 1980s, Morris also points out its reference points in the iconoclastic work of the Chilean/Australian painter Juan Davila.

Less critical attention has fallen on how Forbes uses the raw material of a version of contemporary Australian speech to construct a poetic voice that is both distinctive and highly self-conscious. In fact it doesn’t operate like “a voice” at all. The tension and sudden tone-shifts in Forbes’s poetic language are produced by his sense that everyday life, via the media more often than not, overloads us with evidence of the bloated and sutured body of private and public discourse.

In this context, Forbes thought of poetry as a kind of electric charge to be applied to the living-dead tissue of everyday language. You could throw the worst of infotainment-speak or CNN misinformation at Forbes and he’d turn it around and throw it back as poetry. Living in the midst of a necrotic discourse, Forbes felt compelled to fashion poems that were as mettlesome and invasive as possible. Hence his deadly use of parody and a kind of mock-Svengali sending-up of any quick resort to the representation of affect; hence also some of the linguistic pratfalls he uses for comic effect. But it needs to be said straight away that in all this there is no moral economy for Forbes. Rather than insisting on “purifying the language of the tribe” Forbes is all in favour of the demotic, the adulterated, the impure, whatever the everyday throws up, or spews out. He is taken up with the alibis of art, rather than its truth or lies.

Forbes’s poems work, often, by arranging strings of potentially lyric and narrative phrases/sentences, of varying length, which are then switched or subverted by shifts into the non-lyrical and the non-narrative. The skill of the form is in the way he wrong-foots or deliberately leads the reader on with a certain string of imagery, affect or narrative, which is at some point undercut with a cynical or exaggeratedly rhetorical gesture, or — no possibility is ruled out — a suddenly serious and plangent interjection. A simple example: “Drugs” and “Europe: a guide for Ken Searle” both present as short guides to an implied audience that is both insider and outsider. Both these poems toy with the potential to be “useful” as guides, whereas in fact their point is to allow a display of quirky and surreal observations.

More complexly, poems like “Political Poem” or “On the Beach: a Bicentennial poem,” switch rapidly through a series of satirical, caustic statements and images that “avoid myth and message.” Forbes hits the remote control every line or half line and the reader is switched onto another channel, where just about everything, from the production values to the language used, are different from the previous channel. But the overall medium — the poem, that is — remains a constant presence for the reader. In that sense, for all their denseness of particularity and their myriad references to the ephemera of everyday life, Forbes’s poems work ultimately as substanceless form. In that sense, they are an antidote to the kind of substance abuse practised by those writers who use poetry to recycle neat and/or pre-existing themes, subjects and content. This is their great success, and their intellectual fascination, as Meaghan Morris rightly recognises.

Now that we can begin to look back over Forbes’s work, unexpectedly as it happens, as a totality, the force and attractiveness of its many facets is already beginning to become apparent. Forbes himself once wrote in a poem that there are “no statistical anomalies at all” in death (“Death, an Ode”). And certainly, who would have thought that he would be outlived, on the bar-graph of Australian poetry, by A.D. Hope and Judith Wright? Strangely like one of his own poems, without any extended artes moriendi, or even much space or time to say what he meant, John Forbes came to an abrupt and untimely end. Forbes’s poems, though, and their subcutaneous effects remain; his readers will continue to salute their luminous hum.


01Philip Mead teaches literary and cultural studies in the School of English and Modern European Languages and Literatures at the University of Tasmania.


1. Meaghan Morris, Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes. (Sydney: emPress, 1992): 12.

Link also to the April 1998 edition of Jacket which is dedicated to John Forbes.

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