John Forbes
Poetry was a Pleasurable Religion

John Patrick Edward Forbes  Poet.
Born Melbourne, September 1, 1950.
Died Melbourne, January 23, Aged 47

John Forbes was associated with the so called Generation of 68, a grab bag of young-to-youngish verse rebels (this writer included) who hung out in Melbourne and Sydney in the late 1960's and early 70's. He suffered this title but knew there was more to art than coteries, that such a journalistic tag meant little.

Sure the generation existed, but its major figures were so diffuse in what they wrote and how they wrote it, their main point of unity was what they opposed (we were all arrested at the same demo, if you like).

John despised verse careerism though he forgave those who had talent, and he often despaired of reputations he believed were based on the concept of the poet as mini- celeb. The tin ear in both reader and writer angered him (he was its greatest enemy) for few had such a fine-tuned sense as him of the poem's sound.

Oh how he hated bad art! No, not bad art but rather art that thought itself crash hot and decidedly wasn't. He, who had put so much into his poems, expected not necessarily works of genius, but at least more than a serve of spirit and action. Poems of Spirit and Action was an early school anthology and this title, which John loved and intended to appropriate one day, sums up the vigour with which he encountered the craft, both as reader and writer.

Either informally of formally, on a one- to-one basis, with students of commitment and an open mind, he was a formidable teacher. Among those he supported and nurtured Steve Kelen, Dipti Saravanamuttu, Adam Aitken and Emma Lew have published volumes.

Loving the lush ecstasy of Gerard Manley Hopkins (John knew The Windhover by heart), he also enjoyed the well-crafted instruction of Thomas Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. He loved William Cowper's The Task and adored Milton.

He loved the great Latin poets and hoped one day to attempt some translations. Sure, he subscribed to the New York School of his poetry big brothers Frank O'hara and Ted Berrigan but he also adored works from other 20th-century verse teams: Richard Wilbur's A Baroque Wall-fountain in the Villa Sciarra comes to mind. Marin Bell's Ode to Groucho Marx and James Wright's Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island. For he loved expanding himself knowing there was more, much more, beyond any mere school generation or creed.

As a Catholic teenager, for example, he got into conversations with the local Congregat- ionalist minister, not to be converted but simply to work out what the other crowd were up to.

His parents having met in the air force, John Patrick Edward Forbes was born in Melbourne, the eldest of four sons. He spent his childhood in Sydney, New Guinea, Malaysia and Townsville (his father was a civilian meteorologist with the RAAF) and his adolescence in Sydney's Sutherland Shire, where he was educated by the De La Salle Brothers.

He attended Sydney University, obtaining a BA (Hons) in English with a thesis on John Ashbery. A proposed MA thesis on his verse hero O'Hara was abandoned, for John had a finer task ahead of him: writing great poems.

He had wanted to be a poet since the age of 14, not out of romantic delusion but because nothing appealed more than the concentrated use of language for the enjoyment of others and himself. If it was nothing less than a calling for John, a religion, poetry was also meant to be a pleasure.

He was probably the most democratic reader I've known. He loved much of Ken Slessor (whom he regarded as Australia's finest) and a lot of Les Murray and Bruce Beaver, whose work he defended as if it were his own. He had a thing about John Manifold knowing it was poetry that saved Manifold from his unholy twins Stalinism and the squattocracy.

He often spoke with awe about Gig Ryan's sombre lyrics and was anxious for the continuing reputations of Martin Johnston, Robert Harris, Jas H. Duke and John Anderson, four of his contemporaries who predeceased him. He knew my work with an uncanny intimacy: reading a narrative to John I could almost hear him listen.

We first met in late 1970 and although I encountered him on my trips to Sydney and his to Melbourne, I really got to know him in November 1975 when we were both in England. As the political crisis back home hurtled along we pounded the London streets, discussing politics to the exclusion of poetry for once: John, ever the optimist, glad it wasn't Sir Paul Hasluck in Yarralumla but a Labor appointee! His optimism being so infectious, how I agreed.

Much has been written on the man's many traits that were both endearing and infuriating. My favorite is his excessive optimism. Of course, for any poet, the future must hold substance but often with John the pot of gold just had to be Fort Knox. When we annoyed each other (and both being first-borns, doubtless enjoying the experience) we certainly replied in kind: thinking the other mad, deluded, impossible! Then John would write a great poem and everything was forgiven, (John, a more sanguine person, just forgave.)

With its precision, concision, with and intellectual passion, with its distillation of the contemporary world, and with its contemplation of eternity, John's lyrics make him, for me, the Australian Andrew Marvell. When his verse was a blaze, which was often, he made me feel like a lumbering heavy weight mesmerised by Sugar Ray Robinson, a fun runner staring at Cathy Freeman. Look at these opening lines from On Tiepolo's Banquet of Cleopatra

Any frayed waiting room copy of Who could catch this scene: flash euro- trash surveys a sulky round faced überbabe who's got the lot
Or these at the conclusion of The Stunned Mullet:
Alan Bond's belly coloured airship inspects Sydney like a stupid beach.
His major volumes are: Tropical Skiing (1976), Stalin's Holidays (1981), The Stunned Mullet (1988), New and Selected Poems (1992) and the upcoming Damaged Glamour.

The collected John Forbes will be a test of mainstream Australian publishing's heart and soul. John died of a heart attack. He is survived by his parents, Leonard and Phyllis, and three brothers.

The obituaries are over. Read him.

Alan Wearne

Melbourne poet Alan Wearne was a friend and collegue of John Forbes.

John Forbes Collected Poems Homage to John Forbes Online Poems
©: adapted by afactor Dated: 16 February 1998 Updated: 23 January 2007