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