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John Patrick Forbes (1950–1998)

by Gig Elizabeth Ryan

This article was published online in 2023

John Forbes, by Luise Huck, 1980s

John Forbes, by Luise Huck, 1980s

John Patrick Edward Forbes (1950–1998), poet, was born on 1 September 1950 in Melbourne, eldest of four sons of Melbourne-born Edward Leonard Richard (Len) Forbes, meteorologist, and his wife Phyllis Josephine, née Ryan. John’s father was a civilian meteorologist with the Royal Australian Air Force, and this employment caused the family to spend extended periods in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, Malaya, and Townsville, Queensland. By the end of 1963, the family had settled in the southern Sydney suburb of Miranda. John attended the Catholic De La Salle Colleges from 1962, firstly at Caringbah, followed by final years at Cronulla. He excelled in Latin and English and decided on poetry as his vocation by the age of sixteen.

In 1969, funded by a Teachers’ College scholarship, Forbes enrolled at the University of Sydney (BA Hons, 1974), where he studied English, philosophy, Latin, and fine arts; his honours thesis was on the American poet and art critic John Ashbery. He thrived among the wider new poetry and arts communities, the so-called ‘Generation of ’68,’ with peers Martin Johnston, John Tranter, Laurie Duggan, Robert Adamson, Ken Bolton, Pam Brown, Joanne Burns, and others. His work was influenced by the New York school of poets, particularly Frank O’Hara, the subject of his unfinished master of arts thesis, but his reading was wide and echoes of John Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. H. Auden, and John Manifold can also be discerned. In 1972 he co-edited the poetry magazine Leatherjacket, and from 1974 to 1986 he published Surfers Paradise, a magazine that he initially co-edited with Duggan. Awarded the Arthur Macquarie travelling fellowship for 1975, he travelled to Britain, Italy, Greece, and New York.

Resisting academic life, Forbes was opposed in principle to being employed as a poet, conscious of the temptation to become an ‘ideological totem pole’ (Forbes 1981, 117), a brand, and thus sullied. He preferred casual jobs, mostly as a furniture removalist. However, he did receive funding from the literature board of the Australia Council on several occasions (1974–75, 1976, 1982–83, 1987, and 1990), as well as a six-month residency at the council’s B. R. Whiting Library in Rome in 1993, and a four-year senior writers’ fellowship in 1995. In 1985 he received an Australian Bicentennial Authority grant, and in 1994 an Arts Council of Victoria grant. As unskilled jobs became less suitable, he accepted writer-in-residence positions, first at Deakin University, Geelong, and from there he settled in Melbourne in 1989 as poetry editor of Scripsi. He was an astute reviewer for newspapers and magazines and an occasional editor, consultant, or reader for Meanjin, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and Angus & Robertson Ltd. In 1997 he spent six months as writer-in-residence at Loughborough University, Leicestershire, England, regularly meeting fellow poets at Cambridge.

Forbes was a tall, attractive man in his youth, physically robust, and able to be charming while wittily acerbic. He was widely read in poetry, philosophy, and history, and his confident erudition and unfiltered criticism made him a compelling and authoritative figure. Rarely was he without romantic, if sometimes imagined, entanglements, his longest relationship being with artist Nicole Ellis in the later 1980s. He was extravagantly generous when funds arrived, but most often he lived in financial crisis due to mismanagement of money and habits such as the use of alcohol and an addiction to cough medicine that had earlier been prescribed for chronic bronchitis.

Tropical Skiing (1976), Forbes’s first small chapbook, immediately established his importance in ‘escaping / the talented earache of Modern / Poetry’ (Forbes [2001], 69). His volatile poems swirl with ideas and argument, and scrutinise a world indifferent to his, or any, art: ‘your vocation looks / more like a blurred tattoo / or something you did for a bet / & now regret, like a man / walking the length of the bar on his hands / balancing a drink on his shoe’ (Forbes [2001], 129). His poem ‘Watching the Treasurer’ reflects on the world view of the De La Salle alumnus and future prime minister Paul Keating, and served as inspiration for the cultural studies theorist Meaghan Morris’s Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes (1992). He portrays an Australia partly spun from the remnants of empire that were childhood locales, and on which romantic and aesthetic ideals, buoyed by his absurdist humour, are nevertheless indelibly inscribed.

Amusing and often combative, Forbes enlivened any assembly, but in later years shied away from lengthy social occasions, preferring to be writing or ‘thumbing through Adorno like New Idea’ (Forbes [2001], 169). He died suddenly of myocardial infarction on 23 January 1998, at his rented house at Carlton while in the company of friends, and was buried in Woronora cemetery, New South Wales. He had never married.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bolton, Ken, ed. Homage to John Forbes. Rose Bay, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002
  • Forbes, John. ‘Aspects of Contemporary Australian Poetry.’ In The Foreign Bodies Papers, edited by Peter Botsman, Chris Burns, and Peter Hutchings, 114–21. Sydney: Local Consumption Publications, 1981
  • Forbes, John. Collected Poems 1970–1998. Rose Bay, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, [2001]
  • Forbes, John. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 19 August 1980. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Fryer Library, University of Queensland. UQFL148, John Forbes Papers
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Tranter, John, ed. ‘John Forbes Feature.’ Special issue, Jacket 3 (April 1998). http://jacketmagazine.com/03/index.shtml
  • University of New South Wales Canberra. MSS 294, Papers of John Forbes
  • Wearne, Alan. ‘Poetry Was a Pleasurable Religion.’ Australian, 4 February 1998, 13

Citation details

Gig Elizabeth Ryan, 'Forbes, John Patrick (1950–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forbes-john-patrick-32720/text40672, published online 2023, accessed online 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Forbes, by Luise Huck, 1980s

John Forbes, by Luise Huck, 1980s

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

1 September, 1950
South Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

23 January, 1998 (aged 47)
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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