AustLit logo
The Pagan Sermons of John Forbes

(Status : Public)
Coordinated by Duncan Hose
  • Pandaemonium

    In his youth Forbes inscribes Shelley’s ethos in the back of a Sydney University notebook:

  • “…in as much as he is social, and constitutes pleasure in sensation, virtue in sentiment, beauty in art, truth in reasoning and love in the intercourse of kind “Shelley, Defence of Poetry” (UQFL 148/B/6.)

    Forbes had at that age what Harold Bloom calls a “receptivity to daemonic influx” which is not quite the same thing as inspiration or influence (4).

    The act of inscribing this in the margins of a working notebook, especially at such a precocious age, is a real ringer. Forbes’s notice of this credo suggests that he has adopted the ethos and is therefore courting the daemon of Shelley, or Shelley as daemon. This is not mere flirtation; it is an opening up to possession that alters the way you live your life, the sacrifices you are prepared to make, and the way that you comport yourself as an animal.

    Once you have a taste for reading ethos you can practice it anywhere, especially on one’s “self.” How you position your body and your gaze in an elevator; when and where you allow yourself to pick your nose or spit; how you move among the chaos of a crowd of contending wills: do you yield or do you press your advantage, or seize an advantage and put yourself first. This sounds like a science of manners, and it is.

    For a testy and tasty introduction to the John Forbes’s ethos, we turn to the poem: 


    Old father of the horrible bride whose
    wedding cake has finally collapsed, you

    spoke the truth that doesn’t set us free—
    it’s like a lever made of words no one’s

    learnt to operate. So the machine it once
    connected to just accelerates & each new

    rap dance video’s a perfect image of this,
    bodies going faster and faster, still dancing

    on the spot. At the moment tho’ this set up
    works for me, being paid to sit and write &

    smoke, thumbing through Adorno like New Idea
    on a cold working day in Ballarat, where

    adult unemployment is 22% & all your grand
    schemata of intricate cause and effect

    work out like this: take a muscle car &
    wire its accelerator to the floor, take out

    the brakes, the gears the steering wheel
    & let it rip. The dumbest tattooed hoon

    —mortal diamond hanging round the Mall— 
    knows what happens next. It’s fun unless

    you’re strapped inside the car. I’m not,
    but the dummies they use for testing are.

  • This poem I present as a pagan sermon, for the hectoring presence not just of Forbes but of Marx, Adorno and the descendants of Grand Master Flash. It has a few signature moves: the bravura opening line, the humorous and provocative alignment of Adorno with New Idea, the material and contingent example or working out of “intricate schemata of cause and effect” with the mechanical hedonism of the burnout, that Australian bogan spectacle of excess and animal prestige, the figure of the poet aside or excised from normal economic activity, though still nebulously involved, through thinking.  It has a middle class crack about bogans as “mortal diamonds” – picking the plebs as a target is an unusual move for Forbes. The poem relates high theory to everyday life in a laconic or jokey or slangy manner, to make us at ease with the fact that an Australian idiom already knows all about ideological struggle (this insouciance has the tang of Forbes’s own animal prestige).

    Meaghan Morris writes that Forbes’s poems “nag about class…argue that aesthetic critics should engage more seriously with the cultural forms in which economic understandings of society have been disseminated…explore the complex role of stereotypes and ‘portraiture’ in mediated popular culture…[and] consider what it means to speak and write as an Australian in a ‘globalizing’ cultural economy”(8). The democratic flavour of “nag” is what seems familiar: the fierce friendliness and aggravations of the harpy or live earworm of the poem. These poems leave biotic impressions, encourage a critical chattering which makes “what it means to speak and write as an Australian” appear, seductively, to be a potentially powerful resistant strain of making mythos.

    Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx deals with the Marxist heritage by addressing or calling up the old ghost of Marx as the revenant, the one who will always return, or insist, or plague, or harangue. To make this political point Derrida uses a literary example of Old Hamlet coming back to hassle his Prince, pointing the spectral finger saying you … what are you going to do? Are you going to pull your head in, and eat your custard, or are you going to stick your head out? The first crucial point is the confusion of life and literature; we live with these figures and their speech as though they were familiars: Marx, Derrida and Forbes now speak from the hauntologue. Forbes’s ode demonstrates that you have a creative and constitutional license to deal with these demands of the dead in a very personal way. In the poem it is Ballarat, cold, we smoke, there is not just the fact but the negative affect and culture of high unemployment, whose effects are not only physical but metaphysical: loss of the sacred, loss of meaning, loss of ritual which leads to boredom, methamphetamine, burnouts. Forbes’s satires always make room for himself on the skewer: “this set-up works for me tho”. He gives us the picture of himself doing nothing, except his nothing has something to it; the grace of reflection, of thought, of empathy, and of turning all this into a poem. Even so, “The truth that does not set us free” is the truth of the poem.

    What are the rules of attraction: why do we fly towards the things we love? Skulking in the archive I have gotten a fine and finer sense that Forbes’s daemon is a composite of other ancestral daemons which lived through other people. John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christopher Brennan: these are proper names for collectors and containers of daemons of the past which come to inform Forbes as a person and call him into being as a poet.

    This daemonic insistence is eerie (weird): the poet is charged with rejigging poetry for the changed world which they inherit and to transmit a tradition of making charms through poems as incantatory devices, yet they are already being addressed as a daemon to come, an ancestor in the making - one of the already dead. One originates from the dead and shall return to them, and there is a special charge on the living in this schema to do justice to the fact of their election, to transmit to the world a little of the “immortal energy” of creation (Frank O’Hara “Radio” 234). There is nothing more serious than this. Forbes lives between two mythic operating systems, with the Catholic being a rebooting and modifying of the pagan configuration. In this poetics is couched the promise of the eternal return of new life and new forms. Forbes is a heretic, believing in neither the total redemption of the resurrection (Surrexit Dominus de sepulchre) nor the purity of inspiration which the Romantics demanded from a visit by the daemon, as we witness in the poem:

  • Anti-Romantic

    You meet your daemon &
    respond with contempt

    for all depth & poetry
    driven by love and breath

    self-conscious bitterness
    is best, besides lust or a

    detached disgust — as
    long as there’s nothing

    hysterical about it Art
    & life both require this

    but your attitude like
    inspiration disappears,

    leaves you ugly & stranded,
    the moment you admire it

    (Collected  162)

  • This is the tragi-comic statement of the melancholic alchemist, who is driven to make new things come into being through an essential lack or nostalgia for a lost object of love, relation, ego. The poem has a classic Forbes double action: being both self-mocking and an act of virtuosity it works as a scourge of his own self-image as a poet and of guileless Romantics who purchase the soft furnishings of “depth,” “poetry,” “love,” and “breath,” setting up these little puffballs of typical poetical value just to have them go directly under the hammer. The poet is heroic and damned and Forbes seems to prefer it this way: the narcissistic poise of a perfectly achieved poem, which this is, leaves you “ugly and stranded,” bathed in negative affect. The poem here is black matter, nothing is purified or transcended, and yet the abyss which it uncorks is immaculate with a sort of salty nihilism, whose consonantal and sibilant crystals: “Self-conscious bitterness,” “lust,” “detached disgust” are in the mouth like chewing glass. The poem is perfectly ambivalent about its recognitions of the daemon: the idea of such a thing is mockingly classed with other Romantic standards: Poetry, love, breath, yet as the negative participle of “Anti-Romantic” still contains the Romantic, the daemon is admitted through its naming and attempted shaming. Doubt, misery and the risk of failure are muses for Forbes, as for they were for Frank O’Hara who decides “… unhappiness, like Mercury, transfixed me” (292).

    Forbes’s paganism places its faith and practice in a ritualised attention to language as charm, creating on the utopic space of the page prime conditions for the trope, the infinitely mixed scheme of devious signs which we inherit, to go wild, allowing forms of life to proliferate following Frank O’Hara’s credo: “Grace/ to be born and live as variously as possible” (256). This credo is embodied for Forbes in the living body of the poet and the living body of language as it is loved by poetry, not as a necrotic discourse of agreed meanings or smiling topoi or two signs in the chaste embrace of a metaphor. Poetry promises the word made flesh again as it is put in the mouth. What I am trying to transmit is something of the fury of Forbes’s embrace of poetry as a revolutionary practice of an immanent awareness of incarnate being.

    To make a pagan sermon is not to preach but to take up the whip of the trope as a living thing, having investments in the physical and the metaphysical, the human and the inhuman, the homely and the alien. Forbes is no secular St Francis of Assisi: he gambled on the horsies and the doggies, he drank opiate derivative cough medicine to get high, he was addicted to it, his poems profess a fondness for both the plastic technofilth of his civilisation and the grubby propagandic plays of ideology on television, in the cinema, and in public political life. His poetry affirms these things as it critiques them.

    Questioned on the possible relevance of poetry to contemporary Australia (and elsewhere), Michael Farrell suggests that:

    Poetry – like most art – signifies something that resists the concept of “use value”. It’s the making of culture. Unlike many corporations, poetry networks aren’t making a huge effort to destroy the planet. Poetry entails a thinking about thinking that opposes the thinking in order to wield power of both governments and business.

    I am interested in the animal stakes of this collective instinct of being against the predatorial and parasitical. Forbes turns to poetry as a material praxis in order to engage in the pleasures of the secular world and its synthetic enchantments, and he eschews symbolic modes in favour of a fascination for tropes themselves as living species: the movements of the vernacular, slang, crusty rhetoric, cliché, whatever combinations of past and present usage combust in a kind of original rigour, to produce poems as “things … liberated from the drudgery of usefulness”, a notion that, within the cult of productivity and a capital value on most things, becomes revolutionary (Benjamin qtd in Arendt 197).

You might be interested in...