Simmons, James (Stewart Alexander)
SIMMONS, James (Stewart Alexander)
Nationality: British. Born: Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 14 February 1933. Education: Foyle College, Londonderry; Campbell College, Belfast; University of Leeds, Yorkshire, B.A. (honors) in English 1958. Family: Married 1) Laura Stinson in 1956 (divorced 1977); four daughters and one son; 2) Imelda Foley in 1981 (separated 1988), one daughter; 3) Janice Fitzpatrick, one son. Career: Teacher at Friends School, Lisburn, Northern Ireland, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, 1963–66, and New University of Ulster, Coleraine, 1968–84. Writer-in-residence, Queens University, Belfast, 1989–92. Founded the Poets' House in 1991 with Janice Fitzpatrick. Editor, Poetry and Audience, Leeds, 1957–58. Founder, Honest Ulsterman, 1963, and Poor Genius Record Company, 1976. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1962; Cholmondeley award, 1977; Irish Publishers' award, 1986, for Selected Poems 1956–1986.Address: 15 Kerr Street, Portrush, Northern Ireland.
Ballad of a Marriage. Belfast, Festival, 1966.
Late But in Earnest. London, Bodley Head, 1967.
Ten Poems. Belfast, Festival, 1968.
In the Wilderness and Other Poems. London, Bodley Head, 1969.
Songs for Derry, music by the author. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1969.
No Ties. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1970.
Energy to Burn. London, Bodley Head, 1971.
No Land Is Waste, Dr. Eliot. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1972.
The Long Summer Still to Come. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1973.
West Strand Visions. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1974.
Memorials of a Tour in Yorkshire. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1975.
Judy Garland and the Cold War. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1976.
The Selected James Simmons, edited by Edna Longley. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1978.
Constantly Singing. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1980.
From the Irish. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1985.
Selected Poems 1956–1986. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1986.
Sex, Rectitude and Loneliness. Belfast, Lapwing Press, 1992.
Mainstream. Galway, Salmon/Poolbeg, 1994.
Elegies. Matnooth, Sotto Voce Press, 1994.
The Company of Children. Cliffs of Mother, County Clare, Ireland, Salmon, 1999.
Recordings: City and Eastern, Outlets; Pubs, BBC; Love in the Post, Poor Genius; The Ballad of Claudy, Poor Genius; The Rosyrevor Sessions, Spring Records, 1987.
Aikin Mata, with Tony Harrison, adaptation of Lysistrata by Aristophanes (produced Zaria, Nigeria, 1965). Ibadan, Oxford University Press, 1966.
The Cattle Rustling. Belfast, Fortnight Publications, 1991.
Sean O'Casey. London, Macmillan, 1983; New York, Grove Press, 1984.
At 6 O'Clock in the Silence, edited by Janice Fitzpatrick. Belfast, Lapwing Press, 1993.
Editor, with A.R. Mortimer, Out on the Edge. Leeds, Leeds University, 1958.
Editor, New Poems from Ulster. Coleraine, New University of Ulster, 1974.
Editor, Ten Irish Poets: An Anthology. Cheadle, Cheshire, Carcanet, 1974.
Editor, Soundings 3: Annual Anthology of New Irish Writing. Belfast, Blackstaff Press. 1975.*
Manuscript Collections: University of Texas, Austin; New University of Ulster, Coleraine.
Critical Studies: Interview with Robert Chapman, in Confrontations (New York), spring 1975; by Paul Durcan, in Cork Examiner, 3 July 1978; by Alan Hollinghurst, in Encounter (London), February-March 1981; by Peter Porter, in The Observer (London), 31 August 1985; by Anthony Bradley, in The Irish Literary Supplement, November 1987; The Thoughtful Songs of James Simmons by Tony Knowland, in Poets of Northern Ireland, edited by Elmer Andrews, London, MacMillan, 1993.
James Simmons comments:
(1980) I see myself in the mainstream of English poetry, following Shakespeare, as most of the poets I admire do—Blake, Hopkins, Hardy, Burns, Yeats, etc. Ewan MacColl reviving the old ballads opened up the possibility of better songs and also a sense of serious writing, tragedy, being possible in a popular form. For all their self-indulgence the new songwriters (Dylan, Mitchell, Newman, etc.) have a sort of excitement that seems to be lacking in contemporary poetry. The new fashion for reading poetry aloud has turned out to be boring in most cases. Find myself getting curmudgeonly about "experiment," for it so often seems a way for bad poets to disguise their limitations. Do not feel much inclined to argue the toss anymore.
(1995) The title of my new large collection endorses my previous remarks. I call it Mainstream. Marriage to Janice and running her school of poetry have renewed energy. I meet and work with many young poets, Irish and American, and many established poets who teach here: James McAuley, Paul Durcan, Seamus Heaney, Bill Matthews, Derek Mahon, Sherod Santos. I hope to explore free verse more.
Irish poetry is in danger of becoming an extension of the Tourism Board. Radical voices are not welcome. There is a sad fashion for teasing, obscure poetry that has little passion or intellect. Watch out for Martin Mooney and Catriona Clutterbuck.
My poems get longer and more complicated—but lucid and humane. I am pleased that Edgar Lee Masters and Elizabeth Bishop are seen as central to American poetry. I also salute the new work of Jean Valentine and Tess Gallagher, Lynne McMahon and Sharon Olds.* * *
James Simmons is a curiously vulnerable poet despite his rambunctious style and the projected, even cultivated, persona of the good-humoredly lecherous boozer: "Our youth was gay but rough, / much drink and copulation. / If that seems not enough / blame our miseducation." His rhymes thump steadily home, giving the careless reader an impression of verbal insensitivity, and the humor is sometimes so robust that a superficial reading can leave one unaware of the quality of Simmons's sensibility, which may well account for the unfortunate reception given to his collections by certain reviewers. The poem "One of the Boys," from which the four lines quoted above are taken, can be seen as a joyfully iconoclastic romp: "the great careers all tricks, / the fine arts all my arse, / business and politics / a cruel farce." But the final lines get under the surface of this defensive philistinism to point to its emptiness and the subconscious awareness of its emptiness in its practitioners:
Though fear of getting fired
may ease, and work is hated
less, we are tired,
tired and incapacitated.
On golf courses, in bars,
crutched by the cash we earn,
we think of nights in cars
with energy to burn.
There is a sympathetic understanding here of a tragic sense of loss, which reminds me obliquely of the purport of a line in Philip Larkin's poem "Mr. Bleaney": "That how we live measures our own nature."
Though "One of the Boys" is heavily rhymed, the rhymes can be seen to underpin the poem and are by no means intrusive. But while this poem succeeds, Simmons's style and stance are replete with the dangers of the sentimental "good-natured tart" variety, and the poems can involve a great deal of casuistry. This can be seen in "The Wife-Swappers," for example, when the poet attempts to equate, and therefore justify, a taste for lechery with an honest harmlessness. It could be said, of course, that Donne, too, indulged in such sophistry, but he employed considerably more wit and subtlety, if that can be considered a defense. It all comes down to the fact, I suppose, that Simmons sees the poet as an entertainer and moralist, and while he never fails to entertain (no mean achievement), the entertainer sometimes elbows out the moralist.
Yet, for the most part, not very far from the clowning and posturing surface of his more swashbuckling poems there is always a hint of carpe diem or an awareness of values missed: "Your dumbness on a walk / was better than my clown's talk. / You showed me what you meant …" ("Goodbye Sally"). At its best Simmons's poetry can express an understanding of and empathy with certain aspects of the human tragedy that are only considered minor because they occur with such frequency and are common to so many. Notice how in "Antigone's Hour" he moderates the often heavy beat of his poetry to a minor key, as it were, so that the tragic element is, in fact, in the very ordinariness of what is often seen as an extraordinary situation:
All risks are a tribute
to the adventurous dead.
Gathering fine small flowers
was all they wanted said...
No guards observed them
acting the clown.
Their own doubts what to do
next let them down.
The real strength of Simmons's poetry resides in his basic humanity and in his sympathy and preference for the human condition, however fallible and whatever its faults, as in "Stephano Remembers": "We were distracted by too many things … / the wine, the jokes, the music, fancy gowns / We were no good as murderers, we were clowns." The constant use of the clown as an archetype is a clue here.