James Simmons

Click to follow
The Independent Online

James Stewart Alexander Simmons, poet: born Londonderry 14 February 1933; Lecturer in English, New University of Ulster 1968-83; Writer in Residence, Queen's University Belfast 1985-88; married first Laura Stinson (one son, four daughters; marriage dissolved), second Imelda Poley (one daughter; marriage dissolved), third Janice Fitzpatrick (one son); died Falcarragh, Co Donegal 20 June 2001.

Contrary to popular belief, it is hard being a rebel in Northern Ireland. Everybody is at it. Republicans reject the state, likewise Unionists fly in the face of the majority. When James Simmons launched his literary magazine The Honest Ulsterman as a "monthly handbook for a revolution" he neatly caught the stubborn complexities of his culture in 1968. This was the eve of the Troubles, and a visit to the editor's home by the Royal Ulster Constabulary soon led to the disappearance of the revolutionary slogan. But The Honest Ulsterman thrives today, a living monument to Simmons's courage.

Born in 1933 into the business and professional class of Protestant Londonderry, Simmons was seduced from deadening loyalty by folk music and travel. Though he was never a political animal, he learnt from the American protest movements how song engendered freedom and how freedom was most important in the obscure corners of one's life, not just in institutions and codes of law. Whereas the more celebrated figures of Ulster's poetic renaissance came from relatively poor – or marginalised – social backgrounds, Simmons could afford to learn these lessons and to seek experience abroad, notably in Africa.

Ironically, the two educational institutions to which he was affiliated – the Leeds University School of English (as an undergraduate) and the New University of Ulster (as a lecturer) were both strongly inflected by Africa. Simmons's acts of rebellion were thus absorbed into something like a commonplace, and his own energetic self-fashioning was to an extent a desperate attempt to protect his individuality against other people's conformism.

For five years, Simmons taught at the liberal Friends School in Lisburn. The establishment of the New University at Coleraine provided him with academic recognition, in a department led by the irreplaceable Walter Allen. But it also obliged him to live in an area of solid loyalism and occasional tartan-gang thuggery. The "revolution" which he intended looked more to D.H. Lawrence for guidance than to the heroes of the Parisian événements. He wrote a book about the Communist playwright Sean O'Casey (Sean O'Casey, 1983), but an article on the African-based novelist Joyce Cary was a more congenial undertaking, especially as it was contributed to a Festschrift for Walter Allen (On the Novel: a present for Walter Allen on his 60th birthday from his friends and colleagues, 1971).

In some respects, Simmons was influenced by the English "Movement" poets, whose work was made known in Ulster by Philip Hobsbaum. English self-deprecation did not always fit comfortably into inherited Irish ways, and Simmons occasionally displayed more dedication than genius in his pursuit of an art of the ordinary.

While he has sometimes been ridiculed as a lightweight, his distinctive voice is valuable precisely for its avoidance of pomposity and innuendo. "New Song" (1968) was set to the traditional tune of "The Flower of Maherally": on the page it fails to convey the oral quality of the poet's performance, guitar in hand. Ballads were a favourite medium, through which he explored uncomfortable aspects of domestic life, male chauvinism, and other decidedly un-transcendental themes.

The deeper implications of his apparent insouciance are nicely conveyed in these lines from the mid-1980s:

I drink to passion, drink to peace,

the silent telephone.

The pleasant joys of brotherhood

I savour on my own.

Earlier, in "Stephano Remembers" (in Energy to Burn, 1971), he adopted the persona of an exceedingly marginal figure from Shakespeare's Tempest, one of those who had broken out of the dream. Even in this dramatic monologue, with its seemingly conventional recourse to the literary canon, Simmons managed to rework the religious obsessions of his native province. The shipwrecked underling survived – "on a huge hogshead of claret I swept ashore / like an evangelist aboard his god". Alcohol, a pet hate in fundamentalist Ulster, undergoes no transsubstantiation in Simmons's gospel: it remains life- enhancing alcohol.

A very early (September 1968) editorial in The Honest Ulsterman recorded Simmons's encounter with an "Ulster prophet" whom others dismissed as a crank. The man's polite acceptance of a cigarette, "although he doesn't use them", was recognised as an attempt to make the pariah poet feel at ease. Throughout Simmons's over-prolific career, there is a persistent attention to the underlying themes of Ulster Protestantism, however degenerate its public manifestations have become.

The converse of this heretical attachment to origins was Simmons's apparent blindness to the violence inflicted on his Catholic fellow citizens by the state. While an IRA atrocity inspired the ballad "Claudy" (with its litany of distinctively Protestant victims' names), Bloody Sunday 1972 in his native city went unrecorded. Yet in this he only matched one-eyed visionaries on the other side.

His relationship with the southern Irish state, and its annexation of the arts to the glorification of cultural policy, was cautious, though he was eventually elected to Aosdana, the academy of Irish writers, musicians and artists. In the opinion of one sympathetic observer, the ageing Simmons was consumed by inner rage, at the violence of his province and the lovelessness of his own people.

After retiring from the New University of Ulster in 1983, Simmons involved himself in two schemes to establish centres for visiting writers, in competition with the Tyrone Guthrie Centre supported by the Arts Councils in both Dublin and Belfast. The first of these was located on Island Magee, a peninsula in an unfashionable part of County Antrim. The second was based in Donegal, the most northerly county in southern Ireland, across the border from Derry. These ventures brought as many headaches as rewards, and his closing years were anxious. The global fame of his younger contemporaries was not always easy for Simmons to accept.

Yet a characteristic of Jimmy Simmons's tragic career lay in his cosmopolitanism. While the Troubles bred myths of origin and celebrations of locality, he continued to chronicle the absurdities of a honeymoon and cocked a snook at Eng Lit. An honest Ulsterman to the last, he served nobody's purpose.

W. J. Mc Cormack