Classic Essay from the Archive...
James Simmons writes in the Linen Hall Review of Autumn 1986
Newly appointed literary editor of Fortnight and drama reviewer of The Honest Ulsterman, the magazine he founded eighteen years ago, and here in the role of poetry critic for the Linen Hall Review... James Simmons is back in town.
Back in town and busy. Bloodaxe and Gallery bring out collections of his work in December. Meanwhile, he continues to challenge authority - most recently the authority of, among others, Kennelly, Friel, Paulin, Deane. We asked him, as introduction to his reviews, to supply us with background to his ideas. Who he is. Where he is. The genesis of his critical standpoint.
He gave us: The Roots Of Value
I grew up in a liberal hedonist household with a kindly charming mother and a clever father who enjoyed teasing people and going his own way, a stockbroker who helped poor widows. He relished drink, songs and jokes. Our house was full of music.
I was moved by literature from early years, deeply moved by Mother Goose rhymes for instance and in my teens by death wish lyrics like:
Under the wide and starry sky
dig the grave and let me lie,
glad did I live and I gladly die,
and I lay me down with a will.
I hated churchgoing but heard enough quotations from the New Testament to be moved by its poetry and to have a conception of Jesus Christ as the perfect rebel, advocate of love, mixer with low life characters, witty, fluent and brave. The miracles seemed irrelevant to the messages:
This I command ye, that ye love one another.
Let him who is guiltless cast the first stone.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the earth.
I clashed with my teachers at Campbell College for writing essays against the public school. I insisted on leaving the OTC, wouldn't go to church and asserted that schoolboys had the right to go out with girls: all this in a modest, shy and frightened but stubborn way.
Two of my fellow students at Campbell College, Max Wright and Terence McCaughey, were stimulating companions who sharpened my wits and introduced me to modern poetry. We all wrote poetry then, but they were far more sophisticated than I was. In that ambience poetry, the work of Auden and MacNeice and DH Lawrence, offered some sort of alternative to church and school and home values. In fact I think I was even more impressed by Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubyait of Omar Khayyam:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went
And this I know: whether the one True Light
Kindle to Love, or Wrath consume me quite,
One glimpse of It within the tavern caught
Better than in the Temple lost outright.
Oh Thou who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?
And indeed, bringing those verses to mind (and so many of them are intact in memory) I see how much that unique cogent style has meant to me as well as the pointedness of its philosophy. One does not outgrow it in the way one outgrows most of Rupert Brooke.
If I think of literature as having a quite definite power to liberate an individual from constriction, it is because I feel that I was liberated by it. The good literature of the New Testament spoke to me independent of the Presbyterian Church that claimed to interpret it. Certain poems and novels spoke to me and gave me courage in spite of my teachers. So it seemed, and still seems.
One is not initiated into literature by teachers who are doing their best for you, because whatever they think they believe they are seen to be part of an oppressive establishment. Our English teacher at Campbell, Mr Felix-Jones, was a kindly humorous man, but his flippant way of presenting Shakespeare marked him as being against the spirit of the plays.
To relish Macbeth or As You Like It, your mind and feelings have to discover a fineness. What can a teacher do to facilitate this unless he has an actor's skills? And all teachers are faced with too many classes of indifferent boys day after day who have to be kept orderly and prepared for exams. The play is exploring evil, ambition and corruption, fostering deep feelings and independent thought. The school emulates patriotism, obedience, respectability and getting on in the world.
A teacher who seems to be challenging these values is an uncomfortable spectacle. He is drawing his salary and taking his orders from the enemy. He is in a false position. Such teachers are usually clowns. I know, I have been a teacher. It isn't just a matter of innocent children and corrupt adults or pure individuals and corrupt systems. Children oppress each other. It may be better to work as well as you can within a bad system rather than undermine it. We are all oppressed by the failure of revolutions in our time: better the Tsar than Josef Stalin, better the RUC than the IRA or the UVF: better doddery old King Lear than his cruel daughters. Perhaps.
The sort of inspiration I got from reading certain books can also be got from individuals in the flesh when they are inspired in word or deed, by their sense of humour, perhaps even by the way they carry themselves. We grope towards such truths by saying 'the style is the man' or 'style has a moral quality' or 'beauty is truth'. By wanting to do something well for its own sake, rising above ourselves, we can embody spiritual value and encourage others. This is music: some music.
Whatever it is, it supported me out of Campbell College and through a year in my father's office. I could have had a comfortable career there (and might well have grown to enjoy it), but I saved up £20 and left home for London, to be a writer/singer. You could see it as a confused romantic impulse or as a sort of response to what Jesus demanded of the rich Roman.
By this time I had read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Sons and Lovers and a book, long since out of fashion, by Charles Morgan called The Voyage in which the hero strikes out in the last chapter and is asked or asks himself what exactly he is going to do out there. He answers, 'We will know when we are ready'.
En route to London I stopped in to see my sister who was at drama school in Bradford. There I had my first glimpse of the student life which embodied the values I was groping for. Here was a bunch of talented people living in humble surroundings, dedicating themselves to their art. It will sound sentimental if I don't acknowledge that there were elements of vanity, stupidity and humbug; but those back street surroundings, the jeans and jerseys, the little Yorkshire landlady, tea and sandwiches and hours of work acquiring skills, the party they gave to welcome us with cheap wine and songs to the guitar and later an intelligent spirited girl taking me to her bed.
That community and those images composed an achieved ideal of society to me, something like primitive Christianity without the puritanism. Robert Stephens and Tom Bell were of the company. Educationally it was also an ideal. The students came there out of enthusiasm and worked long hard hours willingly under teachers with real skill and dedication.
Alone in London for the next four years (on and off), I lived a confused life, reading, writing and singing in my spare hours while I worked at various menial jobs. There are no schools for writers. On one of my trips back to Bradford I was introduced to Bonamy Dobree, Professor of English at Leeds University, and he offered me a place there if I could get the money.
Leeds University was in some respects an opportunity for me to move into the sort of society I had admired in Bradford. I was surrounded by similarly talented and dedicated people all high on literature. To some extent it was infinitely different from school because there was no coercion. Your private life was your own business and there was no obligation to attend lectures.
However, an English department is not a school for writers but for critics and teachers. The lecturers had their jobs because of academic and critical expertise and that was the sort of expertise they taught. You could choose to study drama or the novel, say, but having made the choice you had to read everything in the field.
Till I came to Leeds I was reading my way through the great books of the world, Flaubert leading on to Stendahl. If I didn't find myself responding I could try something else. I began to find it inhibiting to have to read so much for deadlines. If I wasn't enjoying Milton a sort of desperation would seize me. If I said ‘to Hell with Milton', I would fail an exam. This eventually killed something.
Similarly, my belief in the redemptive powers of literature were seriously challenged by coming across some experts who were pompous or vain or merely ambitious. They were immersed in literature and it didn't seem to have done them any good. They were more like the teachers at school.
Unofficially there was a great deal of creative activity. Geoffrey Hill and Tom Blackburn were on campus and accessible. There was a weekly poetry magazine, a little cyclostyled thing called Poetry and Audience where many fine poems appeared. Wole Soyinka and Tony Harrison were friends, not noticeably more talented than half a dozen other writers. It was the good life again: students and lecturers living in shabby flats elated by something bigger than themselves.
When I got my degree the only reason I applied for jobs in Ireland was to avoid national service, but having landed a job at Friends School in Lisburn, I slowly began to discover that Ulster too had its talented artists and men of vision. Colin Middleton, for instance, taught art at Friends School, and a French teacher called George Craig was as clever, dedicated and stimulating as anyone in Leeds.
Sam Hanna Bell accepted poems and songs for his Country Bard programme on radio where I met the actor and critic, James Boyce, who was encouraging to a young poet and kept a bohemian household in a housing estate. I discovered the Lyric Players and the Arts Theatre and, through Phillip Hobsbaum, met Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley and Stewart Parker and so on.
I wrote songs for a Stewart Love play directed by Michael Emerson, starring Stephen Rea which was taken to the Edinburgh Festival where I met Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor and sang in The Cave. I began to feel part of an artistic resurgence centred on Belfast.
Somewhere along the line I had passed a watershed. From being a lost romantic individual escaping from my background, I had become a husband and a father and a teacher, someone who had poems published, who sang in front of audiences. Without any conscious decision I had become part of the establishment I had sought to elude.
In my naivety I thought I would be a different sort of teacher to those I had suffered under, and in some ways I was. I was relaxed and informal with my pupils and tried to communicate my own excitement in literature; but by and large the pupils didn't relish this. I seemed to be a soft touch. While I was trying to argue person to person with flighty young Beaugarde, other pupils were resenting my failure to ‘teach'. Moreover he wasn't arguing with me in good faith, but trying to make a fool of me.
At a certain point I became embarrassed by the noise my class was making and had to resort to coercion. Soon I was throwing around more ‘impositions' than conventional teachers. I was failing to teach by inspiration. This was frightening and depressing; but with a bit of practice something was achieved. I don’t think the pupils were ever frightened of me. Some of them began to appreciate what I was trying to do, and I swallowed the bitter pill of compromise. I put a lot of energy into all this, took over the directing of school plays and helped the headmaster, Ivan Gray, to form an English teachers association for the discussion of new methods and ideas.
I was confirmed in my belief that there were many things basically wrong with the educational system, but discovered that I could not change them single-handed. I also discovered that there were many conventional teachers who could do the job a lot better than I could. There is a fine distinction between maturity and cynicism. You have to admit your own limitations and the limitations of your ideas without giving up.
I could still see literature transforming the lives of some pupils while it produced no response in the majority. Forcing literature on the majority had an obviously negative effect. It shouldn't be done. Involving pupils in dramatic productions was the most efficient and inspiring way of using literature in education. It was a communal activity, it involved real disciplines and went straight to the emotions and spirit as literature should. People who can analyse and discuss literature are as rare as poets.
Teaching five classes a day is counter-productive, and trying to mark too many essays is exhausting and largely useless. Pupils need more leisure time in a well-stocked library to find the books that interest them.
Throughout the sixties, my career as a poet and singer developed more or less satisfactorily; but I never wanted it to be a career. Fame and success were not of the essence. What I was after is more easily exemplified in music.
At Leeds I had become aware of the folk revival which was a left wing movement. Charles Parker outlined its ideals in a radio programme called Not Heard in Denmark Street where he offered examples of songs in the folk tradition by contemporary writers and singers that were not soporific or escapist like most commercial popular songs.
I had grown up singing the popular songs of my youth, and some of them had a lot to be said for them: they could be tender and sophisticated and good fun; but I remember feeling a sense of revelation first hearing The Weavers singing Kisses Sweeter than Wine which celebrates work and love and growing old in a more real and grown up way.
I had come across many such songs with edge and maturity to them, protest songs like Buddy can you Spare a Dime and One Meat Ball, blues songs and union songs. It seemed certain that if people sang these beautiful songs that faced reality with humour and energy and anger they would be less content to be the victims of injustice and exploitation.
The rediscovery of the songs of the people led to new songs in that idiom, to Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and Ewan McColl. lt was connected with new provincial and working class plays and films and actors. This spirit was abroad in Belfast, certainly in the folk clubs, and I wanted it to inform our local drama and poetry and painting.
When Sam Thompson's plays caused such fuss and excitement in the '60s, that seemed to be happening, and it was part of the spirit of the early Belfast Festival. It was certainly part of the spirit of The Honest Ulsterman which I founded in 1968. Mine was the first magazine for many years in which local writers could be read by local people. John Hewitt, Derek Mahon and Brendan Kennelly were in the first issue, but what gave the magazine its special character was the crusading editorials, articles on history and education, the significant quotations, song lyrics and reproductions of paintings by local artists. John D. Stewart prophesied a violent summer.
In 1968 I began teaching drama and Anglo-Irish literature at Coleraine in the University of Ulster. 1969 I handed The Honest Ulsterman over to Frank Ormsby who dropped the editorials and arguments and turned the magazine into a quarterly literary magazine specialising in a distinctive style of mainstream poetry and common sense reviews.
At Coleraine I was again trying to make literature work in education as a liberating force. With a whole series of dynamic students and energetic colleagues this worked very well for many years, but I could fill pages on that topic. What all this is geared to explain is how one individual came upon his own notions of art and its uses.
It is a very superficial account, for many other factors were involved, such as the writings of Blake and RG Collingwood and Livingston Lowes. My belief in art as a liberating influence, or my preference for art that has that quality does not mean that We shall overcome is my favourite song. It does not prevent me from relishing some of Beckett's plays for there is great vigour and energy in the way he helps us to face despair and the possibility of life being meaningless, just as Shakespeare does. Perhaps it would be right to finish with a quotation from Livingston Lowes that I included in the first issue of The Honest Ulsterman:
The greatest art, from Homer down, has its roots deep in the common stuff. It may and will have overtones, it may and will awaken thoughts beyond the reach of the average soul. But no attempt to make poetry once more a civilizing force need ever hope to attain its goal if it sets to work solely by way of initiates and the elect.