Simmons, James Stewart Alexander (1933–2001), poet and singer/songwriter, was born 14 February 1933 in Derry, the son of Stewart Alexander Simmons, stockbroker and developer and his wife, May Maria King (née Montgomery) Simmons, housewife, both of Derry. He had three elder sisters. Simmons was educated at Foyle College, Derry, Campbell College, Belfast, and the University of Leeds, where he graduated with a BA in English in 1958. After graduation, Simmons taught at Friends School, Lisburn, Co. Antrim, from 1958 to 1963, before joining the staff of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, where he taught from 1963 to 1966. He married Laura (née Stinson) Simmons in 1956 and their son and four daughters accompanied them to Africa. The family returned to Ireland in 1966 with Simmons following in 1967 and lived in Portrush, Co. Antrim. When the NUU (later the University of Ulster) opened at Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, in 1968, Simmons was appointed to the Department of English.
While teaching at Friends School, Simmons immersed himself in the vibrant folk music revival then under way in Belfast. He had attended meetings of the Belfast group established by Philip Hobsbaum at QUB, where other participants included poets Seamus Heaney and, later, Michael Longley. Festival Publications issued his first pamphlet collection of poems, Ballad of a marriage (1966), and his first book of poems, Late but in earnest, followed in 1967. In 1968 he founded the Honest Ulsterman magazine, which he edited as a monthly from May 1968 to November 1969.
Simmons took early retirement from NUU in 1984. He and his first wife divorced in 1977 and he re-married, settling briefly at Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, with his second wife, Imelda Mary Foley. The couple had one daughter and separated in 1988. Shortly afterwards, Simmons became QUB writer-in-residence from 1989 to 1992. During a stint at the Frost Place, New Hampshire, he met American poet, Janice Louise Fitzpatrick in 1984. She joined him in Belfast in 1987; they had a son in 1988 and married in 1991. They founded the Poets’ House at Portmuck, Islandmagee, Co. Antrim, in 1990, where they ran poetry workshops and introduced an MA in creative writing, endorsed by the University of Lancaster, the first degree of its kind in Ireland. The enterprise moved to Falcarragh, Co. Donegal, in 1996 and the course resumed in 1997.
Simmons had, meanwhile, continued to publish regularly throughout these decades. His second collection, In the wilderness and other poems, appeared in 1969 and was followed by his most richly productive phase. In the space of ten years he issued five major collections: Energy to burn (1971); The long summer still to come (1973); West strand visions (1974); Judy Garland and the cold war (1976); and The selected James Simmons, edited by Edna Longley (1978), as well as the long poem, No land is waste, Dr Eliot (1972). Having already performed his own songs on the LP, City and eastern (1968), he founded Poor Genius Records in 1976 to produce a second, Love in the post.
The 1980s saw the publication of the poetry collections Constantly singing (1980); From the Irish (1985); Poems 1956–1986 (1986); and the critical study Sean O'Casey (1983 and 1984). Spring Records issued a further recording of his songs, The Rostrevor sessions, in 1987. During the 1990s, he published two further collections, Mainstream (1995) and The company of children (1999).
In his manifesto for the Honest Ulsterman, Simmons declared his intention to ‘rescue Literature from the Academics and folk art from the world of fashion’, advocating ‘clarity, feeling and humour’ in the service of ‘high seriousness’. This approach remained central to his own poetry, in which he promoted the strengths and values of popular, accessible forms such as ballad and folk song and brought a fresh, demotic energy to more literary vehicles such as the sonnet and the verse letter. Unflaggingly celebratory in his vision of personal relationships, he is also sympathetically aware of people's capacity for confusion and error. In particular, he is one of Irish poetry's most candid explorers of the joys and vicissitudes of love, marriage, and divorce. His awards included an Eric Gregory award (1962), a Cholmondeley award (1977) and an Irish publishers’ award (1986).
The best of his poems on more public themes, such as the ballad ‘Claudy’, about the deaths caused by an IRA bomb in that village, combine poignant, lyrical directness with a note of controlled anger. His range and virtuosity are evident in, for example, the satirical verve of No land is waste, Dr Eliot and the inventiveness of The cattle rustling (1991), a dramatised version of the Tain.
Simmons suffered an aneurysm in December 1999 and died at the Poets House, Falcarragh, 20 June 2001. He is buried at St Ann's Church of Ireland, Killult, Falcarragh. Gallery Press reissued his Poems 1956–86 in 2002.
A considerable portion of his papers is archived at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia and the remainder are in the possession of his widow, Janice Simmons, who also has two portraits of Simmons, by Ross Wilson and David McKitterick.