James Simmons

You were the one I wanted most to know
So like yet unlike, like fire and snow,
The casual voice, the sharp invective,
The barbed wit, the lapsed Irish Protestant
Who never gave a shit, crossed the palms
Of the great and good with coins hot with contempt
For the fakers and the tricksters whose poetry
Deftly bent to fashion's latest slant.

You wrote from the heart, feelings on your sleeve,
But feelings are all a master poet needs:
You broke all the taboos, whores and rags and booze,
While I sighed over books and began to snooze
Until your voice broke through the haze
Of a quarter century's sleep. "Wake up you git
And bloody write!" I did and never stopped
And like you told the truth about how bad poetry
Rots the soul and slapped a New Gen face or two
And kicked some arses in painful places,
And so like you, got omitted from the posh anthologies
Where Penguin and Picador fill the pages
With the boring poetasters you went for in your rages,
Ex-friends like Harrison who missed you out.
You never could see the envy in their enmity.

Longley was the worst, a hypocrite to boot,
All you said about him never did come out;
I've tried myself to nail others of that ilk
Hither and thither they slide and slither
And crawl out of the muck white as brides
Fat with OBE's, sinecures and sighs
And Collected Poems no one buys.

Yet 'Mainstream', your last but one collection,
I had to wait months for, the last borrower
Kept it for two years and likely I'll do the same
Your poetry's like no other, no one could tame
Your roaring fury or your searing pain.

You bared your soul in a most unfashionable way
But everything in me says your verse will stay,
Your love for your fourth and final wife,
The last chance marriage that went right
The children you loved so much but knew,
You wouldn't live to see grown up, so caught
Their growing pains and joys with a painter's eye
And lyric skill as fine as Wordsworth's best

          they drank her welcome to his heritage
          of grey, grey-green, wet earth and shapes of stone.
          Who weds a landscape will not die alone.

Those you castigated never forgave.
Omitted you as casually as passing an unmarked grave,
Armitage, I name you, a blackguard and a knave,
Who knows no more of poetry than McGonagall the brave,
Yet tops the list of Faber's 'Best Poets of Our Age'.
Longley gave you just ten lines in 'Irish Poets Now'
Most missed you out entirely for the troubles you gave
Accusing like Zola those poetic whores
Who sold themselves to fashion when time after time
Your passions brought you to your knees, lashing
At those poetasters when their puffed-up slime
Won the medals and the prizes time after time
And got them all the limelight while your books
Were quietly ignored, the better you wrote,
The fewer got bought.

Belatedly I found a poem of yours 'Leeds 2'
In 'Flashpoint', a paint-stained worn out
School anthology from 1962. Out of the blue
I wrote to you but the letter came back 'Gone away
N.F.A.' then I tried again and had a marvellous letter back
Full of stories of the great and good and all their private sins,
You knew where the bodies were buried.
Who put the knife in, who slept with who
For what reward. They never could shut you up
Or put you in a pen or pay you off and then came
Morley, Hulse and Kennedy's 'New Poetry'
Which did more damage to the course of poetry
Than anything I've read — poets unembarrassed
By the need to know more than what's politically
White as snow. Constantine and Jackie Kay
And Hoffman with the right connections.
Sweeney and O'Brien bleeding in all the politically
Sensitive places, Peter Reading lifting
Horror headlines from the Sun to make a splash.
Sansom and Maxwell, Jamie and Greenlaw.
Proving lack of talent is no barrier to fame
If you lick the right arses and say how nice they taste.
Crawling up the ladder, declaring shit is grace.

          A talented drunken public servant
          Has the world's ear and hates me.
          He ought to be in prison for misuse
          Of public funds and bigotry;
          But there's some sparkle in his poetry.

You never flinched in the attack
But gave the devils their due:
The 'Honest Ulsterman' you founded
Lost its honesty the day you withdrew
But floundered on, publicly sighed and
Ungraciously expired as soon as you died.

You went with fallen women, smoked and sang and boozed,
Loved your many children, wrote poetry
As good as Yeats but the ignominy you had to bear
Bred an immortality impossible to share.
You showed us your own peccadilloes,
Your early lust for fame, but you learned
The cost of suffering, love and talent winning through,
Your best books your last, just two, like the letters
You wrote before your life was through.

The meeting you wanted could never happen:
I didn't know about the stroke
That stilled your tongue and pen
But if you passed your mantle on to me
I'll try and take up where you left off,
Give praise where praise is due
And blast the living daylights from those writers who
Betray the sacred art of making poetry true
To suffering and love, to passion and remorse
And try to steer a flimsy world upon a saner course.