Louise (Simone) Bennett 1919–
(Also known as Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley and Miss Lou) Jamaican poet.
Bennett's poetry develops out of the Jamaican culture. She has been called "the voice of the people." Relying heavily on the native dialect and the natural rhythms of the spoken language, Bennett preserves what has largely been an oral tradition by transforming the myths, stories, and songs of her people into written form. Her ability to make people laugh is one of her most prominent characteristics. Claiming she "believes in laughter," she crafts her poems with a light and comic touch.
Although Bennett is popular in her own country—mainly due to her public readings, which border on theatrical performances—many critics do not take her seriously, labelling her a comedian or entertainer not worthy of in-depth critical attention. Others, however, find underneath the comic surface of her poems an intricate understanding of the native dialect and sensibility, which is essential in order to grasp the subtlety of her writing and the underlying depth of her concerns.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100.)
… I do not believe that Louise Bennett is a considerable poet. But a poet, and, in her best work, a better poet than most other Jamaican writers she certainly is. She does not offer her readers any great insight into the nature of life or human experience, but she recreates human experience vividly, delightfully and intelligently. She is rarely pretentious—the most common fault in West Indian poetry; she is not derived from other poets—she has her own interesting voice; and she is invariably sane.
… The form most often chosen by Miss Bennett is dramatic monologue. This is hardly surprising in a poet who often performs her work. She writes for the voice and the ear, and when her poems are expertly performed something more, movement, is added. (pp. 137-38)
As in a Browning monologue, the entire dramatic situation [of Bennett's poem 'Candy Seller'] is made clear without the direct intervention of the author. The whole poem convinces; it has a vitality that seems perfectly to match the imagined context. The images focus on war because the poem was written in wartime and it was perfectly natural that the first abuse that came to mind should relate to war. If anyone doubts the precise suitability of the images—wedge-heel boot like submarine, clothes like black-out, and so on—he should be disarmed by the dramatic context. This could all well be said by a candy-seller in this situation. Rhythm and rhyme are used effortlessly, the pauses coming where the dramatic sense demands them. There is no constriction, no monotony. The poem has the oneness, the wholeness, of a completely realized experience. What more does literary taste ask for?
Several other of Louise Bennett's dramatic monologues could survive detailed examination: for example, 'Street Boy', in which a youngster, held by a policeman for swearing, pleads with passersby to beg for him, appeals to the policeman's memory of his own young days, thanks him extravagantly when he lets him go, and then, once out of reach, gloats: 'Ah get weh doah, yuh brut!' 'Parting', where the situation is a platform farewell, and 'South Parade Pedlar' are other outstanding monologues of this type.
Sometimes the situation is presented through the poet as storyteller rather than directly through characters. A good example of this is 'Dry Foot Bwoy', in which the affected speech of a boy just home from England is dramatically contrasted with the story-teller's Jamaican dialect…. (p. 139)
In some of her poems Louise Bennett is not just a story-teller but is herself the central character. 'Television' is an example of this…. Perhaps there is a trace of falsity here: one is not entirely convinced of the ordinariness of this performer. The milieu is wrong. She can convince us that she is a peasant or a maid or a market-woman or a street-boy, but somehow the television studio reminds us too forcibly that Miss Bennett is a trained performer; dialect seems imposed on the situation.
… I have claimed that Louise Bennett is a very sane poet and that she has generosity of spirit. She is always attacking pretension by laughter, and sometimes by hard logic. An example of logic would be 'Back to Africa'...
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To bring a colonial society to a recognition of its own distinctive voice is always a difficult, slow but necessary task. A real literature of place can only begin when that recognition is complete. Louise Bennett, outstanding composer and performer of dialect ballads over the past twenty-five years, has contributed enormously to this process in Jamaica.
Nothing once caused so much uneasiness and actual rage in polite Jamaican society as the admission that the whole island had a distinctive way of communing with itself—"Jamaica Talk". Now comes a collection of Louise Bennett's ballads [Jamaica Labrish] ranging from early wartime to the late 1950s. Throughout these years she has unerringly summed up a certain national mood, unerringly satirized the more obvious pretensions of the colour-snob, the returned traveller with his carefully cultivated Yankee twang or Oxford drawl….
In print these ballads are like a phonetic libretto for performance, but they cannot recreate for us the performance itself. Not merely something, but too much, is lost. Only the most devoted and nostalgic admirer will read this volume through, though many will wish they could hear Miss Bennett fill out the text with the richness of her voice, presence, personality and humour. This is not to suggest that there is no place for dialect in printed poetry. Rather, a reading of these poems forces a recognition that to write dialect poems for publication is a very different exercise from vernacular recitation. The poem on the page must offer its riches to the reader through a verbal, even at times typographical wit, rather than a vocal one. Also, an art so essentially popular as Miss Bennett's is inevitably limited in its perceptions to what is popularly perceived.
"Jamaica Talk," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3381, December 15, 1966, p. 1173.∗
The work of Louise Bennett is unique. Whether in the field of the Jamaican theatre where she has found form and living purpose, or in the field of literature where she is yet an unheralded guest among some of the literary establishment, she presents problems—problems of classification and of description. This in a way is her greatest asset, for she is original and of her own kind. (p. 9)
[In a quarter of a century she] has carved designs out of the shapeless and unruly substance that is the Jamaican dialect—the language which most of the Jamaican people speak most of the time—and has raised the sing-song patter of the hills and of the towns to an art level acceptable to and appreciated by people from all classes in her country. Yet not all are agreed on just what she is or stands for on the cultural scene…. [There are some] who would feel it improper to endow her with the name of poet, though they would generously crown her as the leading entertainer in Jamaica's comedy-lore whether on stage, television, or radio. And those who indulge her rumbustious abandon and spontaneous inducement of laughter will sometimes forget that behind the exuberance and carefree stance, there are years of training—formal and informal—as well as this artist's own struggles to shape an idiom whose limitations as a bastard tongue are all too evident. Then there is the view, sometimes barely conceded, that Miss Bennett has given to Jamaica "valid social documents reflecting the way we think and feel and live".
All these views are themselves valid and serve to delineate the role of Miss Bennett in the cultural development of the infant life of a nation. (pp. 9-10)
As poet Miss Bennett must first be seen against the background of her society. This is imperative…. Miss Bennett went to the basics and grasped the fact that she lived in an oral tradition where people talked and listened, cross-talked and reported and possess, almost to a fault, a high propensity for words—"bad" words, new words, archaic words, "big", long and sonorous words. The Bible, the Sankey hymnal, the folksong and the memory gems form the background to these propensities. To Louise Bennett who had the benefit of schooling, the balladform, the oldest form of English poetry, would probably have come as the nearest basis of comparison and in her early years it could even have been a conscious model…. Indeed, most of Miss Bennett's stanzas do take the conventional structure of iambic quatrains with an abab rhyme scheme and with stresses of 4 and 3 in alternating lines. But even the iambic rhythms are natural to the Jamaican drawl. Conscious aping of a poetic form is no guarantee of success, however, and one must look to Miss Bennett's own individual use of balladic and other poetic attributes to measure her success.
Like the ballad form, Miss Bennett's writing suffers from not having had a tradition of criticism…. This is, however, not surprising. The absence of more serious literary analysis is a commentary on the prevailing ignorance that envelops the subject of the Jamaican dialect. (pp. 10-11)
[And yet it] is to the form and nature of the language that one must … turn to find explanation for some of what could be mistaken as metrical aberrations in some of [Miss Bennett's] poems…. [Frederic] Cassidy's famous example of how the word "can" can be made to mean "can't" depending on pitch is a case in point. Miss Bennett has used the flexibilities to advantage and at an early stage she departed, consciously or unconsciously, from the normal iambic rhythm to variations such as were later developed and sustained in a poem like Pedestrian Crosses. Far from being a functionless jingle, this poem illustrates the propriety of metric form, language and rhythm for a subject-matter which deals with the nervous anxieties of a pedestrian who must now co-ordinate with the newly-introduced traffic control system. The racy monologue takes on the breathless gallop of the anapaestic rhythm and conveys effectively the plight of that simple, fearful fellow on the sidewalk over there…. This [poem] is technically successful, and the form is complete. Read at the proper pace the poem becomes almost a tongue-twister, thus heightening the confusion that exists in the mind of the pedestrian. (p. 13)
Terseness and brevity of expression are … the strength of her characterisation…. The hypocrisy and lovable rascality of the character from the poem, Roas Turkey, is at once portrayed. The sturdy independence of the Jamaican spirit, sometimes regarded as aggressiveness, is neatly summed up in … [a single] stanza from her poem Independence…. She is able to make incisive comments on situations without flourish or undue explanation…. And Jamaica's postures as a full-fledged nation are briskly put into realistic light in the poem Jamaica Elevate…. (pp. 14-15)
It is in poems like [Jamaica Elevate] that Louise Bennett tells the truth about us and tells it wickedly. The "wickedness" is not at all malicious. Rather, it is rooted in her developed sense of irony, her clear insight into the limitations which are often set on any given human situation and the inevitable comedy which underlies much of the sad outcome. She allows certain devastating facts to speak for themselves, and like her Jamaican compatriots she can "tek bad tings mek laugh". When accused once of not being prepared to subject her art to the rigours of the tragic experiences which plague the human condition, Louise Bennett in one of her few "serious" moments replied, "I believe in laughter." This is borne out by the satiric content of many of her political poems and of her pieces commenting on the foibles of Jamaicans. There is in this something of an analogy with the phenomenon usually found among an emergent group like the American negro community. In seeking its identity the emergent group seems very often to explore its problems and its times through the ambivalence of a comic sense coming to grips with an essentially or potentially tragic situation…. The comedy contains the tragedy and even overpowers it in complex forms of expression. This is why the straight-forward simplicity of Louise Bennett's iambic quatrains is often deceptive. Colonisation In Reverse is a classic of her brand of satire and the biting irony of the situation is brought out even more forcibly when Miss Bennett recites this with her peculiar relish and clean fun.
For Miss Bennett is a performer, accomplished and unrivalled. If on the...
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Any discussion of Caribbean popular culture must notice the work of the Jamaican Louise Bennett. Her unique gift is that she is both a folk-lore scholar and a brilliant popular entertainer, and while the qualities of Caribbean popular culture are evanescent before the recording of the conventional researcher, Miss Bennett is able to physically recreate her findings in performances that reveal the idiom, the gestures, the stress and the flow of the personalities and private dramas of the people. Her use of dialect can be amusing, but it is not necessarily so. In 'Bans o' Killing' she places herself, along with Burns and the European dialect writers, in the tradition of poets who have used dialect for serious purposes,...
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In a 1968 interview with the Jamaican poet Dennis Scott, Louise Bennett describes how her use of Jamaican Creole as poetic language disqualified her from membership in the Jamaican Poetry League: "… I have been set apart by other creative writers a long time ago because of the language I speak and work in. From the beginning nobody ever recognized me as a writer. 'Well, she is doing dialect'; it wasn't even writing you know. Up to now a lot of people don't even think I write. They say 'Oh, you just stand up and say these things!'" But the very characteristic of Bennett's style that had alienated her from the literati—the vivacious immediacy of her Jamaican Creole rhythms—has been recognized in contemporary...
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