Bennett, Louise (Simone)
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...
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The Times Literary Supplement
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...
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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...
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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, as the straightest route to the inner life of the ordinary people. Miss Bennett would not claim either the depth of feeling or the lyrical impulse of the greatest dialect poets, and in a volume the length of her first major book of collected poems, Jamaica Labrish …, there was inevitably some weak material. On the other hand her claim that dialect be taken seriously is not only valid, it is borne out by many of her own successful pieces. Through dialect she catches conversational tones that illuminate both individual and national character. (pp. 15-16)
Because Miss Bennett uses essentially the natural speech idiom of the people, and because she is guarded from pretention by self-critical folk wit, she can, as...
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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 reassessments of her poetry as its strength. (p. 322)
The poems in Bennett's collection Jamaica Labrish, spanning approximately twenty-five years, cover a broad spectrum of dramatic personalities and events. The poems are classified in four groups: City Life, War-Time, Politics, and Jamaica—Now An' Then. Some of the subject matter is so topical that not all historical details are easily accessible to the contemporary reader. But the majority of poems constitute a kind of comedy of manners in which those recurring rascals of Caribbean societies—social climbers, petty crooks, displaced colonials, to name a few—come decidedly to grief.
One kind of social climber whom Bennett satirizes...
(The entire section is 1068 words.)