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 ruthlessly—for obvious reasons—is the character who feels impelled to deny any connections with the Creole culture. Several poems in the collection poke fun at this character type with varying degrees of gentleness. "Dry Foot Bwoy" satirizes a Jamaican of peasant stock who has travelled to England, perhaps to study, and has returned with an English accent and a bad case of linguistic amnesia. He can no longer converse with his former acquaintances, much to their annoyance, for he disclaims knowledge of Jamaican Creole…. (pp. 322-23)
Similarly the poem "Noh Lickle Twang" makes fun of a woman who is embarrassed because her son, newly returned from the States after six months abroad, doesn't have even the slightest trace of an American accent. He cannot, therefore, be shown off to the discriminating neighbours, who, once he opens his mouth will think that he's merely been to "Mocho"—the archetypal Jamaican village that epitomizes social gaucheness. The depth of the young man's failure must be measured against his sister's success in acquiring the semblance of an American accent after having had only one week's exposure to American expatriates. The fact that her parents cannot understand her is the proof of her sophistication. (pp. 323-24)
In some poems in which Bennett confronts the demeaning poverty of the Jamaican worker—more often, non-worker—the comic vision seems inadequate to express the sustained pathos of intense poverty. The pain of deprivation cannot always be sublimated in laughter. The pair of poems that I shall now consider, "Me Bredda" and "My Dream," demonstrate the differences of tone that Bennett can employ in examining the same subject matter. In both poems the persona is that of a female domestic servant, who, in Jamaica, has been an ubiquitous symbol of middle-class exploitation of cheap peasant labour. But whereas "Me Bredda," in true comic spirit, vigorously affirms the supremacy of Good over Evil, "My Dream" articulates the burgeoning political engagement of the oppressed in colonial Jamaica.
In "Me Bredda," the servant manages to outwit her prospective employer, a middle-class housewife who, on a whim, has threatened not to hire her for the day's work even though she had previously arranged to do so. The servant, refusing to be intimidated by her opponent's adamant stance, vociferously...
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demands that expectant onlookers summon her brother to avenge her. The housewife, for fear of the inevitable brawl with the irate maid—plus her brother—succumbs to the demands of propriety. The maid's final repartee as she smugly departs with two week's wages and her reimbursed taxi fare is:
You would like fe know me bredda? Me kean help you eena dat Me hooda like know him meself For is me one me parents got….
The vivacious maid is the clever rogue, who both dupes the housewife and manages to convince us of the rightness of her actions. She is a type of Anansi-figure—that recurring herorascal of Caribbean folk culture—for whom the end—survival—justifies the means—deception.
"My Dream" is an allegorical poem in which the class struggle of "Me Bredda" is transformed into the nationalistic struggles of Jamaica against colonial England. The servant—Jamaica—is compelled by malevolent cousin Rose—England—to launder a bottomless tub of soiled clothes. The exploited servant, powerless to openly antagonize cousin Rose, resorts to displacing her aggression on the laundry…. The undercurrent of rebellion that the action of displacement reveals is an insidious political force—akin to the cunning of the Anansi-figure—that is celebrated in the proverb, the traditional repository of folk wisdom:
Dog a-sweat but long hair hide i', Mout a-laugh, but heart a-leap! Everything wha shine noh gole piece…. (pp. 324-25)
The strength of Bennett's poetry then is the accuracy with which it depicts and attempts to correct through laughter the absurdities of Jamaican society. Its comic vision affirms a norm of common sense and good-natured decorum. The limitations of the poetry are partially the inevitable consequences of having used Jamaican Creole as a poetic medium. For what the experiments in Creole—whether St. Lucian, Trinidadian, or Barbadian, for example—have indicated is that there are subtle nuances of thought and feeling that are at times best expressed in Creole, at times in English. The poet who relies exclusively on either medium reduces the expressive range of his/her art.
Louise Bennett, having chosen to writer exclusively in Jamaican Creole, cannot easily answer the charge of parochialism and insularity. But what she loses in universality she gains in vivid particularity. In her own words: "You know, one reason I persisted writing in dialect in spite of all the opposition was because nobody else was doing so and there was such rich material in the dialect that I wanted to put on paper some of the wonderful things that people say in dialect. You could never say 'look here' as vividly as 'kuyah.'" (pp. 325-26)
Carolyn Cooper, "Caribbean Poetry in English: 1900–1976," in World Literature Written in English (© copyright 1978 WLWE-World Literature Written in English), Vol. 17, No. 1, April, 1978, pp. 317-27.∗