Louise (Simone) Bennett Louis James

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Louis James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 Mervyn Morris points out [see excerpt above], cover a range of subjects unrivalled by more conventional poets, without striking a false note. Further, her verse is a valuable aid to the social historian. Her selection of themes reflects the concerns of Jamaican life; the public ones—Federation, street peddlers, body-building contests, Paul Robeson's visit to Jamaica, emigration or an infuriating telephone system; and the private—the yard gossip or the death of a pet turkey watched by a hungry neighbour. More important, she approaches her theme by way of the attitude an ordinary person feels towards it, and it is this that makes an historical event meaningful. This is particularly important in the West Indies, where the private attitudes behind public events are so complex, a tension between national pride and self-satire, between knowledge, ignorance and common-sense. This complexity of attitude comes through a light piece like 'Votin' Ink', which tells more about the first public elections than a volume of pretentious occasional pieces. (pp. 16-17)

Louis James, in an introduction to The Islands in Between: Essays on West Indian Literature, edited by Louis James (© Oxford University Press 1968; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press), Oxford University Press, London, 1968, pp. 1-49.∗