Mervyn Morris

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1328

… 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.

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… 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' in which an argument is ruthlessly followed through…. It takes a shape very eighteenth-century in its careful balance, the balance helping to point the strictly logical operation of a keen intelligence. Louise Bennett's sanity takes her straight to a fact that too many intellectuals, evidently, find too simple for their acceptance: the central fact of our identity: that we are Jamaicans because Jamaica is where we come from.

Miss Bennett's irony is sometimes easy and cheap; but it is also sometimes important and illuminating [as in her poem 'Independence']…. (pp. 140-42)

Often the pretensions attacked are minor or topical pretensions, but not always. Look for example at 'Po' Ting' in which a common, and no doubt eternal, human pretension is ridiculed, unwillingness to face the fact of age…. (p. 142)

There is a good deal of simple plain fun in Louise Bennett. Sometimes it is fun in the situation, as in, say, 'De Bathsuit And De Cow', an excellent little dialect ballad. Sometimes the fun is an intoxication with language which she manipulates or invents with infectious delight….

I think [Miss Bennett's] most central difficulty is choice of subject. Many of her poems are a sort of comic-verse-journalism….

[And] Miss Bennett is sometimes false to her medium. (p. 143)

[Nevertheless, to] trace Louise Bennett's development is interesting. She develops, I think, from the high-spirited monologuist to a more purposeful thinker writing in dialect: it is not for nothing that the mature irony of 'Independence' or the logic of 'Back to Africa' are recent, and the best dramatic monologues are early. Or, compare the tone of 'Gay Paree' (an earlyish poem in which there is a childlike peasant delight in the strangeness of French) with the tone of 'Touris' (much later, in which the poet sees herself ironically, with a certain sophistication). (p. 144)

In between these two stages of development Miss Bennett spent some years in England; when she returned she wrote what I consider some of her worst pieces. The dialect was forced and untrue…. She made some metrical experiments she would have done well to keep out of print. A fair example is the internal jingle of 'Pedestrian Crossin', a jingle which seems to have no function. The rapidity of her normal stanza form is lost, and, it seems, nothing is gained…. (p. 145)

Living in Jamaica again, Miss Bennett seemed to grow into dialect again, though she never regained her early innocent vitality. I think that accounts for the greater pervasiveness of acute intelligence in the later poems and the decreasing inclination to rumbustious dramatic monologue. Miss Bennett's own development seems to show that her use of dialect is involved with real feeling, as is any poet's use of language.

A weakness, particularly in the early poems, is for direct and unsubtle moralising. In the later poems any sentimentality or tendency to moralise is usually redeemed by irony or wit…. [For instance, in] 'Homesickness' Miss Bennett gives a sentimental list of things she misses while in England; the list does name things we can recognise as part of a real Jamaica: bullas, sugar and water, dumplings; but is nevertheless a sentimental selection in its total effect…. [Yet there is a final irony in the last three stanzas which] redeems the poem. It gives a guarantee that there is a mind alive behind it all. (pp. 145-46)

Louise Bennett uses dialect more or less as we can believe the normal speakers of dialect might use it, if they were skilled enough; [some of our other West Indian poets] … borrow dialect for the literary middle class. The image 'smile black as sorrow' [in Dennis Scott's 'Uncle Time'] is too abstract for the eminently concrete medium of dialect. It must be said, however, that this poem has a careful exquisite beauty that I cannot claim for anything in Louise Bennett.

Louise Bennett … is a poet of serious merit, although like all poets, she has her limitations. Like most poets she is, I have tried to show, developing. And she is so much more rewarding a poet than many to whom we in Jamaica give the name, that it seems reasonable to expect more of those who claim an interest in poetry to give her more attention. She is sane; throughout, her poems imply that sound common sense and generous love and understanding of people are worthwhile assets. Jamaican dialect is, of course, limiting (in more senses than one); but within its limitations Louise Bennett works well. Hers is a precious talent…. (pp. 147-48)

Mervyn Morris, "On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously" (1963; reprinted by permission of the author), in Jamaica Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, December, 1967 (and reprinted as "The Dialect Poetry of Louise Bennett," in Critics on Caribbean Literature: Readings in Literary Criticism, edited by Edward Baugh, St. Martin's Press, 1978, pp. 137-48).

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