Louise (Simone) Bennett Mervyn Morris - Essay

Mervyn Morris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

… 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'...

(The entire section is 1328 words.)