Louise (Simone) Bennett Rex Nettleford - Essay

Rex Nettleford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 social documents reflecting the way we think and feel and live".

All these views are themselves valid and serve to delineate the role of Miss Bennett in the cultural development of the infant life of a nation. (pp. 9-10)

As poet Miss Bennett must first be seen against the background of her society. This is imperative…. Miss Bennett went to the basics and grasped the fact that she lived in an oral tradition where people talked and listened, cross-talked and reported and possess, almost to a fault, a high propensity for words—"bad" words, new words, archaic words, "big", long and sonorous words. The Bible, the Sankey hymnal, the folksong and the memory gems form the background to these propensities. To Louise Bennett who had the benefit of schooling, the balladform, the oldest form of English poetry, would probably have come as the nearest basis of comparison and in her early years it could even have been a conscious model…. Indeed, most of Miss Bennett's stanzas do take the conventional structure of iambic quatrains with an abab rhyme scheme and with stresses of 4 and 3 in alternating lines. But even the iambic rhythms are natural to the Jamaican drawl. Conscious aping of a poetic form is no guarantee of success, however, and one must look to Miss Bennett's own individual use of balladic and other poetic attributes to measure her success.

Like the ballad form, Miss Bennett's writing suffers from not having had a tradition of criticism…. This is, however, not surprising. The absence of more serious literary analysis is a commentary on the prevailing ignorance that envelops the subject of the Jamaican dialect. (pp. 10-11)

[And yet it] is to the form and nature of the language that one must … turn to find explanation for some of what could be mistaken as metrical aberrations in some of [Miss Bennett's] poems…. [Frederic] Cassidy's famous example of how the word "can" can be made to mean "can't" depending on pitch is a case in point. Miss Bennett has used the flexibilities to advantage and at an early stage she departed, consciously or unconsciously, from the normal iambic rhythm to variations such as were later developed and sustained in a poem like Pedestrian Crosses. Far from being a functionless jingle, this poem illustrates the propriety of metric form, language and rhythm for a subject-matter which deals with the nervous anxieties of a pedestrian who must now co-ordinate with the newly-introduced traffic control system. The racy monologue takes on the breathless gallop of the anapaestic rhythm and conveys effectively the plight of that simple, fearful fellow on the sidewalk over there…. This [poem] is technically successful, and the form is complete. Read at the proper pace the poem becomes almost a tongue-twister, thus heightening the confusion that exists in the mind of the pedestrian. (p. 13)

Terseness and brevity of expression are … the strength of her characterisation…. The hypocrisy and lovable rascality of the character from the poem, Roas Turkey, is at once portrayed. The sturdy independence of the Jamaican spirit, sometimes regarded as aggressiveness, is neatly summed up in … [a single] stanza from her poem Independence…. She is able to make incisive comments on situations without flourish or undue explanation…. And Jamaica's postures as a full-fledged nation are briskly put into realistic light in the poem Jamaica Elevate…. (pp. 14-15)

It is in poems like [Jamaica Elevate] that Louise Bennett tells the truth about us and tells it wickedly. The "wickedness" is not at all malicious. Rather, it is rooted in her developed sense of irony, her clear insight into the limitations which are often set on any given human situation and the inevitable comedy which underlies much of the sad outcome. She allows certain devastating facts to speak for themselves, and like her Jamaican compatriots she can "tek bad tings mek laugh". When accused once of not being prepared to subject her art to the rigours of the tragic experiences which plague the human condition, Louise Bennett in one of her few "serious" moments replied, "I believe in laughter." This is borne out by the satiric content of many of her political poems and of her pieces commenting on the foibles of Jamaicans. There is in this something of an analogy with the phenomenon usually found among an emergent group like the American negro community. In seeking its identity the emergent group seems very often to explore its problems and its times through the ambivalence of a comic sense coming to grips with an essentially or potentially tragic situation…. The comedy contains the tragedy and even overpowers it in complex forms of expression. This is why the straight-forward simplicity of Louise Bennett's iambic quatrains is often deceptive. Colonisation In Reverse is a classic of her brand of satire and the biting irony of the situation is brought out even more forcibly when Miss Bennett recites this with her peculiar relish and clean fun.

For Miss Bennett is a performer, accomplished and unrivalled. If on the...

(The entire section is 2704 words.)