Rex Nettleford

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2704

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)

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[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 printed pages her poems appear to be dated frozen jingles, in the renditions she gives of them they take on vitality and meaning—capturing all the spontaneity of the ordinary Jamaican's joys and even sorrows, his ready poignant and even wicked wit, his religion and his philosophy of life. Miss Bennett is indeed a poet of utterance. With her experience and skill she exploits the complex intonation contours of the Jamaican dialect and turns out pieces which are at once fresh, vital and entertaining…. What she sometimes does is to manipulate the tonal range of the language, setting the poems almost to music as she patters along. The punch-line technique of musichall comedy is liberally utilised…. Her play on the infinite nuances of meanings of a single word or phrase reminds us that she is involved in the art of words…. (pp. 15-16)

But to those who believe that all that [her] poems need are stentorian vocals and tireless gusto, the truth is soon revealed. For they are capable of subtle interpretation and demand the careful modulation of tones and pitch in order to communicate honestly and vividly. Above all, they demand an understanding of and a feel for the language. For understanding and feeling are among Miss Bennett's greatest attributes, resulting in the delightful intermingling of "those qualities of head and heart which we term wit and humour—wit which illuminates and humour which reveals", as Philip Sherlock once aptly put it. (pp. 16-17)

It is through her performances that she has proven herself relevant to the society about which she writes, and it is through her performances that the sanity and generosity of spirit which Mervyn Morris commends [see excerpt above] becomes evident. This sanity and generosity of spirit is the occasion, not the cause, of her artistry. For as a poet of utterance, she has had to be sane and generous for the nightly confrontation which a live and living audience demands of any performing artist. The safe distance of the published writer she never enjoyed. But, in any case, she was using the normally spoken language, not the normally written tongue.

What was she speaking about? The question finds an answer in her role as social commentator and as such the poems in [Jamaica Labrish] tell not one, but many stories. Together they bear testimony to her keen sense of observation…. She is at once involved in and detached from the experiences, and she uses her peculiar position to very great advantage.

City Life, the first section, vividly describes aspects of life in Kingston of an earlier period. The picturesque street scenes are enhanced by such characters as the street-peddlar in South Parade crying out her wares or the candy-seller soliciting patronage from passers-by. We come to know something about the passers-by, but most of all we come to know about the candy-seller and her kind. (p. 17)

Some of her liveliest works are … about the city transport. For many, Kingston of the forties was Kingston of the "old palam-pam of the tram-cars" and when these were replaced by a trans-urban bus system, Kingston seemed to be no longer the same. The city grew fast in the decade after the war and with it the traffic—hence the plight of that pedestrian in the piece Pedestrian Crosses….

Her War Time poems will undoubtedly be dated by their topicality but she did have something to say in them. When Britain went to war, the then colony of Jamaica went to war as well. But how many of the ordinary people understood the issues sufficiently to be emotionally involved in what has now come to be regarded as the great struggle against totalitarianism? Young middle-class intellectuals and working-class leaders were more concerned with achieving the goal of the nationalist movement—self-government, or the objectives of the social revolution—better wages and living conditions. Miss Bennett comments accurately on the early non-involvement in the poem Perplex. The second poem, Obeah Win de War, would suggest that neither Miss Bennett nor her countrymen took the events seriously. The third and fourth stanzas, however, indicate that Jamaicans soon developed an interest in a war which sought to defeat, inter alia, the excesses of racism. (p. 18)

The aftermath of war brought much suffering and countless problems. Not least among these were the war-babies—the offspring of war. With a full knowledge of attitudes in her society, Louise Bennett in White Pickney gives "sound" advice to a Jamaican on what to do with her offspring or "souvenir", as she called the little ones in another war-time poem, Solja Work.

Politics (the third section) fascinated Miss Bennett. Almost from the beginning she caught the political temper of the times and her capacity to comment succinctly on the paradoxes of politics and the whims of politicians stayed with her and even matured right down to the time of Independence. The first five poems in this section recapture the crises of the late thirties and early forties, the emergence of labour leaders, the advent of the Moyne Commission and the persistence of hard times…. (p. 19)

The fourth section represents a collection of poems dealing with a variety of topics that are of general interest and relevance to life in the Jamaican community in the past and to-day. True, there are allusions which put some in a strict historical context but they also deal with the wandering Jamaican—the migrant…. The travelling Jamaican (in these cases Louise Bennett herself) continues to be a phenomenon in his display of a capacity to cope with any situation, whether it be the endless anti-colonial conferences of well-meaning Fabians (Poor Gum) or the carryings-on of a Welsh Eisteddfod (Eena Wales).

Back home, the litigiousness of the tenement and some peasant life (House O'Law) is sometimes the result of the unending yard quarrels or "tracing-matches" between people (Kas-Kas and Cuss-Cuss). Pugnacious maidservants who defy a rising and sometimes conscienceless middle-class are a force to be reckoned with (Me Bredda and Seeking a Job), and the persistent superstitions in Jamaican folklore with its oil-o-love me, duppies (ghosts), signs of the end and rolling calves are worthy of Bennettian comment.

The poem Po' Sammy caricatures the love for pets, while the two following poems recapture the Anancy spirit everywhere evident in the ease with which people will turn someone's misfortunes to their own advantage. The street urchin and "corpie" (policeman), the exuberance of love-making and the Jamaican's predisposition to preachments are dealt with in Street Boy, Love Letta, Uriah Preach and Amy Son respectively. Then comes the series dealing with the understandably conscious acquisition of a foreign tongue or accent as a status symbol—an all too common occurrence among Jamaicans returning from "foreign" or visiting a place like Gay Paree. When one chap returns from America with no trace of linguistic influence, Miss Bennett rues the situation in Noh Lickle Twang. Yet another status symbol, that of colour, comes in for sharp comment in Colour Bar and Pass Fe White. And for those who insist on being black, Back To Africa offers some sane advice about this particular shade of identity.

The section ends with three poems which take as their subject matter the very substance of Miss Bennett's art. Mash Flat is a commentary on the flexibility of the Jamaican language, even if it leads to confusion in communication. The poem Proverbs consciously utilises the epigrams of folk-speech, which are a distillation of a folk's collective experience. And Bans O' Killing stands on its own as a kind of declaration of Miss Bennett's belief in the strength and inner consistency of the language which she has chosen for her art…. [Jamaica has] seen many crusaders against "bad speaking" ever since it was established that a command of "Standard English" was a passport to status and class in the island. There has developed genuine academic interest in the Jamaican dialect, which has been carefully studied by reputable scholars, but it is still the target of middle-class snobbery. Although it has been accepted for entertainment largely through the efforts of people like Louise Bennett, and even though its literary merit is conceded by some, it still carries with it the stigma of ignorance and nonsophistication. Louise Bennett has often been the target of attack and the fact that Bans O' Killing was written in 1944 near the beginning of her career, gives the reader some insight into Miss Bennett's early sense of purpose and literary courage. That the earlier criticisms are far less applicable today is to the credit of Louise Bennett, who has never doubted the power of the language she uses to express the essential passions of her people's hearts.

Her inspiration came, and still comes, from the everyday happenings around her. She is acutely sensitive to these occurrences and finds in them a thousand wonders—wonders easily concealed from those of us who have been too long conditioned to seeing the worth of human experience only in the deeds of kings and conquerors. She may not have bothered to ask in explicit terms about the ends of existence. Nor did she labour on the fears that men have about their inevitable mortality. Instead she concentrated on the immediacy of the task of having to survive. An uprooted, poor, but proud people are primarily concerned about surviving, having found themselves alive. They make the best of it with an intelligent optimism which is the occasion of Miss Bennett's bright-side-of-life humour. Humour becomes, as it were, the expression of a people's will to live and Miss Bennett recaptures this will with understanding, compassion and truth. (pp. 21-4)

Rex Nettleford, in an introduction to Jamaica Labrish by Louise Bennett (© Louise Bennett 1966), Sangster's Book Stores, 1966, pp. 9-24.

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