Louise (Simone) Bennett The Times Literary Supplement - Essay

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To bring a colonial society to a recognition of its own distinctive voice is always a difficult, slow but necessary task. A real literature of place can only begin when that recognition is complete. Louise Bennett, outstanding composer and performer of dialect ballads over the past twenty-five years, has contributed enormously to this process in Jamaica.

Nothing once caused so much uneasiness and actual rage in polite Jamaican society as the admission that the whole island had a distinctive way of communing with itself—"Jamaica Talk". Now comes a collection of Louise Bennett's ballads [Jamaica Labrish] ranging from early wartime to the late 1950s. Throughout these years she has unerringly summed up a certain national mood, unerringly satirized the more obvious pretensions of the colour-snob, the returned traveller with his carefully cultivated Yankee twang or Oxford drawl….

In print these ballads are like a phonetic libretto for performance, but they cannot recreate for us the performance itself. Not merely something, but too much, is lost. Only the most devoted and nostalgic admirer will read this volume through, though many will wish they could hear Miss Bennett fill out the text with the richness of her voice, presence, personality and humour. This is not to suggest that there is no place for dialect in printed poetry. Rather, a reading of these poems forces a recognition that to write dialect poems for publication is a very different exercise from vernacular recitation. The poem on the page must offer its riches to the reader through a verbal, even at times typographical wit, rather than a vocal one. Also, an art so essentially popular as Miss Bennett's is inevitably limited in its perceptions to what is popularly perceived.

"Jamaica Talk," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3381, December 15, 1966, p. 1173.∗