The Monthly discusses a distinguished career in poetry with Mervyn Morris, former Jamaican Poet Laureate – Part 4 – The Legacy of Louise Bennett

Part three of this interview is here

You are a great admirer of Louise Bennett and have written extensively about her?

Yes.  She was a good poet, a shrewd observer and a well-trained performer.  She did a lot of research into Jamaican folklore and oral history and communicated easily with Jamaicans, at home and abroad.  She was also able to connect with non-Jamaican audiences.  She would give short introductions in Standard English, then launch into her Jamaican dialect poetry, and people seemed to understand.  She was a charismatic communicator.

She comes across as being immensely likeable but still able to deliver quite hard-hitting poetry?

Yes indeed.  She was immensely likeable.  She encouraged laughter.  But, with and through the laughter, she promoted values she deeply cared about.  She was a smiling activist.

I get the impression that Louise Bennett and the Dub Poets were also trying to establish a way of winning acceptance for a Jamaican, or perhaps West Indian, form of expression?

Through her remarkable writing and performance, Louise Bennett fostered respect for the creative versatility of Jamaican vernacular.  She also recognized and claimed elements of her colonial education.  On the page most of her poems look like British ballad quatrains, but when well performed they sound convincingly like Jamaican speech.  Sometimes dub poets write in Standard English.

Does this fit in with the question of Nation Language?

That term is variously applied.  It is sometimes offered as alternative to “dialect” or “patois”, which carry derogatory connotations.  But (as at the end of Kamau Brathwaite’s History of the Voice, which introduced the term) it can include Standard English in a regional accent.  The term generally signals recognition of national identity, valorizing ancestral legacies and transforming portions of colonial inheritance.

Part one of this interview is here

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