In Caribbean literature there has always been a vigorous strain of oral composition existing alongside the written tradition. Think of the slave and indenture songs of sorrow and survival, folk tales, the Anancy stories, calypsos and road marches, reggae lyrics, and the more recent dub and performance poetry. Such as these have always fertilized the more artful but often more effete written tradition. It is a little strange that it took such a long time for the oral tradition to be given the sort of recognition due to it in literary studies and anthologies. The Mighty Sparrow, Kitchener, Bob Marley, Paul Keens-Douglas, Rudder and Guyana’s own John Agard, Marc Matthews and Ken Corsbie and many others emerging since, at their best are poets as well as performers and must take their place in the literary pantheon.
But no one West Indian did more to dissolve the elite prejudice against dialect, “nation-language,” the vernacular way of expressing things than Louise Bennett of Jamaica. When she was a girl, in love with reading and bewitched by poetry, a teacher gave her a copy of Claude McKay’s Constab Ballads. This helped to influence her, but nothing like so much as the vigorous folk culture she found all around her every day. She began to perform in dialect in 1938 at the age of 19 and the Gleaner newspaper began to carry her verse in 1943. As time went by Louise Bennett became celebrated and loved throughout the West Indies and well beyond as a serious folklorist, a dialect performer, and a poet. She did more than anyone to promote respect for ordinary people and their usually unwritten and often unrecorded culture. As a poet she is hard to surpass in the comic-satiric verse style, and after her death she has remained an immensely influential voice among the rising generations both of poets who use dialect and those who use Standard English.
Anyone who is interested in West Indian literature should at least have a copy of Louise Bennett’s Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Mervyn Morris. From this delicious collection I transcribe a poem in which Louise Bennett captures something that seems, sadly, to have eternal relevance.
Sun a shine but tings no bright;
Doah pot a bwile, bickle no nuff;
River flood but water scarce, yaw;
Rain a fall but dutty tough.
Tings so bad dat nowadays when
Yuh ask smaddy how dem do
Dem fraid yuk teck it tell dem back,
So dem no answer yuh.
No care omuch we dah work fa
Hard-time still eena we shut;
We dah fight, Hard-time a beat we,
Dem might raise we wages, but
One poun gawn awn pon we pay, an
We no feel no merriment
For ten poun gawn awn pon we food
An ten poun pon we rent!
Saltfish gawn up, mackerel gawn up,
Pork en beef gawn up same way,
An when rice and butter ready
Dem just go pon holiday!
Claht, boot, pin an needle gawn up’
Ice, bread, taxes, water-rate
Kersene ile, gasolene, gawn up;
An de poun devaluate.
De price of bread gawn up so high;
Dat we haffi agree
Fi cut we yeye pon bred an all
Tun dumplin refugee!
An all dem marga smaddy weh
Dah gawn like fat is sin,
All dem-deh weh dah fas wid me,
Ah lef dem to dumplin!
Sun a shine an pot a bwile, but
Tings no bright, bickle no nuff.
Rain a fall, river dah flood, but
Water scarce and dutty tough.