Bennett, Louise Simone (1919—)

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Bennett, Louise Simone (1919—)

Jamaican poet, actress, folklorist, singer and radio personality who pioneered poetry written and read in Jamaican dialect. Name variations: Miss Lou. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, on September 7, 1919; only child of Kerene (Robinson) Bennett and Augustus Cornelius Bennett (a baker); educated at St. Simon's College, Friends College and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; married Eric "Chalk Talk" Coverly, in 1954.

Selected works:

Verses in Jamaican Dialect (1942); Jamaican Humour in Dialect (1943); M's Lulu Sez: A Collection of Dialect Poems (1949); Jamaican Folk Songs (recording, 1954); Laugh With Louise (1961); Jamaica Labrish (1966); Honourable Miss Lou (recording, 1981); Selected Poems (1982).

Only in recent decades has Louise Simone Bennett's work been categorized in literary circles as poetry. For more than 25 years, her often spoken, humorous, dialect rhymes and musings were termed performance art or comedy. The Jamaican Creole dialect, in which Bennett most often worked, was not appreciated until the late 1950s, delaying her recognition as one of Jamaica's most popular poets.

I have found a medium through which I can pretend to be laughing.

—Louise Simone Bennett

Raised in Kingston, Bennett was the daughter of a well-to-do baker whose fortunes and mental health declined when a batch of bread caused food poisoning among his customers. He died when his daughter was seven years old. Bennett credits her mother Kerene's customers with educating her about Jamaican life; Kerene made a living as a dressmaker. Educated at Kingston elementary and high school, Bennett began writing poetry in childhood. She quickly moved from conventional poetry, in proper English and on traditional subjects such as nature, to stories of the city and its people, finding humor in even the most serious subjects. "On a Tramcar" was Bennett's first dialect poem, in which she tells the other passengers, "Pread out yuhself, one dress-oman a come."

Bennett performed her poetry at outdoor theaters and was occasionally published, but the Jamaican literary community was difficult to penetrate. She would later note, "I have been set apart by other creative writers a long time ago because of the language I speak and work in." Her acting talent earned her a 1945 scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London when she was 26 years old. Returning home in the late 1940s, Bennett was still greeted coolly by the literary community. She returned to London in 1950 for a radio show, then moved to New York in 1953 to work in the American theater. With Eric Coverly, an early supporter of her career, Bennett coproduced the folk musical Day in Jamaica. In 1954, she and Coverly married.

When the couple returned home in 1955, respect for Jamaican dialect was increasing. As a drama specialist on the Jamaican Social Welfare Commission, Bennett was selected an artistic envoy and traveled the country performing and teaching. Audiences grew with her frequent publications, radio shows, and commentary until, at folk festival readings, she began to draw crowds of 60,000. Jamaican affection for Miss Lou, as Bennett is popularly known, is perhaps comparable to a line from her poem "Colonisation in Reverse": "I feel like me heart gwine burs'."

suggested reading:

Bennett, Louise. Jamaica Labrish. Jamaica: Sangster's Book Stores, 1966.

Scott, Dennis. "Bennett on Bennett," in Caribbean Quarterly. March–June 1968, pp. 97–101.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts

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Bennett, Louise Simone (1919—)

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