The great Jamaican poet Louise Bennett died this week. I wrote about her work for the first time in "Poetics of the Americas" in My Way: Speeches & Poems. "Bans O' Killing" is from Jamaica Labrish (Kingston, Jamaica: Sangster's Book Stores, 1966) and was quoted in the essay with the permission of the author. See also Bennett's poem, "Colonization in Reverse."
from "My Way"
If we understand the direction of "English" away from its Island English center as a structural question, then we can begin to see links among poetic projects involving secession, dispersal, and regrouping. We may understand disparate practices as sharing a poetic space that is grounded not in an identical social position but in the English language itself as the material with which we make our regroupings and refoundings. Never just English but always a new English that is an object and a subject of our Verse. As Louise Bennett so eloquently and hilariously points out in her 1944 poem "Bans O' Killing", this issue is as much one of the past as of the present and future:
So yuh a de man, me hear bout!
Ah yuh dem sey dah-teck
Whole heap o' English oat sey dat
Yuh gwine kill dialect!
Meck me get it straight Mass Charlie
For me noh quite undastan,
Yuh gwine kill all English dialect
Or jus Jamaica one?
Ef yuh dah-equal up wid English
Language, den wha meck
Yuh gwine go feel inferior, wen
It come to dialect?
Ef yuh kean sing "Linstead Market"
An "Wata come a me y'eye",
Yuh wi haffi tap sing "Auld lang syne"
An "Comin thru de rye".
Dah language weh yuh proad o',
Weh yuh honour and respeck,
Po' Mass Charlie! Yuh noh know sey
Dat it spring from dialect!
Dat dem start fe try tun language,
From de fourteen century,
Five hundred years gawn an dem got
More dialect dan we!
Yuh wi haffe kill de Lancashire
De Yorkshire, de Cockney
De broad Scotch an de Irish brogue
Before yuh start to kill me!
Yuh wi haffe get de Oxford book
O' English verse, an tear
Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
An plenty o' Shakespeare!
Wen yuh done kill "wit" an "humour"
Wen yuh kill "Variety"
Yuh wi haffe fine a way fe kill
An mine how yuh dah-read dem English
Book deh pon yuh shelf
For ef yuh drop a "h" yuh mighta
Haffe kill yuhself.
Bennett's wit makes all the more disturbing her point that suppression of "variety" in language produces the cultural suppression of a people: "Bans O' Killing". A people invents and sustains itself through its shared language so it is not surprising that colonial governments have often prohibited the use of native languages, dialects, patois, creoles, and pidgins in an effort to maintain social control. Bennett, all of whose poetry is written in Jamaican idiom, points to, and defuses, the stigma attached to dialect use; but she also makes patent the deep social scar left by the denigration of a particular language practice as inferior. In this sense, dialect becomes the verbal equivalent of skin color: an "objective" mark of alterity.