“ENJOYABLE as she is in performance, Louise Bennett’s range is often restricted to topicality and journalism,” a West Indian schools anthology from 1971 notes on Louise Bennett’s poetry.
It sees as a weakness the very strength of her work. She wrote, and performed, in dialect and this put a crick in the neck of the starched collars.
Bennett wrote in an authentic voice, a witty and at times subversive one, and she inspired poets such as Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson who continue to influence poetry, particularly political poetry, in Britain and the Caribbean today.
The hundreds of reggae singles in my flat are the closest I’ve got to Jamaica but what excited me about these poets in the 1970s was that they wrote in their own voice.
Not my accent, sure, but if they could expound their reality then, me cyaan believe it, so could we.
Sharing news and responding to events is as old to poetry as beer is to pubs. But, like a badly kept beer, it can be dreadful.
The “poetry voice” continues to haunt, not just the simpering, worthy, ascending one that sends us to the bar sharpish.
There’s also the asthmatic rapper beloved of the Kate Tempest copyists, fluttering hands and all. Since Lemonade, there’re also the quieter, measured Warsan Shire copyists.
No fault of either poet, but do slam poets talk like that to their mothers? Listing a run of facts in a poetry voice does not a poem make, no matter how pertinent the subject.
Accent is a place and accent is a weapon. It’s one used against us. W
hen I’m labelled as a “performance” poet — a label I always reject — I know full well it’s because I’m to be kept with the pies and beer away from the “pwopah” poets with the cheese and wine.
The tired cliche of some poets dropping into a “fick” cockernee accent to portray the ignorant still lingers. Lazy writing, like the poor, is always with us.
Lass warrior Kate Fox, who runs the Campaign for Northern Voices, says: “Since the days of Wordsworth, via Hughes, Harrison and Armitage, northern poets get reviewed as ‘defiantly northern’ or ‘unrepentantly northern,’ implying that we should actually be repenting our flat vowels in order to worship in the church of proper poetry.
“I’ve never heard of an ‘uncompromisingly southern’ poet.
“If you dare to have flat vowels and are not a northern working-class bloke poet then you’ll either be made into one, or simply exist as some sort of anomaly in the space-time continuum.
“Unextraordinarily, northern Dr Who Christopher Ecclestone said: ‘Lots of planets have a north.’ But the one on planet poetry is still portrayed as if it was about 1955.”
The poetry voice is a pretension in every way, whether it’s the young poet writing for acceptance or the posh one posing for the street. It’s hollow. Our background, dropped aitches, slang, and flat vowels needn’t hold us down. Being ashamed of them and forcing ourselves to fit the hegemony of the Oxbridge cuckoos does.
In my poem How to Kill the Young Poets, I get laughs saying that I always read from paper at gigs because I’ve “an accent and without seeing said paper the BBC won’t think it’s literature.”
But it’s no joke.
Writing in our own voices validates our lives and experiences. It demonstrates who our audience is, we talk directly to them in shared experience.
The toffs take everything from us and we have very little left aside from our culture.