Morris presents Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture
At several points during Tuesday's launch of Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture, the book's author became as much the evening's subject as the person he wrote about, as there were high praises for Professor Mervyn Morris, Jamaica's Poet Laureate.
However, it was his compatriot, Professor Edward Baugh, who connected Louise Bennett-Coverley and Morris chronologically and two letters of the alphabet in giving the launch address to a large gathering at the Medical Sciences complex, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus. At the beginning, Baugh asked, "Who better to have written the definitive book on Miss Lou than Mervyn Morris?"
Among the qualifications are Morris' diverse talents as not only poet and academic, but also newspaper columnist and theatre reviewer, coming together in what Baugh described as "the crowning product of Mervyn's engagement with Miss Lou over the past 55 years".
It started with the essay, On Reading Miss Lou Seriously, initially a 1963 Festival entry, which was referred to by the late Professor Rex Nettleford for the 1966 collection, Jamaica Labrish. In 1982, Morris edited her Selected Poems, followed 11 years later by Aunty Roachy Seh, on Miss Lou's monologues.
And at the end, after saying Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture, which is published by Ian Randle Publishers, "could have no better author", Baugh mused and amused, as he made another connection between Morris and Bennett-Coverley, imaging her approving of the writer's credentials - including two letters. "Me and him have one big time honour in common. OM. Oh Mervyn. Oh Miss Lou," Baugh said, to laughter.
During his address, though, Baugh made it clear that the writing on Miss Lou was no laughing matter, emphasising the validity of her literary value, the text behind the performance. And in his response, in which he thanked numerous persons, Morris spoke about the matter of language which is often used in debates about Miss Lou's literary merit. "Miss Lou was trying to redress cultural imbalance ... she was comfortable in Standard English," Morris said.
Not against English
Not only was she not against Standard English, but Morris also said "... people often overestimate the degree to which Miss Lou met formidable opposition when she started. She had opposition, but she had it when she finished. It was continuous," Morris said, noting a heckler in her first performance who shouted "A dat yu madda sen yu go school fa?"
"It is something that has never really changed," Morris said.
In one interview, speaking about the criticism, Miss Lou said, "Me never take no notice. Gleaner never take no notice, for Gleaner did a sell."
Morris also pointed out that Miss Lou was tenaciously and deeply religious, and, referring to Olive Senior's assessment of Miss Lou creating a universe with a moral centre, said Bennett-Coverley "radiated goodness, gentleness of spirit".
The launch of Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture was hosted during the UWI, Mona's Research Days by the Department of Literatures in English, head Dr Michael Bucknor urging, "clap dem", in his opening remarks. The National Library of Jamaica's CEO Winsome Hudson credited Morris as "the person most responsible for her (Miss Lou's) elevation from scorned to beloved".
And musician Peter Ashbourne, one of the persons Morris thanked as someone who assisted Miss Lou tremendously, along with guitarist Kofi Chase, paid musical homage to Miss Lou.
Lilieth Nelson did Miss Lou's Careless and Gay Paris, to good effect, while Amina Blackwood Meeks' Beauty Contest had Jing Bang running humorous riot through a pageant.
Professor Carolyn Cooper noted Morris' work in helping emerging poets find their voice, in introducing poets Oku Onuora, Jean 'Binta' Breeze and Mutabaruka. Each confirmed Morris' impact decades ago, Mutabaruka closing the performances with Dis Poem.
Professor Ishenkumba Kahwa, bringing greetings on behalf of principal, Professor Archibald McDonald, noted that Mutabaruka has two meanings where he is from - one is he who is so tough he cannot be defeated and the other is one who is so great he cannot be counted.
Dr Anthea Morrison gave thanks all round.