Thursday, 29 October 2009


Born in Guyana, South America, in 1949 to parents of mixed nationality, John Agard came to live in Britain in 1977. His poem 'Half-Caste' demonstrates the attitude of narrow-minded people that he must have encountered, who consider people of mixed parentage to be inferior to themselves. The poem is written in non-standard English, in other words in exactly the way that the poet, a non-native speaker, might speak and with the words spelled exactly as they would sound. Whilst contributing to the humour of the poem, it might be confusing for some readers.

The poem opens with a short, sharp three-line stanza in which Agard explains that he is standing on one leg because he is half-caste; it's as though he is saying 'What do you expect, if you consider me to be only half a person, then I would only have one leg.' The poet addresses the reader in a very direct way when he says, 'Explain yuself / wha yu mean / when yu say half-caste', taking the stance that the reader is one of the people who looks down on those of mixed nationality. His argumentative tone continues throughout the poem and emphasizes the fact that those he is addressing have no foundation for their attitude.

Besides the non-standard language itself, the imagery that the poet uses is very humorous and provides an interesting juxtaposition to the criticisms being levelled at certain people. In the second stanza, Agard takes very famous people, namely Picasso and Tchaikovsky (but doesn't give their names capital letters) and says, for example,

'when yu say half-caste

yu mean when picasso

mix red and green

is a half-caste canvas/'

The point he is making here is that Picasso used complementary opposite colours, red and green, but of course nobody questioned that because he was a genius. He was respected. Similarly,

'when yu say half-caste

yu mean tchaikovsky

sit down at dah piano

an mix a black key

wid a white key

is a half-caste symphony/'

This example is perhaps even more potent, since the black and white keys would seem a direct parallel to black and white people. It is obvious that a composer would use both black and white keys of a piano: nobody would question such a thing, so Agard's point is that people of mixed nationality, having one black parent and one white parent, should be accepted in the same way as Tchaikovsky's music is.

Agard further comments that the English weather 'nearly always half-caste' and extends the comparison with a humorous pun: 'in fact some o dem cloud / half-caste till dem overcast'. Giving us such obvious examples of mixtures and half-and-half combinations from culture and climate serves to show how ridiculous it is to look down upon people of mixed nationality.

In the third stanza the poet continues to use examples, this time relating to his own body, to show the absurdity of the concept of being 'half-caste'. He says he is looking at the reader with the 'keen half' of his ear and his eye, as though his ears and eyes would be split in half because he is of mixed parentage. He continues in humorous vein, going on to say that he would only offer 'half-a-hand' when being introduced to the person he is addressing, and that he just closes 'half-a-eye' and dreams 'half-a-dream' when asleep. Another witty play on words follows with the phrase 'I half-caste human being / cast half a shadow'.

The word 'but' in line 47 heralds the final section of the poem, in which Agard asks the reader to return the following day with the 'whole' of their eye, ear and mind; in other words, he is asking the people he is addressing to open up their minds to a new way of thinking. He is in effect accusing them of being the ones to have only half their minds functioning and half their ears listening to him: in other words, if anyone is half-caste, it is those who look upon him as being inferior. The poem ends in a similar way to that in which it began, with a brief, three-line stanza that simply says that Agard will tell people the other half, or other side, of his story if they will come back and listen to him with an open mind. An open mind will allow them to see him as the person he really is, rather than some inferior being.

The poem flows along through its four stanzas of varying length and lines also of varying length, unrestricted by punctuation; there are two forward slashes in the second stanza indicating a break or pause, but not one full-stop. Capital letters are also very few and far between, not being used, as I have mentioned for Picasso or Tchaikovsky. The lack of restrictions of regularity in terms of line length and stanza length, as well as sentence structure, indicate a desire for openness and freedom which suit the theme of the poem.

Agard likes to perform his poems, and it is easy to imagine how powerful a message could come across in this way. Even from reading it, we sense the forcefulness in the manner in which the poet is addressing those he is speaking to, and he would I am sure convey this even more directly in a performance. For those of us who do not have the chance to experience this, we can still sense how outraged he is by the idea that a person of mixed nationality is any less than anyone else, yet he captures our imagination with his imagery and entertains us with his humour to convince us to listen to his way of thinking.

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