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Half­Caste By John Agard

Excuse me  standing on one leg  I’m half­caste

Agard’s five stanza poem uses structure effectively. He writes using very short lines, maybe to separate himself from traditional English poets and assert his cultural differences – or to make what looks a little like “half a poem”? Notice, too that Agard doesn’t use punctuation – yet still makes his meaning clear. He wants to show us that being different makes you something good – an individual, not a “half” person in any way. He celebrates his ‘differentness’ as should we all! The poem opens by creating a funny physical image – a man on one leg. This captures our attention – but a good point is made that we should laugh at terms such as “half caste” when used as meaningless and offensive labels to suggest ideas that “purity” is better, for example. None of us are “pure”: Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Norman invasions… we are all a mixture of cultures. Yet Agard knows that humour helps win arguments – and this poem is an argument. Humour crosses boundaries rather than setting them up. Agard seems to be responding to those people who think of him as – or call him – ‘half-caste’; he rightly feels that this labels him as some kind of ‘half person’. Notice how he opens the poem using Standard English before changing to a representation of Caribbean English dialect. This creates not only a strong contrast but also shows us from the outset that he can write in a “standard” way if he wants. When we’ve read the poem, we might wonder at which parts are most effective in creating a powerful message – the “Caribbean” non-standard parts or the “standard English” parts. His message might be that criticising someone for the way they speak is simply silly as powerful arguments can be created using all kinds of language.

Explain yuself  wha yu mean  when yu say half­caste  yu mean when picasso  mix red an green  is a half­caste canvas/  explain yuself  wha yu mean  when yu say half­caste  yu mean when light an shadow  mix in de sky is a half­caste weather/  well in dat case  england weather  nearly always half­caste  in fact some o dem cloud  half­caste till dem overcast so spiteful dem dont want de sun pass  ah rass/ explain yuself  wha yu mean  when yu say half­caste  yu mean tchaikovsky  sit down at dah piano  an mix a black key  wid a white key  is a half­caste symphony/ Explain yuself  wha yu mean Ah listening to yu wid de keen  half of mih ear Ah lookin at yu wid de keen  half of mih eye  and when I’m introduced to yu I’m sure you’ll understand  why I offer yu half­a­hand  an when I sleep at night  I close half­a­eye  consequently when I dream  I dream half­a­dream  an when moon begin to glow  I half­caste human being  cast half­a­shadow  but yu must come back tomorrow wid de whole of yu eye an de whole of yu ear an de whole of yu mind an I will tell yu de other half of my story

He changes here from Standard English to a non-standard Caribbean-type dialect using ‘phonetic spellings’. These help us get the pronunciation right but it isn’t what we expect in an “English” poem. Again – he asserts his cultural differences proudly – even aggressively. This is perhaps ironic, too – it is easy to stereotype a person who does not speak ‘properly’ using Standard English – but by forcing the reader to use non-standard dialect and accent Agard helps us see that a fine argument can be made in any form of English, not just the prestige standard variety. He creates a humorous tone initially but immediately we notice that the tone changes to one of frustration and even anger. This is created by the use of the ‘imperative form’ of verbs such as, “Explain…” – this form is used to give orders.

Here Agard continues the fun – but this is still undercut with anger and frustration at the silliness of judging a person as “half…” anything just because of their ‘mixed culture’ or skin colour. Here Agard uses three vivid images: Tchaikovsky, Picasso and the English weather. All of these are celebrated and yet are very ‘mixed’. The piano keys especially create a famous symphony – yet are a mixture of black and white: so, some choose to criticise a mixed black/white man, but not a mixed ‘black & white’ piece of music. Odd or what? Here Agard extends the idea that is suggested when we call someone ‘half caste’ – if he is ‘half’ something, then we shouldn’t be surprised that he has ‘half’ of an ear or eye. Yet this poem shows he is whole is every way. It is those who label him who have the problem.

Here the tone changes from frustration and anger, even if tinged with humour, to one of sadness. There is a sense of pathos in these lines – we can feel for his situation and argument. This is a powerful persuasive device – moving from righteous anger to sadness. The words themselves help to create this new tone of voice: the softer consonants and long soft vowel sounds add to this quality and help us to begin to sympathise with this man.

In what is a very effective ending to the poem, Agard manages to “turn the tables” back to those who call him “half-caste” and suggest “less than whole”: they are the “half” people, using only “half” their “eye”, “ear” and “mind” for failing to see that being mixed race / mixed colour has no bearing whatever on the person inside.

Overall, this poem is surely very effective at making its point because it combines humour with passion and moves, structurally and persuasively, from anger to sadness – it also uses three very vivid and silly-seeming images but in a way that helps the poet make a very un-silly point; and it does so very persuasively. The poem is really not, at heart, only about being called “half caste” – even if that is what it seems to be about on the surface; instead, it is about “being called” anything other than your name – that is, being called by a ‘label’. Labelling someone – or a whole group of people – is so very easy to do and sometimes feels right; but it’s a terrible trap to fall into, whether the label is “half caste”, “geek”, “nerd” or the racist and homophobic labels you might sadly hear at school, labels reduce a very real and human person into something other than that; something not fully whole and real. Labelling is a form of bullying and it has, in history, led to some tragic and terrible events being perpetrated against groups of people. In 1930s Germany, when the Jewish people started to be labelled by Nazis rather than being seen as people, Hitler was able to deal out the utmost horrors against these people of flesh and blood – and against other groups whom he also “labelled”: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals…” he had a long list; for all we know we might have been on it! Whenever we stop thinking of someone as a person with a name, we depersonalise or dehumanise them and all too easily all kinds of things suddenly seems acceptable. Here are some labels: “the poor”, “snobs”, “bimbo”, “low life”, “yob”, “cripple”, “fatso”… … you have heard these and many more.

SJC (Rev. 20/05/2008)

Poetry - Cultures Agard Annotated