Here is an analysis of the poem Half-Caste by John Agard. Agard is a versatile writer known for his poems, short stories, children’s literature, drama, and nonfiction. Agard was born in what is now Guyana in 1949; he is of Afro-Guyanese descent, and his mixed race upbringing is probably his inspiration for writing this poem. Agard started his writing career as a journalist in Guyana. He moved to England in the late 1970s and became a lecturer of Caribbean culture. He has won various awards for his children’s books and poetry throughout his career, and in 1993, he became the Poet in Residence at the BBC in London. Agard continues to write and publish his works today.
Summary of Half-Caste
Half-caste is a derogatory term for a person who is of mixed race. The speaker begins the poem by excusing himself for being half-caste, though it is evident fairly early on that this apology is chock-full of sarcasm. The majority of the poem is filled with the speaker responding to being called half-caste He provides countless examples of the positive sides to being half-caste, asking himself if it being “half-caste” is like Picasso mixing his colors or the dreary English weather that is filled with cloudy skies. The speaker tells the reader that he will soon tell the “other half” of his story, signifying that his mixed race by no means defines who he is as a person—there is so much more.
Half-Caste, which can be read in full here, is composed of four stanzas of varying length, although there does seem to be some symmetry with these stanzas, as the first and last stanza contain only three lines, and the second and third stanzas are both fairly long.
It is important here to touch on Agard’s diction. The word “caste” is associated with the word “purity”; therefore, it is easy to assume that “half-caste” is a derogatory term for someone who is in some way impure, and in this case, that means they are not of one single race. While this term was once accepted, it certainly is insulting and today would be considered to be racist and fueled with ignorance and prejudice.
Agard also employs sarcasm in his first stanza, seemingly apologizing for being of mixed race. It is evident in the stanzas following the first that he is really not apologizing at all. In fact, he is lauding the fact that he is “half-caste.”
After the first stanza, Agard writes the rest of his poem using a Caribbean-English dialect, spelling words out phonetically instead of using proper spelling.
Agard also uses very little punctuation throughout the entire poem, lending a sense of urgency to the speaker’s response. He is obviously very passionate about this topic, and he feels the need to rush in order to fully defend himself as a half-caste.
The second and third stanzas are filled with metaphors: Agard compares being half-caste to black and white piano keys making a symphony and Picasso mixing reds and greens to create his masterpieces. He demands to know what the person asking him means when he says “half-caste.” Agard writes:
Agard’s blatant disregard for punctuation and capitalization is curious here, particularly because he does separate each example he gives with not a question mark, but rather a slash, creating an interesting division between each scenario he gives. Again, these slashes add to the confrontational, angry tone of the poem. The speaker is so quick to offer his argument that he has no time for any real pauses.
Agard also utilizes repetition throughout his passages, constantly asking the person to whom he’s speaking to “explain yuself/what yu mean/when yu say half-caste…” before giving his examples of what the term “half-caste” could possibly mean.
Agard’s second example is far longer than his explanation as to why Picasso’s art may be deemed half-caste. Agard compares the English weather to being half-caste, saying the mix of sun and clouds in the sky is always present in England. His anger really shows in this example, using the word spiteful when discussing how the clouds sometimes seem to not want the sun to be visible. The last line, “ah rass,” is especially angry. This phrase is a Creole term that translates to “my ass,” something someone says when they are angrily dismissing another person’s argument.
Agard uses an allusion to further his point in his third example. The speaker asks the person to whom he’s speaking if Tchaikovsky, a famous Russian composer, created half-caste symphonies because he mixed the black and white keys of the piano as he wrote his masterpieces.
In the third stanza, the examples of half-caste cease, and the tone comes increasingly angry and accusatory. The speaker takes an inward glance at himself, telling the reader that because he’s only “half,” he can only listen with half his ear, offer half a hand when someone needs help, and dream with his eyes only half closed. It is difficult to separate this stanza by lines since it is several ideas strung together. Agard writes:
In the final six lines of the poem, Agard says he is only half a human being who casts only half a shadow, but the other person in the poem can come back tomorrow with his whole self—his eyes, ears, and minds. This poem is brimming with sarcasm; one can almost imagine the speaker spitting these words vehemently at the person who dares to assume someone of mixed race is in some way lesser.
The fourth stanza is a continuation of the third, with Agard telling the person to whom he is addressing that if were to come back tomorrow, the speaker will tell him the other half of his story. Agard writes, “an I will tell yu/de other half/of my story.” These words are quite powerful: Agard is telling his reader that his race is not his full story—there is so much more to him than what one sees at first glance.
Historical Significance of Half-Caste
This poem was included in Agard’s 2005 collection of poems called Half-Caste. The anthology dealt with issues those of mixed race were facing in the United Kingdom.
Analysis of the poem "Half Cast" by John Agard
The language used in the poem is strictly set to the reader. The language is mainly phonetic which gives an accent similar to the one black people had in the old England. “Wha”, “yu”, “dat” and “dem” are some brilliant examples of the use of phonetic language. This represents a mixed race person, in this case John Agard. The words “ “Explain yuself” are directed to the reader in order to make them feel guilty and to think about the phrase “Half Caste”, this is repeated throughout the poem and every time its power increases. John also uses lots of imagery and similes like “yu mean when light an shadow/mix in de sky/is a half-caste weather?/ well in dat case england weather/nearly always half-caste” and “yu mean Tchaikovsky/sit down at dah piano/an mix a black key/wid a white key/is a half-caste symphony?”. Not only does he mock the phrase “half-caste”, but also he shows that it is stupid and ignorant to name someone half pure. At the start of the poem he defines half in a very pure way, “Excuse me/standing on one leg/I’m half-caste”. This shows that it is cruel to refer to someone as “half-caste”. At the end of the poem, John Agard finishes with a personal and strong answer to the term “half-caste”, “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.” John knows refers to you as a “half-caste” since = he tells you that you must come back with the whole of your eye and the whole of your ear and the whole of your mind, meaning that you must know understand the term “half-caste".
The rhythm and rhyme in the poem is very Caribbean and marks John Agards routs. The rhythm helps the poet show his anger and frustration; also it helps get the accent to work fluidly with the phonetic language. From my point of view, I’m sure that John Agard wanted to mock the people using the term rather than showing how he feels. He wants to teach throughout this poem, but also he wants to state why he did this poem. The poem should be heard rather than read, since that’s how the effect gets into the reader. The rhythm and rhyme help this in every way. For example, “I’m sure you’ll understand/why I offer yu half-a-hand/an when I sleep at night/I close half-a-eye/consequently when I dream/I dream half-a-dream” There is rhyme in understand and hand, night and eye and in dream. Also you can feel the rhythm growing in your tong.
Finally, John portrays his feelings into the poem producing his anger to mix with his sarcasm and ideas in order to show how fool and ignorant is the person whom dares to use or abuse from this racist term. His use of phonetic language and rhythm produces the reading of the poem to be vivid and real. It shows the incredible strength in the voice of Agard and mocks the phrase every single time. At the end of the poem, however, he forgives the people who have used this term, giving them a second chance to think over. This is why this poem is so incredible; it shows someone that apparently for “pure races” was useless and impure still manages to have a greater maturity and morality towards the situation making them look like fools and still manages to make them regret and move on from what happened.