Half-Caste – John Agard
This is a poem about asserting your identity against others who would ‘bring you down’. John Agard was born in Guyana in 1949, with a Caribbean father and a Portuguese mother (he is of mixed race). In 1977, he moved to Britain, where he became angry with people who referred to him as ‘half-caste’. Realising that most people who say this do so without thinking about what it really means, he tells off people who use this term without thinking.
The poem’s content starts by sarcastically ‘apologising’ for being half-caste – ‘Excuse me standing on one leg I’m half-caste’. He is not really apologising. This is satire – although the poem starts by apologising for being half-caste, Agard MEANS exactly the opposite.
The next section of the poem argues that mixing colours in art, weather and symphonies does not make a half-thing When he says: ‘Yu mean when Picasso mix red an green is a half-caste canvas’, he is arguing that mixing colours is a GOOD thing, and makes things better! You could say the same for blood and cultures.
He then writes how he must be able only to listen with half-a-ear, look with half-a-eye, offer us half-a-hand, etc. – a sarcastic, even angry, denunciation of the word ‘half’ in ‘half-caste’. He writes: ‘I half-caste human being cast half-a-shadow’ – here, ‘half-a-shadow’ has a sinister vampire-like tone, and the author seems to be pointing out that by using the word half-caste, people are saying that he is not really human, but inferring that there is something sub-human, even evil about him.
He finishes by saying: ‘but yu must come back tomorrow wid … de whole of yu mind’ – here he is pointing out that it is us who have been thinking with only half-a-brain when we thoughtlessly use the word ‘half-caste’. In this way, he challenges the readers to change their thinking, and come up with a better word.
As for the poet’s feelings, in early recordings of the poem, Agard sounds angry and bitter. ‘Excuse me standing on one leg…’ is said in an aggressive tone.
He objects to being called half a human being, and asserts that there is much more to him than we realise.
The words: ‘I half-caste human being’ show that he is insulted by the term ‘half-caste’.
His tone is challenging, even threatening (e.g: ‘Explain yuself wha yu mean when yu say half-caste’) as he asserts his identity as a whole human being and demands that readers change their attitudes.
In later recordings, Agard does not sound as angry – he even makes a joke of it, and he brings out the humour of phrases such as: ‘Excuse me standing on one leg’. Perhaps this is because fewer people use the term half-caste nowadays. But it may also be that sees the funny side to it himself.
For the poem’s structure, the poet uses short lines (e.g. ‘Excuse me’) and almost no punctuation (he uses ‘/’ instead of a full stop) to convey the direct and confrontational nature of the message. It makes the poem go quickly so it feels like someone ‘kicking off’ at you – pouring out his feelings at the reader.
One line is devoted to the Caribbean phrase: ‘ah rass’ – an expletive meaning ‘my arse’ – which makes this line of the poem very angry and aggressive, as though Agard has just got so angry explaining his argument that he cannot contain his anger any more.
He repeats key phrases such as ‘Explain yuself’ (four times) and ‘haaaalf-caste’ to hammer home his message.
The poem does not rhyme, but the words do have a Caribbean rhythm which is reinforced by the repetition of phrases like: ‘Wha yu mean’ and: ‘de whole of’; this reminds you of Caribbean limbo dancing and sense of rhythm
– perhaps Agard is asserting his Caribbean heritage, or perhaps it just comes naturally from his childhood in Guyana.
The poem has four sections, each with a different message so that – even though it is funny and angry – the poem gradually builds up its argument, step by step, that ‘half-caste’ is an unacceptable phrase and we ought not to use it.
The language of the poem is a mixture of Caribbean dialect and formal British English – the poet at one point says in Caribbean dialect: ‘Ah lookin at yu wid de keen half of mih eye’, but at another in BBC English: ‘Consequently when I dream I dream half-a-dream’. This very powerfully gets across the fact that Agard is of mixed heritage.
Agard uses direct speech (e.g. ‘I’/ ‘yu’) and many commands (such as ‘Explain yuself’) to point his thoughts directly at the reader, and to make the poem challenging and confrontational.
Agard makes use of metaphor, comparing ‘half-caste’ to art, the weather and music, which makes the poem a kind of parable – many teachers use analogy in their teaching to get the point across.
He also uses scathing humour – including the joke: ‘in dat case england weather nearly always half-caste’ – because humour can also help to give a point more impact.
About this poem is that it has made me stop using the term ‘half-caste’, but it also makes me angry about abuse words which I suffer from people who use them thoughtlessly.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don’t eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I’m on your side.
I got lots of friends who are turkeys
An all of dem fear christmas time,
Dey wanna enjoy it, dey say humans destroyed it
An humans are out of dere mind,
Yeah, I got lots of friends who are turkeys
Dey all hav a right to a life,
Not to be caged up an genetically made up
By any farmer an his wife.
Turkeys just wanna play reggae
Turkeys just wanna hip-hop
Can yu imagine a nice young turkey saying,
“I cannot wait for de chop”,
Turkeys like getting presents, dey wanna watch
Turkeys hav brains an turkeys feel pain
In many ways like yu an me.
I once knew a turkey called…….. Turkey
He said “Benji explain to me please,
Who put de turkey in christmas
An what happens to christmas trees?”,
I said “I am not too sure turkey
But its nothing to do wid Christ Mass
Humans get greedy an waste more dan need be
An business men mek loadsa cash’.
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
Invite dem indoors fe sum greens
Let dem eat cake an let dem partake
In a plate of organic grown beans,
Be nice to yu turkey dis christmas
An spare dem de cut of de knife,
Join Turkeys United an dey’ll be delighted
An yu will mek new friends ‘FOR LIFE’.
1 Zephaniah loves parody . In Propa Propaganda (1996), his poem has a scheme that is a parody of Martin Luther King’s speech I Have a Dream, and Terrible World parodies Louis Armstrong’s song What a Wonderful World. In Talking Turkeys, there’s a clear intertextual link with a very well known anonymous nonsense poem which is sung to the tune of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes
Be kind to your web-footed friends
For that duck may be somebody’s mother,
She lives on the edge of a swamp
Where the weather is always damp.
You may think that this is the end,
Well it is but to prove that you’re all liars,
We’re going to sing it again,
But only this time we will sing a little higher.
Repeat the song but sing it a bit higher. Continue for as many rounds as you can
stand! The last verses are:
You may think that this is the end…
Well, you’re right!
2 After finding the similarities between the song and the poem you can discuss why Zephaniah may have resorted to parody and whether the poem transcends mere
imitation. You can also try to sing the poem to the tune of Stars and Stripes!
3 Humour generally relies on anticlimax -what makes you smile or laugh is what’s unexpected, ironic or absurd. In “Be nice to your turkeys dis Christmas”, the reference to the Christmas season right after the request that we be nice to turkeys is truly anticlimatic, as all of us know it’s the time of year when most turkeys end up on the table. Go over the poem and provide further examples.
4 Another major device used in the poem is personification. In it, turkeys think, behave and feel like humans. As Zephaniah is a vegan, his purpose in resorting to personification must be to make his readers / listeners empathise with turkeys. Which are the lines which, in your view. are the most moving?
5 In informal American English, “to talk turkey” means to discuss something honestly and directly. Is the title a mere play on words in keeping with the poem’s light tone or does it have a more serious purpose? What about the play on words between “Christmas” and “Christ Mass”?
6 ‘He said “Benji, explain to me please / who put de turkey in Christmas…?”’ On the Internet you can find a lot of information on this Christmas custom, for example, at
http://www.animalaid.org.uk/campaign/vegan/xmasshop.htm. What follows is a summary: originally from America, turkeys reached Europe around 1524. Already in the early XVII century, they were the common meal at rich people’s Christmas table -the poor having to be content with geese. However, it was Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that popularised the serving of turkeys for Christmas dinner.
7 All poetry should be read aloud to appreciate its rhythm and sound effects, and more so in the case of truly oral poetry such as Zephaniah’s. The type of poetry he prefers
is that of “performance poets who are unpublished and want to stay that way”. According to The Independent on Sunday, Zephaniah’s poems “bounce up from the
page and demand to be read, rapped, sung and hip-hopped aloud”. Is this true of this poem? Concentrate on some of the devices he’s used to achieve this effect: end
rhyme, internal rhyme (eg line7), repetition of whole lines, phrases, structures (eg the imperatives on lines 32, 33 & 34) and sounds (eg “ dey’ll be delighted”)
8 One of Zephaniah’s purposes as a poet is to change people’s way of looking at poetry, for them to feel less intimidated by a genre which most people relate to elaborate, obscure and sophisticated language. His style is just the opposite: he uses everyday speech and dialect, and writes words as they sound. Pick out the most striking examples of this in the poem. Have you ever come across poetry like this one? Do you agree with his use of ‘unpoetic’ language or do you think the language of poetry should be more ‘educated’?
9 The poem tells us turkeys “wanna play reggae” and “hip hop”. As both types of popular music have exerted a profound influence on Zephaniah’s artistic output, an interesting activity would be to do some research on the two terms on the Internet. The site below will provide you with useful information on rap music and hiphop
culture: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/ curriculum/ units/1993/4/93.04.04.x.html
I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded a white sheep
I slaved as a whitesmith
Near a white spot
Where I suffered whitewater fever.
Whitelisted as a whiteleg
I waz in de white book
As a master of white art,
It waz like white death.
People called me white jack
Some hailed me as white wog,
So I joined de white watch
Trained as a white guard
Lived off de white economy.
Caught and beaten by de white shirts
I waz condemned to a white mass.
I shall be writing to de Black House.
from Propa Propaganda
1 A quick reading of the poem already shows that Zephaniah has cleverly changed most of the words or phrases which should contain the word “black” into “white”. Again, as in the previous poem, he’s resorted to defamiliarisation: we expect “black” and get its opposite. Has he done so solely for the sake of humour?
2 Turn the poem into its “black” counterpart (except for “white lies”) and look up the meaning of the words and phrases, paying special attention to the very negative connotations of most of them. Instead, “white”, at least to those who have been brought up within a European culture, connotes what’s morally or spiritually pure, stainless, innocent, free from evil. Discuss the meaning and connotations of terms and phrases such as a white flag, white lies, white magic, a white knight, the white hope, Whitehall (to refer to the British government) and the White House in Washington DC –here called the Black House, the poem’s last meaningful joke.
3 After discussing these aspects of English (and Spanish, for that matter), what do you think the poem says about the connotations embedded in western languages and cultures? Have you ever stopped to think about this issue? Are you acquainted with the pressure exerted by American feminist organisations to change some words in the language which they consider instances of discrimination, such as mankind (humankind), spokesman (spokesperson), fireman (firefighter), policeman (police officer)? An interesting site on sexist words in common use is http://www.stetson.edu/ departments/history/nongenderlang.html.
4 In order to truly appreciate Zephaniah’s wonderful ear for the sounds of the language, reread the poem aloud and concentrate on the devices he’s used to make the poem so rhythmic: the repetition of vowel and consonantal sounds and the use of short lines. You must have also noticed his use of waz, wid, an’ and de. What do you ascribe it to?
According to my mood
I have poetic license,
i WriTe thE way i waNt.
i drop my full stops where i like………..
MY CAPITAL LetteRs go where i liKE,
i order from MY PEN,
i verse the way i like
(i do my spelling write)
According to My Mood.
i Have poetic license,
i put my commers where i like,,((())).
(((my brackets are write((
I REPEAT WHen i likE.
i can’t go rong.
i look and i. c.
i Repeat when i liKE. I have
don’t question me????
from City Psalms
1 Though it’s true that poets have traditionally taken greater liberties than prose writers in the handling of language, Zephaniah here seems to have run the gamut of poetic licenses
Which liberties has he taken regarding spelling, capital letters and punctuation?
What’s the effect of these instances of poetic irreverence on the reader?
2 The tone of the poem is evidently humorous, however, its purpose isn’t banal. In it, Zephaniah is making a provocative statement on his aim as a poet. Pick out the many
repetitions of words and sentences in the poem and discuss what the poet wishes to emphasise by means of this device.
3 Zephaniah not only plays with typeface and punctuation in this poem; he also seems to have a relish for wordplay, as can be seen in his use of “write” and “rite” for “right”. Why
is the punning (the play on words) so apt?