The poet is a versatile writer known for his poems, 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. ‘Half-Caste’ is his most famous poem.
He moved to England in the late 1970s and became a lecturer on 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.
‘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.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Half-Caste’ by John Agard 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.
Agard makes use of several literary devices in ‘Half-Caste.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza one as well as lines two and three of stanza two.
- Imagery: for example, “Sit down at dah piano / An mix a black key / Wid a white key / Is a half-caste symphony?”
- Dialect: a form of a language spoken by a group of people. It can be seen throughout the poem.
Analysis of Half-Caste
Standing on one leg
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.
Stanzas Two and Three
Wha yu mean
When yu say half-caste
Yu mean when picasso
Sit down at dah piano
An mix a black key
Wid a white key
Is a half-caste symphony?Explain yuself
Wha yu mean
Ah listening to yu wid de keen
Half of mih ear
But yu come back tomorrow
Wid de whole of yu eye
An de whole of yu ear
And de whole of yu mind
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.
An I will tell yu
De other half
Of my story
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.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Half-Caste’ should also consider reading some similar poems. For example:
- ‘Dreams‘ by Langston Hughes – reflects on the possible death of dreams in an “if” scenario, which indicates “dreams” do not have to “die.” Read more Langston Hughes poems.
- ‘The Importance of Elsewhere‘ by Philip Larkin – is a poem about Irish culture. The poet describes himself and his life in Ireland as an Englishman. Explore more poetry from Philip Larkin.
- ‘To Live in the Borderlands‘ by Gloria Anzaldua – explores Anzaldua’s own heritage and her mixed-race identity.