In this essay I will be comparing three poems, all concerning the social acceptance and positions of different cultures. The three poems are: ‘Search For My Tongue’ by Sujata Bhatt, ‘Unrelated Incidents’ by Tom Leonard and ‘Half-Caste’ by John Agard. The first one deals with he clash of languages, the second one with the seclusion of the lower class, and the third one with the controversial term of being ‘half-caste’.
‘Search For My Tongue’ by Sujata Bhatt describes her fear of losing her mother tongue to a new language. She has moved away from her own country and now speaks her new language more than her native tongue, which she worries might ‘rot and die’ because of the struggle between the two languages. However, she is relieved when her mother tongue returns in her dreams. She imagines it as pushing away the other tongue, and she is delighted that she still remembers it.
‘Unrelated Incidents’ is about Tom Leonard’s views on the separation between lower classes and upper and middle classes. He feels that a posh accent does not make you more important than someone with a ‘common’ accent. He believes that one’s dialect should not affect the way people are judged, and if they are listened to or not. He believes that maybe someone would not take a working-class accent as seriously as someone with a BBC accent’, as he puts it.
‘Half-Caste’ describes John Agard’s displeasure with the term ‘half-caste’. He believes that having parents from different racial backgrounds does not make you half of everything. He is proud of what he is and is disgusted by being implied as being ‘half a person’ and not being treated the same. Being mixed race for him is being something special and being double instead of half.
In ‘Search for My Tongue’, Bhatt describes the struggle between the two languages as two physical tongues fighting in her mouth. She says that you could not use them together and that “your mother tongue would rot, rot and die in your mouth, until you had to spit it out”. This gives a gruesome view of the fight between languages, and it is the way in which she feels the struggle is going. This strong expression gets the idea through and emphasises this by using imagery and repetition. Imagery is used a lot in the poem, both describing the struggle of the two tongues and also the image of her mother tongue being a flower or a plant which “blossoms out of [her] mouth”. She says that in her dreams it “grows back, a stump of a shoot, grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins, it ties the other tongue in knots, the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth, it pushes the other tongue aside”. This displays the tongue as a very powerful and fast-growing plant, which in the end is always more important than her new language.
Bhatt also writes her Gujerati lines in its original form, using non-English letters. This shows the difference between the two languages and helps us understand the difficulty she is going through. She also writes the lines out phonetically so we can read it as well and understand it. This part of the poem is the translated further down, describing her thoughts about her new and old, native language.
The word tongue has several meanings in the poem. First of all, a physical tongue (used in the imagery) and the struggle between the two tongues. Secondly, there is the meaning of tongue which means language, which is the meaning which first in the most in the poem. Finally, her loss of words is described as having “lost her tongue”.
I think the first part of the poem is written with worry and disappointment, then anger at her new language, and finally relief and triumph as her mother tongue returns. “Every time I think I’ve forgotten,
I think I’ve lost the mother tongue, it blossoms out of my mouth.”
This justifies my belief.
Unrelated Incidents by Tom Leonard is in the same area as ‘Search for my Tongue’ (i.e. the clash of cultures and traditions), but takes a different concern and standpoint.
The poem is written in original, phonetic Glaswegian, using a lot of slang, and almost no punctuation. It speaks directly to the reader using colloquial words and very direct phrases (“belt up”). It explains the idea that many people believe that you should be judged on your accent and class. The poem seems to be read by a BBC newsreader that would normally have a “BBC accent”. However, the poem is written in a normal speaking accent, in this case Glaswegian. Prejudices are also revealed, something that would not happen in real life, but this may be the kind of sub-text that appears when newsreaders read their copy.
The poem itself explains and fights a serious issue in a humorous, satirical way. Is this the way the media actually see us “common scruff”? And why should an accent or a class define you as a person, at least in front of others? Leonard tells us that there is no ‘right’ way to speak, as he satirically says in the poem:
“thirza right way ti spell ana right way to tok it”
The point here is that a Glaswegian accent is just as ‘correct’ and respectable as a “BBC accent”, and that an accent is just the way you speak, not the way you are. Believing that your accent is the only real one is just arrogant. Another quote explains how people would not take you seriously if you read the news with a “common accent” and that this is a problem in society concerning this:
“this reason a talk wia BBC accent iz coz yi widny wahnt mi ti talk aboot thitrooth wia voice likwanna yoo scruff.”
The poem ends with the phrase “belt up”, implying that only the BBC-accented newsreader has the right to an opinion, which follows the main theme of the poem itself.
The final poem is called ‘Half-Caste’, and it was written by John Agard, a man with a mixed race background (his mother was white and his father was black).
The poem concerns John Agard’s disapproval of the term ‘half-caste’. He thinks it is insulting and that it gives all the wrong implications.
The basic idea that Agard attempts to get through is that being mixed race doesn’t make you ‘half a person’.
The structure of the poem is quite basic, with 5 stanzas, and the lines are short to really make a point and hammer home the message.
In terms of language, there is a lot of repetition especially of the lines “Explain yuself” and “half”. This builds up a nice pattern and emphasises his views and argument. Agard uses a lot of comparisons with well-known people and objects to make us laugh and so we can relate. For example, he asks us if
“yu mean tchaikovsky
sit down at dah piano
an mix a black key
wid a white key
is a half-caste symphony”
This uses a famous image to help us understand the stupidity of the word “half-caste”. Picasso is also mentioned:
“yu mean when picasso mix red an green is a half-caste canvas”
These two examples make the same point: If Tchaikovsky only used the white keys and if Picasso only used green in his paintings they wouldn’t be considered the masterpieces that they are. In the same way, why does being a mixture of black and white make you any less than a white person? Surely you’re more of a double person than a ‘half’ person. The term “half-caste” almost implies that only the white part matters, which is extremely racist.
The poem has almost no punctuation because it was written to be read aloud. Agard himself says that “Sometimes I think no punctuation can be effective because if the words are floating in space it gives the reader a chance to punctuate with their own breath…”
The fact that the poem is written almost entirely in lower case actually adds to the argument. They are just half-letters, yet you still read and understand them normally. That Agard has written in non-standard English (using words like “yu” and “dem”) establishes his individuality, and that he has the right to speak how he wants, just like all other people of mixed race. This is also almost “mixed language”, just like being mixed race. The term “half-caste” kind of implies that they are second-class, which is what this goes against.
The tone of the poem seems to start off being understanding but a little angry. He puts the racists on the spot by asking them to “explain [demselves]”, like you would do if someone had hurt someone else, or committed a crime of some sort. He also uses humour to make it easier to read, and like Agard himself said: “Humour brakes down barriers” I.e. the barrier between people in this instance.
Finally, I believe that the aim of the poem is to argue the case that being mixed race doesn’t make you “half” of anything, you are exactly the same as everyone else. Agard wrote this poem to help people understand this.
The three poems all explore the issues of cultural identity and the barriers between cultures and especially concerning language. “Search for my Tongue” explains a personal struggle (which some people can relate to) while “Unrelated Incidents” and “Half-Caste” explain issues on a wider scale involving global issues, with more scope.
My favourite out of the three is “Unrelated Incidents” by Tom Leonard. He proves a lot of valid points and I agree with the statement he is making. Also, the humour in the poem is good, and something which I can personally relate to in many ways.