Flag – John Agard

John Agard is one of my favourite poets, simply for one magnificent poem called Half-Caste. I cannot get enough of it. So it gives me heaps of delight to analyse this one.

Flag – John Agard

Many poems begin with a question and this one is no different. The question and the title link together immediately in the mind of the reader because we expect to see a flag “fluttering in the breeze.” It is a nice picture, a positive picture, to begin with, but when coupled with the next two lines, it becomes something in the mind of the reader that brings about a sense of pride in the nation we inhabit. With Agard born overseas, this reflects his country of birth, but it could indeed reflect and represent any country someone calls ‘home.’

A flag fluttering in the breeze can “bring a nation to its knees” in reverence as well, for it is an emblem of a nation’s unity. This is why political parties the world over choose to use the national flag to represent their values and viewpoints, but to then add that the same flag is “just a piece of cloth that makes the guts of men grow bold” strengthens the feeling of nationalistic pride even further. One sees a very positive poem here from someone proud of his heritage. But students of Agard will know there is to be a twist at the end.

With the introduction of the question “what’s that rising over the tent? And the answer that follows of “it’s just a piece of cloth that dares the coward relent” one sees the change and the conflict that good poets usually put into their poems. A flag is all these things but daring a coward to relent from his [or her] cowardice is something that then suggests that Agard is now talking to those with weaker hearts and this poem becomes a polemic to those people. [look up the word, polemic please]

Agard then continues with “what’s that flying across a field? Again this is an image in the mind of the reader that in warfare, such things would indeed happen. But to consider it to be “just a piece of cloth” is a negative sounding comment and one that makes the poem change tone at this point. It has changed from the flag that brings pride to the one that “will outlive the blood you bleed.” The flag then, is something that can be seen in many different ways, dependent upon the person viewing it.

In this sense, one begins to see Agard’s attitude towards war, based on the use of the flag in the past. In times gone by, when soldiering was more traditional and man fought man, the ‘colours’ or the ‘flag’ was flown high. Indeed some countries like America hold the flag very highly in their understanding of what it is to be American. But Agard is now being critical and one has to see this here.

He asks “how can I possess such a cloth? Apart from the obvious duality of the meaning of the word “possess” he is asking how he can get into that mindset like others. How can he hold to nationalistic views like others? To a certain extent, one can, but how extreme do your views go before the flag becomes a nightmare that has to be burned? We see extremism where these things happen. To those people, a flag is a sign of intolerance and indifference. It is something to be hated and loathed, burnt and mocked. Their views have been blinded from the reality of a standpoint and the ability to have tolerance for another nation and their emblem, their flag.

In this way, Agard is saying that it is very easy for someone to ask to buy a flag because in doing so, one’s thoughts can be blinded, or that a person can “blind” their “conscience to the end.” In doing so, they allow themselves to be blinded to the truth that we all should get on with each other and the hatred should stop. Once we see that the flag is merely a representative aspect of our nation and hold it at that, we can be the neighbours we need to be with each other.

This is a poem therefore that has cynical attitudes towards warfare and to the notion of the country’s flag. A flag is just a flag, nothing else and to be blinded by hatred and indifference just because of a piece of cloth with a design on it would be foolish.

Flag – John Agard

What’s that fluttering in the breeze?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to its knees.

What’s that unfurling from a pole?
It’s just a piece of cloth
That makes the guts of men grow bold

What’s that rising over the tent?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward relent.

What’s that flying across a field?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that will outlive the blood you bleed.

How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag my friend.
Then blind your conscience to the end.