James Keir Baxter’s ‘Farmhand’: An Analysis

James Keir Baxter was a New Zealand poet born in 1926. Before his death in 1972, he had achieved renown as a poet and playwright. Today I am blogging on one of his poems, ‘Farmhand’. ‘Farmhand’ is a narrative poem. It tells the story of an unnamed young man who is painfully shy and, as a result, finds it difficult to approach the opposite sex. Thus, in matters of romance, the hero of this poem is seen to be a failure. However, he has his area of advantage; and that is in the farm, where he makes up for his inadequacies in his relationship with the opposite sex.

The poem is organised in five stanzas. Each stanza is made up of four lines. Thus, the poem is written in quatrains. There is no regularity in the poem’s rhythm as the poem is written more or less in free verse. The stanzas also make use of enjambment. Perhaps the absence of regular rhythm, the use of free verse and the use of enjambment serve to sustain the narrative texture of the poem. The poem has a dramatic quality which is made possible by the use of the second person narrative viewpoint in the opening line, as well as the withholding of the protagonist’s name throughout the poem. This implies that the poem’s hero could be any young person out there and that the poet is not describing any particular individual’s experiences. Another dimension of the poem’s dramatics is seen in the narration itself; the sudden changes in scenes, perspectives and the surprise ending, where the reader is made aware of the persona’s field of passion in life.

The first stanza of Baxter’s ‘Farmhand’ reads: ‘You will see him light a cigarette/At the hall door careless, leaning his back/Against the wall, or telling some new joke/To a friend, or looking out into the secret night’. One can find in Baxter’s ‘Farmhand’ a deeply psychological poem. In the first stanza, the poet presents the various actions engaged in by the protagonist to cope with the stress and anxiety of finding himself in a socially awkward situation. Among the coping mechanisms are smoking (‘lighting a cigarette’), taking an awkward posture, isolating himself when he should be dancing, telling a joke to escape facing his fears of approaching the ladies and keeping his stare fixed at the darkness outside the dancing hall when he should be inside. The use of the present participles like ‘leaning’, ‘telling’ and ‘looking’ adds to the dramatic quality of the poem as it suggests to the reader’s mind that the events are taking place in the present time.

The second stanza reads: ‘But always his eyes turn/To the dance floor and the girls drifting like flowers/Before the music that tears/Slowly in his mind an old wound open’. The fact that the hero keeps stealing a glance at the dance hall is an indication that it is where his interest really lies. The expression ‘the girls drifting like flowers’ constitutes simile and is used to describe the dance steps or the dance rhythm of the ladies. The word ‘flowers’ exemplifies visual imagery and captures the beauty of the dancing young women. There is the use of personification in the third line when the music is seen to ‘tear’ the hero’s mind. The expression ‘an old wound’ is a metaphor for the hero’s social trauma. It conveys to the reader the idea that this scene of social embarrassment is being reenacted and that it has always been a point of anxiety for the protagonist.

The third stanza reads: ‘His red burnt face and hairy hands/Were not made for dancing or love-making/But rather the earth wave breaking/To the plough, and crops slow-growing as his mind’. In this stanza, the poet depicts the hero as being socially out of place. The poet deploys visual imagery in the first line to illustrate the idea that the young man was raised in an environment different from where he is at the moment, and where he is trying so hard to fit in. Obviously, the hero is used to working in the open field with his hands. He is a farmer; he ploughs the land and plants crops. There is the use of kinesthetic imagery in the expression ‘slow-growing’ and it serves two purposes. First, it suggests the blunt wit associated with the character in a strange and uncomfortable social setting. Note the simile in the comparison of the hero’s mind with how the crops grow. Second, it depicts the idea that the persona’s identity is linked to farming which he is good at and which he thinks about all the time.

The fourth stanza reads: ‘He has no girl to run her fingers through/His sandy hair, and giggle at his side/When Sunday couples walk. Instead/He has his awkward hopes, his envious dreams to yarn to.’ This stanza deepens the loneliness and the social isolation felt by the poem’s central character. The persona does not have a romantic partner like the other young men of his age obviously because he is shy and cannot approach ladies. Thus, he misses some of the benefits of having such a relationship. The persona is hence depicted as poor in these aspects of life. All he has are hopes and dreams, and he cannot possibly be said to be a complete failure if he has these. Hopes and dreams are the best currencies that a young person can have when it comes to facing an uncertain future. The expression ‘sandy hair’ conjures up an image of someone who works with the soil. The word ‘giggle’ constitutes auditory imagery in the second line. The expression ‘when Sunday couples walk’ suggests a Christian community where people value marriage and show off their partners after church. This description makes the reader to pity the unfortunate youth all the more for being alone in the midst of paired lovers.

The last stanza of the poem reads: ‘But ah in harvest watch him/Forking stooks, effortless and strong/Or listening like a lover to the song/Clear, without fault, of a new tractor engine’. This stanza provides a dramatic climax to the story told in the poem. It also reverses some of the notions we have had about our central character. It is in this stanza that the poet presents the area of life where the hero of the poem is not shy, not embarrassed and not at all anxious. The exclamation in the first line serves to convey the narrator’s excitement and to heighten the climatic mood of the poem, setting the tone for the surprising thing we are about to learn about the persona. Unlike the first stanza, the setting of the final stanza is the farm. This is evident in the words such as ‘harvest’, ‘forking’ (which for me constitutes a pun in the poem!), ‘stooks’ and ‘tractor’. Unlike the first stanza, the persona performs his farm duties with ease and passion. The simile in the third line conveys the idea that the persona loves farming and has a comprehensive understanding of its processes. This compensates for his inadequacies observed in the first stanza. Thus, the defence mechanism deployed in this stanza is compensation. The hero makes up for his social awkwardness at the dance hall with his farming skills. And although he cannot love ladies, he is seen to be deeply in love with farming whose language he speaks with ease and passion.  


How does Baxter make the hero such an interesting character in the poem?

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