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Analysis of Poem 'Farmhand' by James K. Baxter

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

James K. Baxter and family

James K. Baxter and family

'Farmhand' Poem Analysis

'Farmhand' is one of James K. Baxter's earlier poems written in the 1940s and is a portrayal of a young farm worker who appears socially awkward when out of the farming environment.

  • The poem's theme is that of an individual's place within the mainstream, specifically that of a male having to balance instinct and behaviour, between work and social spheres.

Baxter explores what it is to be human, highlighting the young man's limitations at a dance where girls are 'drifting like flowers' and all the males presumably hanging around, plucking up enough courage to ask for a dance.

It's a typical teenage scene at the local village hall and the narrative form (with slant rhyme and varied line) adds dissonance and uncertainty as the farmhand smokes a cigarette and cracks a joke but cannot ignore what is going on around him.

  • This is a poem about two worlds - the individual inner and the collective outer. Baxter's intuitive talent is to explore the gap between them and, with a uniquely insightful guile, use plain language to create the bridge for the reader to cross.

Sensitive to those on the periphery of the mainstream throughout his career, his poetry seeks to understand social and political issues and either develop them mythologically or personally through reflection, history and nature.

Precocious and controversial, he has a go at materialism, exploitation and the political world. A religious man, he later focused on God and spirituality but always kept an alternative eye on things.

As he himself said about his own poetry, he:

'lived inside the spiritual bomb-shelters erected by Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane.'

Baxter was a restless character and never really settled into his marriage, job and family life due to alcoholism. Later on in life he grew a big beard and went barefoot around the place, helping set up a commune at Hiruharama (Jerusalem), becoming a voice for the indigenous Maori people.

But he was prolific as a writer, playwright and poet and is still a large inspiring figure in New Zealand and beyond.

'Whenever anybody comes to my door, where I live at Jerusalem, he or she receives a ritual embrace and is offered food and drink and a place to lie down.'



Stanza By Stanza Analysis

'Farmhand' is a poem of 20 lines split into five stanzas, quatrains, with four lines each. Each stanza is one complete sentence, apart from the fourth stanza which is two sentences.

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Stanza 1

The narrator, the speaker, addresses the collective you, that is, the reader and anyone else who might care to listen to and look at the subject...him. We already know from the title that a farmhand is the subject, that's someone who works on a farm.

He is lighting a cigarette, a common enough occurrence, near a hall door. Nothing unusual about that, except the grammar, with careless at the end of a clause. The farmhand is telling a joke, leaning back - again, normal things to do.

That last line however slightly changes the atmosphere because the subject is aware of the secret night, which suggests that he knows something the reader does not, or that something the night holds is especially for him and no-one else. Is it something dark?

Stanza 2

The male smoker is also looking at the girls on the dance floor, an instinctive action. Note the enjambment, lines running on into the next without pause.

The last two lines imply that this farmhand has been hurt in some way; perhaps the music reminds him of a past relationship with a girl that left him scarred.

Stanza 3

His physical make-up isn't really conducive to intimacy within a relationship - is the speaker suggesting that he is clumsy with those hairy hands? Or that he doesn't relate to the feminine?

It seems he's a tad too agricultural for the dance floor or the bed. He's more at home in the fields, behind a plough, in the crops- note the metaphor of the crops for that of the farmhand's mind.

Here is a man suited only to manual work outside. Although he wants to join in with the girls he just hasn't the finesse or aptitude.

Stanza 4

This is reinforced in the fifth stanza. This guy can only hope for a girl, this guy perhaps has inner wishes but outwardly, his physicality gets in the way.

That saying to spin a yarn comes to mind in the last line. He can only talk to himself silently, within, he can only wish for a girl and a relationship.

Stanza 5

To compensate for this lack he is however perfect for performing out in the fields - Forking stooks is to gather the hay or straw up with a pitchfork and stack it in special standing bundles, to dry.

He may not be a dancer, he may not be a love-maker but he gets his kicks listening to a new tractor engine. This is music to his ears and is something he can truly appreciate.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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