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John Ashbery is the kind of poet who likes to see what he can get away with. In this poem, he gets away with using an old, complicated French poetic form to write about cartoon characters. The poem's main character is Popeye – you know, the guy who squints a lot and loves spinach. This is the kind of poem that makes you laugh out loud and think deep thoughts all at once.
Ashbery might be America's most famous living poet, which is strange, because he has done as much as any writer to break down the old ideas of what literature should be. Talking about literary tradition, he once said, "You can't say it that way anymore" (source). He doesn't particularly like literary criticism, and his poems mix elements of "high" and "low" culture with no regard for the distinction between the two. "Poetry includes anything and everything," Ashbery once said. "I read anything which comes to my hand. National Enquirer, Dear Abby, a magazine at the dentist, a Victorian novel" (source).
Ashbery got his start in 1956 when he won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series. The judge of the contest was W.H. Auden, the great British poet and one of Ashbery's heroes (check out Shmoop's coverage of Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen"). The award allowed the young poet to publish his first book, Some Trees. Because he lived in New York at the same time as other poets like Frank O'Hara (read about O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died") and Barbara Guest, critics have included Ashbery in the so-called "New York School" of poetry. He also lived in France for several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The French influence is obvious in this poem, which borrows the French "sestina" form and uses it in a distinctly modern, American context.
"Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" was published in Ashbery's 1966 collection The Double Dream of Spring. It remains one of his most popular works. In 1975 he won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The title poem from that book is Ashbery's most famous work, and we encourage you to get your hands on it.
Ashbery teaches at Bard College and continues to publish amazing poems.
Here's all you need to know: Ashbery was selected as the first poet laureate of MtvU, the MTV channel for college students (source). That's right: the same company that brought you The Real World and that Paris Hilton's My New BFF also digs an 80-something-year-old poet with white hair and a large collection of sweaters.
Though Ashbery confuses the heck out of a lot of adults, younger people tend to connect with his poetry much more easily. In this way, we think he's a lot like the internet. When you open an Ashbery book – or even a poem – you know you're not going to be able to explore every nook and cranny. That's part of the fun. Just like the internet, you get to discover as much as you want, and know there is always more to come back to. With some writers, you need a dictionary to understand what the poem means. With Ashbery, it's more helpful to have a search engine handy. After all, a dictionary isn't going to tell you that Swee'pea, the Crown Prince of Demonia, was left on Popeye's doorstep as a baby. Reading poems like "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" is like clicking from page to page on the web: Ashbery is constantly changing the subject to keep things lively and interesting.
As if you needed any more reasons to check out this poem, we'll throw you another bone: it's a sestina! What's a sestina? You'll have the read the poem to find out (and also read our analysis of "Form and Meter"), but the short answer is that the sestina is an interesting and complicated poetic form. In other words, this poem gives you a window into the history of poetry going back to 12th century France, without actually having to read about 12th century France. Once you have the sestina under your belt, we bet you'll be dying to discover other forms with equally funny names: The villanelle! The pantoum! The Pindaric Ode! As always, your search engine will be only too happy to facilitate in your quest.
Popeye at Goon Island
A more recent version of the Popeye cartoon that features Olive, Swee'pea, and a trip to Goon Island to see the Sea Hag.
Popeye the Sailor
The first episode of Popeye the Sailor on television. He makes short work of an anchor with his huge forearm muscles.
The PennSound page devoted to Ashbery has lots and lots (and lots) of recordings, including "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape."
A portrait of John Ashbery looking into the camera.
This photo of a Swedish turnip, a.k.a. rutabaga, doesn't exactly make us start salivating.
A drawing of Popeye, who looks like he's about to go bust down a door.
Collected Poems, 1956-1987
John Ashbery is one of a handful of living writers to have his collected works published by the Library of America. It's a huge honor.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
John Ashbery's most famous collection includes the poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" and several other classics.
Ashbery and MTV
The MtvU site dedicated to Ashbery, its first poet laureate.
This online repository of sestinas written by modern poets includes such classics as "Ode to a Thin Mint" and "Attn: Humans Resources."
The official website of Popeye and his friends. You can find the whole story on the show and background on the characters in Ashbery's poem.