This poem sounds like a Mad Lib filled out by someone who had just watched the Popeye cartoon:
The first of the (adjective) messages read: "(name) sits in (place),
Unthought of. From that (noun) of an apartment,
From (adjective) curtain's (noun), a (noun) emerges: a country."
Well, at any rate, it's a Mad Lib written by someone who uses strange sentence structures. Parts of the poem are as close to Lewis Carroll's idea of "Jabberwocky" as possible without writing complete nonsense. The poem's language is a hodge-podge of words and phrases that stick out like so many sore thumbs. Like a Md Lib, the poem reads grammatically correct, like a paragraph written in standard English prose. But Ashbery mixes in many different kinds of speech, from old patriotic songs ("For this is my country") to every day slang ("I'm taking the brat to the country") to philosophical reflections ("rupturing the pleasant arpeggio of our years") to child-like rhyming ("musty gusty evening"). The names are similarly ridiculous: the Sea Hag? Swee'pea? Alice the Goon? Then again, they have the virtue of being the real names from Popeye.
The repetition of words like "strange" and "spinach" forces Ashbery to use these words in different contexts and with different meanings to keep the poem varied. Part of the reason that the poem does not have many pauses at the end of lines is to make these words less visible. The entire poem has the tone of matter-of-fact rambling of a Mad Lib: pretty (adjective), huh?
Indeed, what is up with this title? The poem has nothing to do with farm implements, rutabagas, or any landscape apart from a shoebox apartment. Let's start with the basics. "Farm implements" refers to any of the wide variety tools that might be used for farming, like a shovel, hoe, or tractor. A rutabaga is a root vegetable also known as a Swedish or yellow turnip. It is, to be sure, an obscure, dare we say cartoonish, vegetable. You probably don't eat them often, if at all. Ashbery knows all this.
A few more things. First, the six words that are repeated most throughout the poem seem to suggest the difference between rural and city life: "thunder," "apartment," "country," "pleasant," "scratched," and "spinach." The poem is set in the city, but the title refers to the country. Second, the characters in the Popeye cartoon have close relations with various foods: Popeye loves spinach, Wimpy loves hamburgers, Swee'pea and Olive Oyl are named after agricultural products. Third, "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" is a parody of a title that a painter would give to a landscape painting. Ashbery loved painting and was once employed as an art critic. Many of the best landscape European landscape painters came from Northern Europe – places like Belgium and the Netherlands – where people might actually farm and eat rutabagas. Thus, the poem is a kind of painting in words.
Finally, and most importantly, "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" sounds both silly and interesting. Don't discount the silliness factor – it's very important to Ashbery. His motto could be: if it sounds good, write it.
"Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" centers on the age-old question: the country or the city? See, things are cheaper in the country and you don't have to worry about green lightning, but the city has shoebox apartments filled with Olive Oyl and cans of spinach. Like we said, an age-old question.
The title of the poem leads us to imagine that we might be dealing with a landscape painting put into words, but there isn't much landscape aside from what is suggested by the generic word "country." The two imaginative spaces in the poem are the apartment and wherever it is in the country that Popeye is hurling thunder from.
The apartment is small and gets smaller. Popeye might want to consider installing better locks, because even a baby like Swee'pea can find his way inside without any difficulty, and an Olympic-caliber hurdler like Olive doesn't even need to use the door: she can just jump right through the window. The apartment itself is anything you might find in a big city like New York. The Sea Hag finds it nice enough to take a vacation in, although she seems to spend most of her time lounging on her couch, like a kid on summer break. Overall, the setting of the apartment is thoroughly middle-class America.
The landscape outside the apartment is dark and filled with thunder. As Olive explains, she and the other characters used to be able to refresh themselves with sunshine and natural scenery like "scratched tree-trunks and mossy foliage" (26-27), but now that Popeye has been exiled, there is not going to be anymore sunshine – only perfect or "immaculate" darkness. Olive eventually decides to take Swee'pea to the country, maybe to visit Popeye.
In contrast to the bored and gloomy urbanites, Popeye seems perfectly content to be in the country – at least that's what he thinks the poem's final line. He can throw all the thunder he wants, and, if he gets an itch, you'd better believe he's going to scratch it.
The only time the speaker really enters into the poem is in the first line, when he seems to read to us the "first of the undecoded messages." But he is best compared to the omniscient narrator of a story of novel. He knows everything that goes on, from the characters' thoughts to what Popeye is doing out in the country. He likes to tell riddles that can't be solved (or, if you want to get technical, Chinese tangrams that can't be put together), which is a like telling a joke without a punchline.
He uses all the usual words to tell a story, like "Meanwhile" and "Suddenly," but there isn't much of a story to tell. People come into the apartment and leave. There is lightning outside. And so on. For the most part, he stays out of the way of his characters, who use much fancier, more highfalutin language than he does. If you compare the parts of the poem outside quotation marks with the dialogue of the characters, you'll see that the characters are way more pretentious-sounding. Sentences that begin "Henceforth shall Popeye's apartment be but remembered space" can't be blamed on our narrator – they are just part of the story. Of course, if you want to blame the narrator for telling such a story that ends with someone scratching his balls, go right ahead.
We know: we're underestimating how hard this poem is, right? Not so fast. If W.H. Auden, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, could enjoy Ashbery's work without being able to understand each line (see "Brain Snacks"), then we bet you can too. Ashbery even hints that the poem is an "undecoded message" in the first line. This is a puzzle that was meant to remain a puzzle. Yes, there are many difficulties in this poem: the use of Spanish, SAT words like "salubrious," and enough Popeye trivia to require a degree with the University of Cartoon Network. But the point of this poem is to make you laugh and think a little. Look around. Explore. And don't sweat the small stuff. We're willing to bet you'll become an Ashbery fan, if you're not already.
The sestina is not the only complicated, technical poetic form that Ashbery has attempted throughout his long career. Pantoums, villanelles, long poems – he's done 'em all. He's what you might call a "virtuoso," like a concert pianist who can play all of the most difficult pieces. But, funny enough, he's not an elitist about it. He doesn't care if you know he's using a form invented in 12th century France, as in "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape." He'd rather make you chuckle by adding absurd twists like Olive scratching her leg on geraniums.
"Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" is a sestina with no regular rhythm. If you take away one thing from this poem, it's that you should never give the Sea Hag keys to your apartment. If you take away two things, it's that you should never give the Sea Hag keys to your apartment and that the poem is a sestina.
The key to the sestina is the number six. The prefix "sest-" means "six," just like "sext-" as in sextet. The poem has six words that must be repeated at the end of the line in each stanza, except for the seventh stanza, which has three lines instead of six. Thus, it always has 39 lines. In this poem, the six words are: thunder, apartment, country, pleasant, scratched, spinach. The chart below assigns each of these words a "number" and then shows the order in which they appear at the end of successive lines in each stanza. In the last stanza, the two words enclosed in each set of parentheses appear together in one line.
Stanza I. ABCDEF
Stanza II. FAEBDC
Stanza III. CFDABE
Stanza IV. ECBFAD
Stanza V. DEACFB
Stanza VI. BDFECA
Stanza VII. (ECA) or (ACE)
There's no reason you need to look at the specific order of words except maybe to marvel at how complicated it is and then say, "Huh. Neat!" Notice that the last word of the last line of each six-line stanza is the same as the last word of the first line of each stanza. The secret of a good sestina is for the poet to use these words over and over again while drawing as little attention as possible to the structure. "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" pulls off this feat brilliantly, particularly as some of the words are so silly, like "scratched" and "spinach." Unless you were really paying attention the first time you read the poem, you might not have caught that these words were being repeated over and over again. That's really hard to do.
The first poet we know of to use the sestina was a 12th century French man named Arnaut Daniel. He belonged to a school of poetry that started around Southern France and spread through Europe during the late Middle Ages. The troubadours wrote complex songs about lords and ladies and all that good medieval stuff, and they competed to see who could write the most daring poems.
But, honestly, it doesn't matter how complicated the form is and how well the poet pulls it off if the poem is no good or boring to read. We don't love this poem because it's a sestina; we love it because it's hilarious, original, and totally fun to read aloud.
The poem has no regular rhythm, and Ashbery writes in prose-like sentences that flow right over the line breaks into the next line, which is a technique called enjambment. The sentence connecting the fourth and fifth stanzas is an example of enjambment:
At this own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant
Arpeggio of our years. (24-25)
Ashbery's lines are also pretty long, which helps to mask the sestina form even more.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The poem mostly takes place inside Popeye's apartment. Olive tells the story of how Popeye was exiled from the apartment to the country by his father. Sounds like an exciting family drama, but the apartment itself is a scene of middle-class restlessness and boredom. The apartment is a domestic space set apart from the excitement and "thunder" of country.
The first stanza compares the poem to a coded message or a puzzle, but the puzzles do not figure prominently in the rest of the poem. Still, the dialogue spoken by the characters always sounds vague and cryptic, as if they were really trying to say something else. And what's with all that scratching: are they trying to send each other secret signals or something?
About halfway through the poem, when Olive tells her story, we realize that Popeye is responsible for the strange thunder that seems to fill both the apartment and the country. This spinach-powered thunder has a sickly green thunder. By giving Popeye the ability to create thunder, Ashbery may be drawing a comparison with the ancient Greek god Zeus, who also had the power to throw lightning bolts.
The poem tells us very little about this mysterious "country," or even what sense in which the word "country" is being used. Does it mean a nation or a rural landscape? In each stanza, the word has a slightly different meaning. In fact, the title might tell us more about the country than anything else in the poem.
It's about cartoon characters: how could we not give it a "G" rating? While we wouldn't put it past Ashbery to mix sex and cartoons, he doesn't do so here. And while we don't think Popeye scratching his balls is a particularly pleasant image, we think it bumps the rating to a "PG".