‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’ was published in 1966, in Ashbery’s collection The Double Dream of Spring. Today it is one of his most popular poems. It’s also a great example of Ashbery’s unusual use of language and content. He’s known for writing about anything and everything that he thought was interesting without regard for what might be considered appropriate poetic content. He is sometimes cited as America’s most famous living poet.
Explore Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape
The poem is a strange one. It follows a few moments in the lives of recognizable characters from the Popeye cartoon included Olive, Sea Hag, Whimpy, and Swee’pea. The characters are staying in Popeye’s apartment and go through emotional ups and downs. At one point, they feel like they’re on a vacation, and in the next, they’re irritated with the city and want to go to the country. When Olive comes into the poem and declares that Popeye has been exiled to the country and also describes his ability to control lightning, the poem gets more complex. In the end, after going back and forth in regards to how happy or unhappy they are, Popeye sends thunder into the apartment that’s “domestic” and green like spinach.
You can read the full poem here.
Ashbery engages with themes of nature, dissatisfaction, and communication in ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.’ The latter, communication, is a tricky element of the poem. From secret messages to odd syntax, the characters in this piece have a hard time making their thoughts clear. One interpretation of the poem suggests that there is no true meaning to their words and that they should be taken as nonsense. Nature is another obvious theme, one that’s in the poem from the start as the characters contend with the ideas of country/city and the presence of thunder. Their dissatisfaction is also clear from the start. No one quite knows where they want to be or what they want to be doing.
Structure and Form
‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’ by John Ashbery is a seven-stanza poem written in the form of a sestina. This is an old fashioned poetic form in which Ashbery does not use a specific metrical pattern. The sestina is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. This remains consistent throughout the poem, except for the final stanza, which has only three lines, making it a tercet. Sestinas have six words that need to be repeated throughout the poem. They have to appear at the ends of each line of the stanza, except the seventh stanza. The six words in this poem are: thunder, apartment, country, pleasant, spinach, and scratched.
Ashbery makes use of several literary devices in ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and caesura. The latter is concerned with the pauses that a poet uses in the middle of the lines. For example, the final line of the first stanza reads: “Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach.” Or, another example, line three of the second stanza, “Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched.”
Enjambment is another formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines four and five of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the third stanza.
Alliteration is a type of repetition, one that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Seemed” and “smaller” in line five of the second stanza as well as “forced” and “flee” in line two of the fourth stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach
In the first stanza of ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,’ the speaker begins by describing a secret message that hasn’t been decoded. It describes Popeye, the cartoon sailor, who sits in a thunderstorm somewhere in the country. The speaker notes from the message that he’s “Unthought of,” meaning no one is thinking of Popeye. At the same time, the speaker describes the Sea Hag, someone whose supposed to be Popeye’s friend, sitting in his apartment with Wimpy. These are both characters from the original television series. Together they’re vacationing “en la casa de Popeye.” There is an interesting use of imagery in the sixth line of this stanza when the Sea Hag scratches her “clef chin’s solitary hair.”
And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
“M’love,” he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.”
In the second stanza of the speaker describes how Wimpy brought the spinach. Something that’s obviously quite central in the Popeye cartoon. In the cartoon, Wimpy is a chubby and usually happy man who wears a suit and is as obsessed with hamburgers, just as Popeye is with spinach. Wimpy seems to intuitively understand that the Sea Hag is going to ask for spinach. He announces that he has it before she has a chance.
Things change in the next part of the stanza. The small apartment contracts and is juxtaposed with a large field in which thunder is ringing out. Despite the fact that they’re on vacation and have the spinach, Wimpy suggests that he is dissatisfied. He uses the line “For this is my country“ at the end of the second stanza. It is possible to read deeper into this line, perhaps relating it to a more poignant American dissatisfaction.
Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee’pea crept in. “How pleasant!”
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched.”
The characters then consider something else that’s bothering them, it’s cheaper in the country. Another character is introduced in the 15th line of the poem. This is “Swee’pea.” One of the two characters exclaims, “How pleasant!“ In regards to his arrival. But, unfortunately, this new character is just as morose as the two that have already been introduced.
Swee’pea has a note on his bib. It feels very similar to the message that starts with the poem. It describes how “thunder in tears is unavailing,” they have failed to accomplish their goal, whatever that may be. Because of this, the apartment that the three now residing in, Popeyes apartment, will only be “remembered space.” It’s a thing of the past, it’s also “toxic”.
Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant
The fourth stanza of the poem is just as odd as the previous. In the stanza, the character Oliver comes into the scene. She comes “hurtling through the window”. She gets a scratch on her thigh and gasps “I have news!”
Olive is Popeye’s traditional love interest from the cartoon series. She describes how Popeye was forced to leave the country, suggesting that something deeper is awry. She describes how on one windy night he was made to leave because of something his father did. The syntax in the following lines is complex. This is something that happens several times throughout the poem.
It is juxtaposed against the seeming simplicity of the cartoon characters. She suggests Popeye’s father was jealous of Popeye’s apartment. And to get rid of him, he got his own son removed from the country. These complex lines continue, revealing, unsurprisingly, the Popeye was not happy about what happened to him. She suggest that Popeye, as if was Zeus, is creating thunder. These are “loving “bolts that are perhaps directed from the country at Olive. The last line of the fourth stanza is enjambed.
Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched
“But you can’t do that—he hasn’t even finished his spinach,”
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.
The fifth stanza starts off with the speaker declaring that the life Popeye’s friends have been living up until this point has changed. Suddenly, their peace and ignorance has been disrupted. Popeyes unfortunate circumstances have made their worlds dark as well. Now, nothing is going to be the same.
Olive declares that she’s going to be taking the baby, Swee’pea, with her to the country. But, despite Sea Hag’s dissatisfaction with the city, she is not happy about this plan. The child has not, she says, finished eating his spinach. She obviously wants him to grow up to be as strong as Popeye is. The stanza ends with Sea Hag looking around the apartment like something bad is about to happen, which it is.
But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. “Actually it’s quite pleasant
Here,” thought the Sea Hag. “If this is all we need fear from spinach
Bumpkin, always burping like that.” Minute at first, the thunder
The final six-line stanza of the sestina starts out with Sea Hag noting that it’s “actually… quite pleasant” in the apartment. Suddenly, it feels more like a vacation again. She isn’t worried about any negative consequences from Popeye’s circumstances or his spinach. She even suggests that they could invite Alice the Goon over. While the characters continue to scratch themselves, she decides that it’s not actually possible to invite her friend Alice the Goon to the apartment because Wimpy is bad company. He’s “such a country / bumpkin” and will make a fool of myself. This stanza ends with a reference to thunder and then it trails off. The reader has to go to the final three-line stanza to find out how the poem ends.
Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.
The final stanza of ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,’ describes how thunder fills the apartment, something that the characters temporarily feared, and then Sea Hag decided she didn’t care about. It is described as “domestic thunder.” It’s also the color of spinach. Although these are extremely unusual adjectives to use in regards to thunder, they should make sense considering the poem up until this point.
Popeye finally comes into the poem in the last full sentence. The speaker describes him chuckling and scratching and expressing no concern about the familial distress that Olive described. He seems pleased to be living in the country away from everyone else.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’ should also consider reading some of Ashbery’s other poems. For example, ‘The Instruction Manual’ and ‘Some Trees.’ The latter explores themes that include understanding the world, isolation, and relationships. The poem vaguely speaks on what it means to be an individual versus part of a group or collection. It is one of Ashbery’s more difficult poems. ‘The Instruction Manual’ is another interesting piece, one that is constructed to express creative frustrations when someone with a powerful imagination is forced to engage in mundane tasks.