Unravelled Sestina: How the Use of High and Low Art Can Mock the Poetic Tradition
or

Bluto Hides at the Opera: A Close Dissection of Ashbery's Sestina
or

Language Decoding Language
or

Decoding The High-low Sestina: Or Popeye Was Never Really There to Save the Day
or

Decoded the Undecoded in Ashbery's Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape
or

Shoebox Tangram: An Autotelic Conversation in Ashbery's Sestina
or

Unravelled Hidden Sestina: Language Decoding or the Autotelic Shoebox




John Ashbery's "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape" combines the discrepant discourses of high culture and low art in a mock narrative poem that promises to provide an elevated aesthetic experience but ultimately reveals that the poem can only decode itself.

In the first stanza, Ashbery sounds a note of suspense while giving readers both a "shoebox" and a "tangram,":

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."

Then we are introduced, in this and subsequent stanzas to the other pseudo-characters: the "Sea Hag," Wimpy, Olive Oil, and Swee'pea. Quickly, the narrative lapses and the stanzas allow new fragments to interrupt, so that we realize this is not a story to follow -- and these are not "real" characters, but rather empty stand-ins --even if it ends in a conclusion of sorts.

Although the poem abuses any idea of narrative coherence it, paradoxically, does adhere to the formal conventions of the sestina: six six-line stanzas, followed by one 3 line stanza, for a total of 39 lines with end-rhyming words being recycled from one stanza to the next.
This formal rotation of repeated terms in the sestina pattern emphasizes the tension between the high-art elements of this mash-up and the lower-level of the cartoon characters who, furthermore, are not even particularly sophisticated as cartoons. For instance, stanza five introduces us to the "Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder" but suddenly turns to the language of Olive: "She grabbed Swee'pea. 'I'm taking the brat to the country.'" Here we have the dialectic between these two modes of cultural transmission.

On the other hand, the poem recalls the sestina's association with the genre of literary complaint (commenting on lost love or personal injustice). So in stanza four, Olive announces:

... 'I have news!' she gasped. 'Popeye, forced as you know, to leave the country,
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment

The lines emphasize this "forced" leaving at the hands of the scheming "jealous" father. For some readers, this suggests a classic theme of the rival in the Popeye cartoon, while for others, it is a parodic gesture of impossible sophistication for these characters who are ceaselessly scratching "thighs" and "dugs" and "balls."

Along with the high-low culture mixes at the stanza level, the poem presents conflicts at the level of the line and phrase. So we find Wimpy "thoughtfully cutting open" and hear "domestic thunder" and see "immaculate darkness" while we worry that no "pleasant / Inspiration [will] plunge us now to the stars."

Ultimately, we plunge into Ashbery's linguistic imagination to learn that language can only decode itself. There is no tension between Opera and Bluto, since neither are any more real that the other words of this poem, the Derridiean arpeggiations of Ashbery's grammatical play.