Crash Test Dummies Blog

Written by Brad Roberts

09 May


200px-Ashbery-2010-09-12THE DIFFICULiT PLEASURES

Today’s Difficult Pleasure is courtesy of the rather floridly complexioned (at least in the photo above) American poet, John Ashbery, whose “sestina” below was one of the most spectacularly Difficult Pleasures that I had the good luck to encounter in my early years of reading.

Ashbury managed—at least for me, and at least in this poem—to do what so few of the “post-modern” poets tried to manage: his sheer force of invention is compelling enough to make me want to keep reading.

A qualifying remark is in order here: Postmodernism in the arts has been a long and, at times, a rather tiresome affair in which meaning is evaded at almost all costs. God forbid that there be a clear linear thread, or indeed any of the norms of continuity that we find in more “reader-friendly” writing, for both of these are an anathema, even gauche, in that rarified world. Is this to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as perhaps Arnold Schoenberg did when he first eschewed any semblance of traditional harmony and started “from scratch” with his twelve-tone theory? Perhaps, but you won’t catch me maintaining anything like that in The Difficult Pleasures!

To resume: In the by-now famous selection below, Ashbury tackles and revamps one of the moldiest old poetic forms, the sestina, ploughing right through any preconceptions I had had about what poetry is, or what it could be. I quote it here in its glorious entirety:



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.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How pleasant   
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye,” she scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.   
“M’love,” he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder   
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.”

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!”
But Swee’pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. “Thunder   
And tears are unavailing,” it read. “Henceforth shall Popeye’s apartment   
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched.”

Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. “I have news!” she gasped. “Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched   
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder.”   
She grabbed Swee’pea. “I’m taking the brat to the country.”
“But you can’t do that—he hasn’t even finished his spinach,”   
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

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
Then I don’t mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over”—she scratched
One dug pensively—“but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that.” Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,   
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.


Tour de force is by now perhaps a merely hackneyed critical phrase—literally it means “feat of strength”—but to my mind this poem has muscular power, a firmness of hand and a bravado that all suggest tour de force.

On my first look at it 30 years ago, I had actually not noticed that the end-word in each line is part of a strictly-maintained pattern; now it shouts at me. At the time I was too taken in by the seemingly improvisatory, rapid-fire shifts in tone, to even notice.

Nor did I know what a “sestina” was in those early days. Now I have wikipedia—I confess—and I learn there that the sestina was originally called a “cledisat,” meaning “interlock”, which beautifully describes how the sestina works: we find not so much a rhyme scheme in the usual sense as we do an algorithm.

Yes algorithm! See the chart at:

If you’ve just looked at the chart (and I hope you will–Wiki-freakin’-Pedia won’t let me insert in into my blog),  I have to tell you that I don’t know quite what the chart does for our larger understanding of the sestina, except perrhaps to tincture it with the quasi-divine fragrance of Scientism; clearly, though, I couldn’t very well just leave it out of a blog called the Difficult Pleasures, now could I? In any case, one needn’t know the arcane rules of the sestina form to appreciate that the collection of end-words thunder, apartment, country, pleasant, scratched, and spinach bring a charming rigor to this odd meditation on Popeye et al.

The sestina, unlike, say, the sonnet, has not enjoyed great popularity in the English language, though interest in it picked up towards the end of the 19th century. Indeed, in the handful of sestina’s I’ve come across in English, the repetition of end-words has had a rather unfortunately corny effect, whereas Ashberry’s oddball selection has just the opposite feeling: there is, thankfully, a total lack of corn-pone sentimentality in this extravagant outburst, and one is more mesmerized than moved by Ashbery’s dazzling control of the compressed repetition inherent in the sestina.

Of course Ashbery—and indeed anyone else living and hoping for credibility since Ezra Pound and early Modernism—has had to remake (read “ironically re-appropriate”) this fussy and fustian form, and in my view he’s done a fabulous job. My view, however, may not be that of the majority. Many critics have excoriated Ashbery for being purposefully “obscurantist”, even going so far as to charge him with hiding his (gay) sexuality behind a cloak of impenetrable obfuscation (penetration joke, anyone?). For my part I couldn’t disagree more, and I welcome him here with open arms, (if not an altogether stiff penis) to the Canon of what are, for me… The Difficult Pleasures.

John Ashbery, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” from The Double Dream of Spring. Copyright © 1966, 1970 by John Ashbery. Reprinted here from Poem Hunter:

For more information on the sestina, see

All spelling and grammatical errors are owing to the malignant forces of a vast conspiracy, and not the fault of said diarist.