Portage Close-Up: “The Tomato Planter”

Gaze inside the mind of YSP Editor Mike Gyssels as he dissects his long poem “The Tomato Planter” in our Portage Close-Up.

They say that good magicians never reveal their tricks. Historically, writers, too, have been necessarily protective of their work. Samuel Beckett famously walked out of anyone who questioned him about his befuddling and mysterious work. As a student of Literature I tend to agree with Beckett, erring on the side of New Criticism, which ignores the writer’s intentions and biography during critical analyses. As a writer though, I have always been enthralled by the mind of the writer; letters, original prints (and facsimiles thereof), rough drafts, notebooks and journals always provide a rush of literary adrenaline.

My personal writing identity has been somewhat erratic. I’ve dealt with a plethora of forms ranging from haiku to lyrical, mock epic to free verse–even fridge magnet poetry–as forms of practice and discovery mostly, and with varying amounts of success. One of the more challenging pieces that I worked on was “The Tomato Planter”, modeled on the bob and wheel stanza that is perhaps most easily recognized in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The poem itself never amounted to much and I discarded for well over a year, but I thought that my own re-examination of the poem would make for an interesting case study of my writing processes without divulging too much information on some of my more favorable works.

The poem itself is based around farm culture, as the name would suggest. My summer workload consists of a variety of farm jobs: planting, harvesting, weed-pulling among the more prominent ones, and like most writers, my experiences sculpt my work. Because the poem is so closely linked with Ontario farm culture, I chose to provide an in-depth visual examination as I break down the poem.

Page 1 of the third draft of the poem. I made this version available to some fellow writers for proofreading
(Click to Zoom)

There is a reason that bob and wheel poetry hasn’t made the transition to modern English: it’s hard. The form is so incredibly rigid that it’s incongruous with more modern values, culturally, literally–even linguistically. 14th Century writing is amazingly dynamic and organic because within the English Language there was no standardized set of spelling rules. For that reason, alliterative verse was (slightly) easier to produce because word choice was limited only by your pronunciation of certain words at certain moments in time. By that I mean words often varied spellings in the same poem, even in the same line. That being said, this type of poetry still took a considerable amount of effort and particularity.

The draft that I have provided is the third edit made on the poem, and one that I distributed to a group of writers to be work-shopped. Still, as you can see by the corrections (and as you will see in my newest edition of the poem) the rigidity of the rules associated with this form of poetry make it extremely difficult to achieve a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing rhythm. I’ve done significant critical work with poems of this nature, but that did not prevent me from locating a few modern-day bob and wheel poems online, as well as some rule-sets written by English professors.

Page 2 of the same draft

Page 2 of the same draft. Note the changes in alliterative pattern especially in the final stanza. I manipulated stress patterns for a reason, but do they resonate with you?

In the end, I attempted to adopt only the most basic of principles:

a) Each line consists of 2 half-lines

b)Alliterative consonants link half-lines

c)Half-lines should be indicated by a caesura or pause of some kind

d)Generally, 2 alliterative words in the first half-line, 1 in the second

e)Half-lines cannot begin or end with the alliterative consonant that dictates that line
(i.e. “The dog ate, gorging on dry donuts” would be unacceptable. “The dog ate–on dry donuts gorged” would be better”

f)The “wheel” consists of four six-syllable lines following a “b,a,b,a” rhyme scheme. The “bob”– one or two words that end the last alliterative long line and link to the wheel–serves as the initial “a”, creating an “a,b,a,b,a” scheme.

I wrote the very first draft adhering strictly to these rules. To “manipulate” a certain form or style without fully understanding the form itself is problematic because the rules carry resonances of past poetry: having been standardized (to varying degrees), line lengths, consonant patterns, and linguistic devices are all attached to specific feelings, emotions, and traditions, especially to the trained reader. Without wholly understanding their implied meanings, it is impossible to “manipulate” them effectively to produce new meaning. I may be partially guilty of that with this poem, but to the best of my ability I followed the rules I know and understand in the first draft.

The inner-workings of the tomato planter, and the main inspiration for my chose style--bob-and-wheel.

The inner-workings of the tomato planter, and the main inspiration for my chosen style–bob and wheel. Note the circular objects/gears/wheels that appear in subsequent pictures as well.

As I said earlier though, the rigid form often constricted flow and movement, so I opted to slowly modify lines and “bend” rules to achieve the sounds and meanings desired.

DSC02088As you’ll notice in the edit above, the bob/wheel is often circled, crossed, or re-written because they tended to sound extremely clunky. I felt it was important to capture the rhythmic circularity of the gear system controlling the planter, so I’ve revised these sections heavily, on multiple occasions.

The poem’s content was inspired by the beastly machine that plants our tomatoes. While farming is a necessity to support the booming human population, the machine itself often sparked some dissonant emotions.

The beastly titan in all it's rustic glory.

The beastly titan in all it’s rustic glory. The teal tanks you see are loaded with water, though not exclusively so: they also contain fertilizer and trace amounts of pesticides. Note the dust swirling in the top right of the photograph.

I don’t eat organic; I’m not ashamed to admit that. Still, pesticides and fertilizers make for pretty good writing material when you’re confronting issues of industrialization and the death of mother earth. Moreover, they are an important part of the current political conversation, and one that I think poetry can contribute to. Conversely, I didn’t want the poem to be the prophetic visions of a loopy doomster, which accounts for the descriptions of humans within the poem. While “good” and “evil” are certainly present and parties are prescribed to each, humans (evil) often take on natural (good) characteristics and colours (i.e. green). Black, the colour of evil, is also the colour of abundance and rich soil (especially pertaining to the particular farms at which I work), so I used those colours to complicate the positions presented. It’s an attempt to humble the poetic voice, because they’re just as much at fault.

"Transplanting" - The "trailer" (so-called because he/she trails the planter in motion) unburies plants, replaces those that have been missed and refills the supply for those people still left on the planter (pictured right).

“Transplanting” – The “trailer” (so-called because he/she trails the planter when in motion) unburies plants, replaces those that have been missed and refills the supply for those people riding the planter (pictured right).

The planter(s), which dig trenches, set plants, bury roots, and water them in one swift motion.

The planter(s), which dig trenches, set plants, buries roots, and waters them in one swift motion. Flower trays holding over 200 plants slide in between the red posts, 4 per planter.

Nature is also demonized within the poem. The tomato plants themselves (pictured below) are green, with red-hued roots. I took their green colour and the process of photosynthesis as evidence for envy (read “sin”) in nature, yearning always to grow taller, wider or more widespread (e.g. weeds). Still, Nature’s negative aspects are often accentuated by human corruption, indicated by the red roots “enflamed with the life-blood/from a river below”, that river below being hell, but also the noxious combination of pesticides and fertilizers that stimulate them.

An infant tomato plant, nurtured in a greenhouse for two months before planting

An infant tomato plant, nurtured in a greenhouse for two months before planting

The view from the cockpit

The view from the cockpit

Planting tomato plants is relatively simple work–needless to say, dropping 10,000 plants into their cups (shown left) provides ample thinking and subsequent writing time. I would point to the movement of the cups in their carousel, and the resulting abrasive “clink” noise as they open and close (shown below)  as the first and most poignant impetus for creation.

The "clanging jaws" that gorge on tomato plants

The “clanging jaws” that gorge on tomato plants

The rest of the poem developed over the three-week period that comprises tomato-planting. I tended to compose a few lines per day, mentally repeating them until the day finished, at which time I could record them. Roughly half the poem was inspired while sitting on the machine, the other half observing as the “trailer”. The entire poem is inspired by true events, and often represents my attempts to mythologize episodes that occurred during the work day (i.e. the appearance of a snake at work and the rusting decomposition of our machine after a thunderstorm).

I’m afraid that’s as deep as I’m willing to go detailing my creative process. Below you’ll find a few more photographs, and of course, the newest incarnation of the poem. I hope that you enjoyed reading my exposition as much as I did writing it. Again, I chose this poem not so much because I feel it’s my most accomplished work, or the best exemplar of my writing. To the contrary, it was in need of tremendous attention (and still is), which provides me with greater opportunity to detail my creative processes.

Sound off in the comments below! Let me know what you think about the poem, about farm life, industrialization, deforestation, GMOs? With the Monsanto controversy in full swing, this conversation seems highly appropriate.



Farm Life isn't always the most luxurious

Farm Life isn’t always the most luxurious

The black dust that could have infiltrated my lungs.

The black dust that could have infiltrated my lungs.

The "toothy-grin", if you will, of our mechanical monster.

The “toothy-grin”, if you will, of our mechanical monster.

It gets hot, but this water isn't for consumption (at least not directly).

It gets hot, but this water isn’t for consumption (at least not directly).

Tough to see, but these young plants are planted in trenches that form "waves" of dirt

Tough to see, but these young plants are planted in trenches that form “waves” of dirt

The Tomato Planter

The trees of evergreen tower like turreted walls

Over small tomato sentries, saluting their fortifications.

The powerful sun, it penetrates defences,

Baking the earth and blistering skin,

And wounded clouds wander, withered victims of thirsty earth;

They cannot connect – and so they roam their ceaseless home,

            Silence cracked by clanging

            Of monster’s jaws exposed;

            With insatiable hunger

            Across the field it roves.

The untamed beastly titan, with terrible screeching gait,

Drags its glinting claws through dirt and grit,

Seedling plants for sustenance, it scars Nature’s black womb.

They tumble into the abyss, taken to graves by hands of fate:

The grinding of red cogs, grease-stained and black,

Rings between crosses, row upon row, upon row;

            Enflamed with the lifeblood

     From a river below,

            Poison-fuelled and dreadful,

            Envious leaves thus grow.

The monsters mark is left: a moat of sickly green.

It catches scattered corn stalks: kindred killed in battles past.

Along the bank of withered brush, the earth is black and bare.

The doleful earthly maiden sings among the drooping reeds;

Her silvery zephyrs swim amongst the shimmering waves

Spreading seeds of grass, and straw – seeds brimming with hope –

And with them devilish spectres of dust that dance across the furrows,

            Mischievous settlers

            Howling foul deeds of old,

            Noxious growth by plant-bane burned,

            Usurped by farmer’s gold.

 The farmer’s smile feigns concern, his foul intentions concealed.

He teases a tomato’d hand; he taunts with smile maize and yellow,

While brandishing nature’s usurped from the black earth,

While behind his back – bound like precious Andromeda –

His vernacular veils with earthy green, a vial of vilest intent

            That soon corrupts with blight

            The pale-handed maiden,

            Black encroaches on white

            Bitten by nature’s heathen.

Through grass a gilded serpent slides and with jet markings etched,

Across the threshold of vicious threshing, slithers twixt the flaxen graves,

Into a pit of botanic hell, with his black tongue fleeting.

He flays the farmers green back with foul accusations:

The soothsaying serpent heralds the soon-wrought justice

That shall befall. Under piercing gaze he bows his golden head

            Beneath the garden blade:

            Bringer of unjust death;

            The farmer shall tempt fate

            To silence his fateful breaths.

The ship’s captain stands tall, whilst surveying the motionless ocean.

The water ripples with waves formed in the wake of the Planter.

Atop the surf the farmer saunters, straightening rows of wayward plants:

His steps lay stagnant on the placid deep, specious corrections to earth’s fragile face.

The devils of dust swirl about the sea, dancing darkly hither

As his voiceless cries now venerate the heavens – for vindication he now pleads,

But fateful dice are tossed,

Nature shan’t be cheated;

The snake his albatross,

This Mariner defeated.

The leviathan lurches; with languid clinking chains he stalks

Among voracity’s victims, while volatile clouds swirl overhead.

Only those tormented vapours can stop the beast, together with Phoebus’ venerable heat

The Heavens heave and crack agape — with a hunger greater than the fiend

The shape-shifters swell and burst. They strike with natural shocks

And a pestilential torrent penetrates its shell, preying on monster’s bones.

His joints wax rusted and stiff, while the farmer scrambles for shelter.

His moat cannot impede the downpour; drenching his feet with dreadful

Poison and waste it vomits, violently hurling liquid venom.

The titan laments in terrible pain; with a tremendous cry it shakes

The world and cracks it wide. The wanton destruction at its end,

As the blackened beast keels over, flayed and beaten by Nature’s force.

But the monster’s mark remains: in scars on earth and blood in soil,

Once Nature’s allies, her

Adversaries now toil

To blanch and blight the earth:

To the victor go the spoils.


One thought on “Portage Close-Up: “The Tomato Planter”

  1. Pingback: Portage Close-Up: The YSP Logo | The Yonge Street Portage

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