"Abandoned Farmhouse" is a descriptive poem that describes a farmhouse previously occupied by a family, including a man, a woman and a child, according to the narrator. The poem begins by describing the man based on clues found lying around the house, such as large shoes, a worn Bible, the size of his bed, and his poorly cared-for fields. The poem then goes on to describe a woman living with him, based on more clues around the house, as well as evidence of a child. It continues on to describe the state of the farmland, with its poorly maintained field and "leaky barn." The poem ends by describing the state of the farm now, abandoned and overgrown.
Throughout the poem, the narration is limited exclusively to inanimate objects strewn about the farmhouse, which offer clues regarding the farmhouse's previous inhabitants. The narrator notes an object and then points out that it "says," or offers evidence, about the now-gone family. For example, the shoes say the man was big, and the lilac wallpaper says there was a woman living in the house as well, and the sandbox and toys signal that a child used to live at the farmhouse.
The narration is also completely in the past tense. Never is something described in the present, but rather as a reflection for what has already occurred. Thus, the poem invites multiple interpretations based on the reader's take on the inanimate objects or evidence.
The poem is in open verse, with simple diction, and no words have more than three syllables. The poem has three stanzas, all with 8 lines. The items tell the story of the events of the family. Even though the items do not "speak," the reader gains an understanding about the human story behind the abandoned farmhouse. The poem invites a literal interpretation instead of relying on symbolism or allusion.
The poem is written with a checklist of items scattered around the farm, leaving the reader to deduce what has happened. One interpretation is that the man failed to maintain a good farm, so his wife left him with their child. Another possibility is that the man was abusive to his wife and child. At the very least, the evidence points to the man being lazy; the text says he was "not a man for farming." The reader may also surmise that the wife was hard-working based on the description of the bedroom papered with lilacs on the walls and the canned tomatoes and plum preserves. After enough negligence from the husband, the wife left with the child.
Other interpretations might argue that there was disaster, such as a tornado. Another interpretation might be that the man left the family in haste.
Deductive reasoning is coming to a conclusion based on the gathering of evidence. In "Abandoned Farmhouse," the reason the farmhouse is abandoned must be reconstructed deductively by both narrator and reader. The poem is inconclusive and left up to the reader to decide, but some possibilities may be drought, or natural disaster such as a tornado. The main reason it is inconclusive is because although we may assume the family is poor, all their belongings are left behind, such as canned food and the child's (or children's) toys. It is curious that the narrator assumes that the woman left (in line 19), making no mention of the man and the child, which opens up new doors that perhaps the husband had died or fell ill. Ultimately, the poem is written such that the reader cannot reach a definitive version of events for how the farmhouse became abandoned.
In the American 1980s, the farming crisis that existed created a huge impact on farming families' lives, in both economics and relationships. According to the website "The Eighties Club" this relates to the economic forces in farming which negatively influenced the Midwestern agricultural sector, such as dropping land values up to 60% as well as overseas trade restrictions with the former USSR.
Economic commentator Hugh Sidey described the crisis this way: "We are talking about people who want to give birth and grow old and laugh and die, bonded and sustained by the soil, which is the oldest way of life Americans know. The farm economic crisis has become...a cultural crisis unique in our history. It is beyond bank loans and government subsidies. It is in people's hearts."
The crisis resulted in reports of increase in divorce, child abandonment, murder, and suicide. These events may play a part in painting the picture of what the times were like in the Midwest when Ted Kooser wrote "Abandoned Farmhouse."
- Kooser, Ted. Abandoned Farmhouse. Literature: A Pocket Anthology. Fourth Edition. Edited by R. S. Gwynn. New York: Penguin, 2009.