Ashbery’s poetry is a battleground for literary critics: Some consider him the finest poet of the late twentieth century; some consider him an occasionally good poet whose work is often of questionable literary quality; some critics dismiss him as entirely worthless. The main reason for this is quite simple: His poems often do not make sense. Ashbery knows this; indeed, his work is deliberately impossible to paraphrase much of the time, and he willingly admits that many of his poems are meaningless, given the way in which readers and critics ordinarily try to turn poems into prose as an element of their value as art. It is possible, for example, to identify certain Ashbery poems as clearly nonsensical. What confuses the issue is the fact that many of his poems are a teasing combination of what looks like sensible prose or poetry mixed with passages of seemingly arbitrary confusion. It is not a matter, however, of Ashbery’s being unable to speak clearly; it is a deliberate element in his work, which he not only defends but also espouses as having literary and intellectual merit.
Perhaps the best way to approach the matter is through two ideas: that art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, particularly the plastic and aural arts, has been strongly inclined to move toward the nonrepresentational, and that Ashbery has spent a considerable amount of his time as an art critic, supporting the most experimental members of the American school of abstract expressionism in painting. Throughout his career as a commentator on contemporary painting, he has been a great admirer of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, and he has had an equal enthusiasm for the radical musical compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, and Anton von Webern.
The history of art in general shows a close alliance between the artistic object and the world as it is generally perceived. In the mid-nineteenth century, particularly in painting and sculpture, the idea developed that the artist need not necessarily attempt to represent reality but could elaborate on it. That movement, which begins in Impressionism and moves on to cubism and ultimately to variations on the abstract, had, by the time of Ashbery’s coming of age, been fully manifested in many of the arts. The most difficult of the arts to so manipulate has been the literary art, simply because the basic materials—the word, the sentence, and the paragraph—are by their very nature rational. Color or sound may be used arbitrarily; words are another matter. The attempts to break the literary arts away from reality have been much more difficult—although not impossible, as the work of writers such as Franz Kafka and dramatist Samuel Beckett have shown.
Poetry, too, has had some success in repudiating sense. Poets such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens, all of whom influenced Ashbery, are often very difficult to understand. The difference between them and Ashbery lies in the fact that there is some confidence in the fact that close study of these poets’ work usually allows the reader to break the code to get at what the poet is trying to say, however densely it may be expressed. With Ashbery it is not quite so simple; often he is clearly not expressing himself in a way that can be turned into sensible prose.
Ashbery is a poet of philosophic concern. He writes about the problems of life as human beings live it. That kind of poet is traditionally expected to express metaphysical questions, large or small, in elegant verse form and complicated imagery in which one metaphor leads reasonably to another and another; they ultimately lead to some sort of insight into the problem. The aesthetic pleasure lies in the poet’s use of language, metaphor, and structure, all eventually making sense, if often on a very specific plane of intelligence. Deciphering the secret, forcing the images to connect, leads to the secret in the center, and that has been the tradition of the poetry of ideas through the centuries (if somewhat more intensely formidable in the hands of twentieth century poets).
In Ashbery’s case, however, the contemplation of the mysteries of life is complicated by the pose of diffidence, the not uncommon late twentieth century idea that one cannot know the truth. It is made even more difficult by Ashbery’s constant determination to write poems about the diverse and devious experience of trying to discover truth in the making of a poem. Many of his best poems begin with the same kinds of questions about life which other poets address, but they quickly become studies of how difficult it is even to keep the subject straight. They usually conclude without the question being answered, and often with the clear suggestion that no answer is possible, at least through the medium of poetry.
An added difficulty lies in the way Ashbery uses figures of speech such as metaphors and similes. The trained reader expects that such poetic improvisations will illuminate the subject and will have some clearly logical connection to it. Ashbery often starts with figures that elaborate on the subject but quickly allows images into the poem that seem irrelevant. This practice is an aspect of his idea that his poems should be a record of how thoughts on the subject filter through his own mind and that the seemingly irrelevant images are legitimate because they are part of how his mind jumps in and out of the subject—how one thing leads, not necessarily logically, to another.
The poet bent on being clearly understood filters out the arbitrary thoughts, giving his or her readers an edited version of how the poetic flow operates. Ashbery leaves everything in, and as a result much of his material seems off the topic; indeed, much of it is, although there is often a crazy tonal logic about these maundering intrusions, just as there is in his sometimes maddening inclination to mix pronouns, shifting without any warning from “I” to “you” to “he” or “she.” As a result, there is a feeling of constant flux, of spontaneity and witty vivacity, and a sense that the reader is implicated in the struggle to get things straight. Clarity, however, is only momentary and is often less important than the recording of the act of creation, however confused intellectually.
First published: 1964
Type of work: Poem
A poem about the difficulties and failures of the poetic process presented in the form of a confused journey through the alternatives open to the contemporary poet.
“The Skaters” has been sharply dismissed by many critics as being meaningless for the most part and being much less successful than the later poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975) as an attempt at dealing with the problem of the poem in the late twentieth century. Even its supporters are less enthusiastic about it than they are about “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” in part because it is a much more difficult poem. On the other hand, it can be explicated, but only in part, and the reader must eventually accept Ashbery’s refusal (stated more than once in the poem) to write what he considers the old-fashioned poem of sensible argument and appropriately obvious image.
If the best face is put upon the poem, as it has been by a few supporters of Ashbery, it can be read as his attempt to explain the difficulties of writing poetry of a new kind for an audience that expects philosophic poems to be clearly argued and intent on reaching sensible conclusions. The image of the skaters with which the poem begins can be seen as an example of the old style of art—graceful and skilled, but, significantly, going around in circles. This image will appear over and over in the poem as a reminder of how things used to be (at least for the poet), and against it is played out a search for a new way of dealing with reality.
The poem begins innocently enough, with a rather inflated description of the sight and sound of ice skaters. It may be a nod of compliment to the stylistic inclinations of Wallace Stevens, a poet much admired by Ashbery, It may, however, seem somewhat pompous in its fastidiousness, which would not be inconsistent with the main idea of the poem that art of that kind is no longer viable. Whatever the case (and with Ashbery much is left up to the reader), the skaters lead to a memory of childhood ribaldry and to the suggestion that little of the past is worth keeping, and very much less is retained.
Even music, however varied in form, has little long-lasting emotional purchase, and this statement leads to the virulent repudiation by the poet of any ability to express the emotional aesthetic that is so often expected of the poet: “’I am yesterday,’ and my fault is eternal./ I do not expect constant attendance, knowing myself/ insufficient for your present demands/ And I have a dim intuition that I am that other ’I’ with which/ we began.”
Time is seen as constantly fleeting, and nothing has much meaning in the long run: “Thus a great wind cleanses, as a new ruler! Edits new laws, sweeping the very breath of the streets/ Into posterior trash.” There are suggestions that these changes might make for a new optimism, but ultimately all fails. The section ends with the suggestion that the particular is irrelevant and that if there is to be poetry, it will be less perfect in its forms or conclusions:
Hence, neither the importance of the individual flake,Nor the importance of the whole impression of the storm, if it has any, is what it is,But the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and back to a slightly less...
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