“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...
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