“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 diluted abstract.Mild effects are the result.
The second section, however, continues the search into the romantic world of past poetry. For a time, it looks as if the imaginative dream might prevail, but difficulties occur, and the poet falls back into a kind of mild despair, recognizing that for...
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him poetry is inadequate not only to discover meaning in life but also to deal with the serious social difficulties of the world. There are also problems with the poem of meaning, simply because Ashbery allows his mind to wander through a maze of images that may seem quite incomprehensible.
The third section reveals a strong stylistic change. A kind of stolid, commonsense, step-by-step approach to the problem is tried in order to discover the secret of life and its relation to poetry. Some critics have seen touches of travel literature in the material, and it is a section in which adventures are essayed, if kept on a lower level than those of the second section by the insistence that only one thing, death, exists. The excursion into nature leads into a widening of experience, with Romantic implications, but it all ends with soaked clothing and the danger of the mundane head cold—the banality of real life. There is no room for the imagination; no one is interested in adventure, and the poet sees himself at the end “like a plank! Like a small boat blown away from the wind.”
The fourth section is the easiest to understand, as it is a kind of short story of depressed country life, a metaphor for the dreariness, the increasingly unimaginative particularities, of common experience in which, significantly, the trout (like the skaters) are circling aimlessly and the pump, which might be seen as a source of refreshment, is broken. The ending is particularly flat; the constellations, if rising in perfect order, have an arbitrariness about that order that suggests a meaningless universe, one in which the old kinds of poetry of metaphysical optimism have no place.
Ashbery is trying to create something like an abstract poem in which the accumulation of images supports the occasional moments of clear statement but with the kind of free-form looseness of association that has been so successful in abstract painting, in which objects do not necessarily mean anything specific. Instead, they add up to a sense of rightness that has very little to do with logic but much to do with an emotion which cannot be quite expressed in any other way. The poem is, in that sense, a metaphor for the failure of the old kinds of poetry to express the state of contemporary life, and the form it takes, a kind of surging, swaying movement in and out of sense and nonsense, is an example of poetic form imitating poetic meaning. It could be said that, in part, the form of this poem is its meaning.