The Skaters is an extensive meditation, its 739 lines divided into four sections of unequal lengths. The title, taken from the Giacomo Meyerbeer ballet Les Patineurs, introduces the controlling metaphor of the poem, figures gliding swiftly over opaque surfaces, and rightly suggests that the poem’s technique will be one of actions rather than of statements and conclusions.
The poem is written in the first person, yet as with many of John Ashbery’s poems, the identity of the speaker is in constant, restless metamorphosis. One can never at any moment claim to know exactly who the “I” is, and one must not assume that it is always the poet speaking as himself.
The Skaters is a poem of perceptions unrestricted by framing devices, and it presents the reader with an almost overwhelming panorama of details and incidents. It prefers experience to understanding and confounds any attempts to summarize it by ordinary means. As a meditation on the vast subject of uncertainty, that unseen region over whose mere surface the skaters move, it must be elusive in order to be true to its subject. Nevertheless, the intimacy and playfulness of its tone permit the reader, once the usual critical faculties are relaxed, to follow the poem through its distinctive movements into an understanding of its intentions.
Section 1 introduces the problem around which the poem conducts its meditations: How can one for certain assume...
(The entire section is 547 words.)