The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In a poem as turbulent and extensive as The Skaters, nearly all the devices of English poetry are employed, wholly or partially, literally or allusively, as the language of the work proliferates through the poet’s various intentions. Indeed, it may well be said of Ashbery that he has constantly attempted to write a kind of poetry that cannot be captured by any conventional definition.

Still, there are clearly a number of key devices that propel The Skaters toward its thematic ends. Chief among these is the metaphor which gives the poem its title. A skater trusts his life to surfaces alone and so embraces in his activity the notion of experience without understanding, movement without depth. Were he to pause in his gliding, for reflection, he would fall and be none the wiser for having reflected. The skater accepts the circuitousness of his sport, not as a vapid sequence of repetitions, but as a series of infinitely unique variations on the theme of movement. Thus the skater is the perfect metaphorical representative of both the poem’s rhetorical technique and of its closing affirmation.

The most memorable imagery in The Skaters serves to reinforce the effect of its principal metaphor. In nearly every passage, images of drift, of careless motion, appear. Balloons, soap bubbles, smoke, and sudden storms all arise in their turns and as quickly disappear, only to reappear at later moments, as if to proclaim the...

(The entire section is 489 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Ashbery: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

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Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Moramarco, Fred. “Across the Millennium: The Persistence of John Ashbery.” American Poetry Review 33 (March/April, 2004): 39-41.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Vincent, John. “Reports of Looting and Insane Buggery Behind Altars: John Ashbery’s Queer Poetics.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Summer, 1998): 155-175.

Yau, John. “The Poet as Art Critic.” American Poetry Review 34 (May/June, 2005): 45-50.