Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Skaters unfolds its theme as a series of potential solutions to the problem of affirming life in the midst of countless uncertainties. Most philosophies console their adherents with at least the possibility of an absolute truth, a fixed point at the center of a changing world. Ashbery permits himself no such consolation, so he restlessly pursues the virtue of restlessness. The poem’s very existence is the poem’s theme (echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that poems should not mean, but be), with the pursuit of affirmation substituting for affirmation itself.

Ashbery’s theme has two distinct components. The first is essentially negative and expresses the futility of any search for certainty conducted among the chaotic surfaces of human life. The poem accumulates supporting evidence, not on behalf of Plato’s harmonious world of eternal forms, but on behalf of the constant flux of Heraclitus, whose primary principle is expressed in the saying that no man steps into the same river twice. For the urban, twentieth century Ashbery (considered the chief figure of the New York School of poets), the ever-changing river becomes a city street: “We step out into the street, not realizing that the street is different.” The world is entirely mutable; moreover, humans are not always even capable of perceiving its mutability. Such bleak considerations lead Ashbery to the expression of his theme’s darkest component—“Only one thing...

(The entire section is 443 words.)