Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

On one level, “The Tennis Court Oath” is a poem about the possibilities of poetry itself. For John Ashbery, the purpose of poetry is not communication in the sense of a message delivered or of an idea expressed. It is, instead, communication as the continuous encounter between ideas and things in language on the page and in language in the mind. In the fragmentary rhetoric of this poem, one can never be certain whether a given word is the object of one verb or the subject of the next. One does not know what to subordinate to what, just as one cannot determine plot from subplot or reality from dream in the inconstant landscape of the poem’s progress. For Ashbery, this indeterminacy represents the liberation of poetry from poetic precedent, a chance for the poem to be read only by its own and its readers’ own lights. The poem becomes an exemplary act of literary sabotage, a bomb tossed into the anthologies that readers carry in their minds from one work of literature to another.

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Yet the theme of “The Tennis Court Oath” resonates beyond the limits of poetry alone. Its stylistic indeterminacy, when applied to its enigmatic journeys, emphasizes the uncertainty of all travel, the intriguing if unsettling reality that not all destinations are reached or even known. As the poem is enriched by incompleteness, so too may the actual journeys of life be enriched by liberation from fixed objectives. Since the only absolutely certain point of arrival is death (a point anticipated by the poem’s allusions to violence and melodramatic murder), perhaps it is best to postpone arrival, just as Ashbery’s sentence fragments strive to postpone the inevitable, final punctuation mark.

This poem works to revise accepted notions of interpretation as well as those of anticipation. As the ends of things are entrusted to uncertainty, so too are the precise identities of objects and events encountered en route to the ends. This is why the poem moves restlessly back and forth between tones of menace and of slapstick, images of blood and of surreal vistas of candy and pink stripes. Every stanza can be several, utterly contradictory stanzas, depending upon which words a given reader chooses to emphasize. It is the final randomness of such emphasis that calls into doubt the possible accuracy of any interpretation of any circumstance. For Ashbery, experience is too quick and too complex to be contained by interpretation. Language can only pursue reality, never apprehend it. In “The Tennis Court Oath,” this pursuit becomes a wild, improvisational dance to the limits of coherent writing.

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