The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Tennis Court Oath” is a poem in free verse, its forty-nine lines divided into six stanzas of varying length. The title has a double suggestiveness, only one aspect of which turns out to be relevant to the actual poem. The Tennis Court Oath was a key event of the French Revolution, an event in which the commoners (or Third Estate), having been locked out of a meeting of the Estates General, gathered in a nearby tennis court and vowed there to stand together until the Constitution could be reformed. John Ashbery’s poem in no way retells or even refers to this incident. The title is also that of a famous painting by the French painter Jacques-Louis David, one in which the oath-taking is seen in an extremely heroic light. David never completed the painting, and this irony of heroism combined with incompleteness is very relevant to the methods of this poem, a poem whose first-person speaker remains permanently “incomplete.”

The key to enjoying this difficult poem is found in its very first line. The phrase “What had you been thinking about” offers perspectives from which to view the many unfinished sentences and narratives that arise and disappear willy-nilly throughout the piece. The phrase asks a question that can never be completely answered, because one person’s thoughts can never be completely transferred to the mind of another; thoughts are unique and finite events. Because it is “thinking” itself that this poem wishes to...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Virtually all the elusive but memorable effects of “The Tennis Court Oath” are products of its central technique: its stream-of-consciousness approach. In the modern period, such innovative novelists as James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf employed this technique as a means of probing beneath the social and dramatic façades of their characters in order to illuminate psychological motives and complexities which might otherwise have passed, as do most thoughts, out of existence unremarked. In novels, stream of consciousness usually has a context within the wider frame of setting and plot. In poetry, however, it appears unframed and so challenges the reader with the suddenness of surprise. Thus, Ashbery’s technique has much more in common with the aleatory or “automatic writing” methods of André Breton and other French Surrealist poets of the early twentieth century. Since the poem’s title refers, however ironically, to an incident of French history and was indeed composed during Ashbery’s ten-year residence in Paris, its use of a characteristically French poetic technique seems entirely appropriate.

The principal effect of aleatory poetry is one of disruption. By rejecting conventional expository techniques, by rejecting even the conventions of syntax and grammar, it forces readers to abandon their usual habits of reading and thinking and so to improvise new ways of understanding that will, of necessity, be unique to each...

(The entire section is 487 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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

Casper, Robert N. “Interview with John Ashbery.” Jubilat 9 (Fall/Winter, 2004): 44-50.

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.