Arduity: John Ashbery, The Skaters.


From 'The Skaters'

'The Skaters' is a very long poem first published in 'Rivers and Mountains' in 1966. It is divided into four sections, set out below are excerpts that hopefully give a flavour of the whole poem.

From Section 1

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colours on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o'er the ice
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything except perhaps the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden "dump" or lament.

Bit the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

We children are ashamed of our bodies
But we laugh and, demanded, talk of sex again
And all is well. The waves of morning harshness
Float away like coal-gas into the sky
But how much survives? How much of any one of us survives?
The articles we'd collect - stamps of the colonies
With greasy cancellation marks, mauve, magenta and chocolate
Or funny-looking dogs we'd see in the street, or bright remarks.
One collects bullets. An Indianapolis, Indiana man collects slingshots of all epochs, and so on.

Subtracted from our collections, though, these go on a little while, collecting aimlessly. We still support them.
But so little energy they have! And up the swollen sands
Staggers the darkness fiend, with the storm fiend close behind him!
True, melodius toiling does go on in that awful pandemonium,
Certain resonances are not utterly displeasing to the terrified eardrum.
Some paroxysisms are dinning of tambourine, others suggest piano room or organ loft
For the most dissonant night charms us, even after death. This, after all, may be happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone, violins, limpets, grace-notes, the musical instrument called serpent, viola da gambas, aeolian harps, clavicles, pin ball machines, electric drills, que sais - je encore!
The performance has rapidly reached your ear; silent and tear-stained, in the post-mortem shock, you stand listening, awash
With memories of hair in particular, part of the welling that is you,
The gurgling of harp, cymbal, glockenspiel, trinagle, temple block, English Horn and metronome! And still no presentiment, no feeling of pain before or after.
The passage sustains, does not give. And you have come far indeed.

These are the opening lines of 'The Skaters' and initially there are references to skating ('masses of inertia and hips', 'Here a scarf flies', 'these swift blades o'er the ice', 'the water surface ripples') but these are intespersed with extended and fairly abstract digression. For the reader these digressions sound profound but are not profound enough to be 'meaningful' as if Ashbery is being carefully nonchalant about what he says. There's also a melancholy tone - the lines about what the human mind can retain are particularly fatalistic.

Perhaps the key device here relates to disruption, we start off thinking that we're going to be told something about skaters and this seems to be the case for the first two stanzas but then we get 'We children are ashamed of our bodies' etc which effectively and abruptly moves us into other areas altogether. It now becomes clear that we are not following a coherent theme nor a single line of thought. To be fair, the change may be presaged by 'the whole light changes' but it's still fairly sudden as is the move from the collectors to the musical instruments.

This deliberate disruption has been a feature of Ashbery's work for the last forty years and in some cases it can still be startling.

A closer reading of the text reveals some brilliant use of language and a few puzzling anomalies. Decibels as flagellation is very clever and appropriate whereas 'Into which being enters' is a puzzle because it's not clear whether we should think of being in the everyday sense or in the Heideggerian sense, Ashbery lived in Paris during the sixties and would be very aware that this is a loaded term. Then there's 'the violet-seeming' which sounds good but probably doesn't mean very much. The last half of the first stanza is very abstract and almost philosophical ('the absolute', 'an infinite series', 'pre-existent or pre-seeming') and builds up this line of thought to us all being pushed into perdition.

The next few lines bring us back to skating with a flying scarf and an excited call. The notion of novelty guiding the blades doesn't make absolute sense and it's not clear why 'over' is poetised into'o'er'.

The reference to "we children" is puzzling. Who is being referred to? Is it the poet and the skaters or the poet and the reader? Why are 'we' referred to as children? Is being ashamed of our bodies a sign of damage or is this merely being used for effect? Who is demanded that we talk of sex and how does this make everything well? There are no obvious answers in the rest of this very long poem so it is up to the individual reader to work these out or to conclude that the passage is without significance.

Another shift in focus occurs with "But how much survives? which leads into things that are collected. It isn't entirely clear what "these go on a little while" is about unless it refers to the things that we collect which makes a kind of sense of us supporting them even though they have little energy.

We also have to ask what the darkness and storm fiends are meant to signify although the image of them staggering up the swollen sands is very effective.

Is it the reader who is silent and tear stained and why? Is the shock referred to the shock of being dead or of the contents of a post-mortem report?

"with meories of hair in particular" is typically disruptive Ashbery as is the inclusion of limpets in the list of musical instruments. Grace-notes are musical notation so their inclusion makes a kind of sense.

The last line presages the theme of the second excerpt below, indicating that what has been read will not yield all of its meaning but may sustain enough to carry on. The last phrase may be an acknowledgement that the reader has done well to follow the convoluted structure outlined above.

Second excerpt from section 1.

Therefore the post must be resumed (is being falsified
To be forever involved, tragically, with one's own image?).
The studio light suddenly invaded the long casement - values were what
She knows now. But the floor is being slowly pulled apart
Like straw under those limpid feet.
And Helga, in the miniscule apartment in Jersy City
Is reacting violet to the same kind of dress , is drawing death
Again in blossoms against the reactionary fire...pulsing
And knowing nothing to superb lambent distances that intercalate
This city. Is the death of the cube repeated. Or in the musical album.

It is time now for a general understanding of
The meaning of all this. The meaning of Helga, importance of the setting etc.
A description of the blues. Labels on bottles
And all kinds of discarded objects that ought to be described.
But can one ever be sure of which ones?
Isn't this a death-trap, wannting to put too much in
So the floor sags, as under the weight of a piano, or a piano-legged girl
And the whole house of cards comes dinning down around one's ears!
But this is animportant aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, am not at all ready to,
This leaving-out business. On it hinges the very importance of what's novel
Or autocratic, or dense or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall not,
Will not do so for the moment. Except to say that the carnivorous
Way of these lines is to devour their own nature, leaving
Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence, but still
Nevertheless these are fundamental absences, struggling to get up and be off themselves

This, thus, is a portion of the subject of this poem
Which is in the form of falling snow
That is, the individual flakes are not essential to the importance of the whole's becoming so much of a truism
That their importance is again called in question, to be denied further out, and again and again like this
Hence, neither the importance of the individual flake,
Nor the importance of the whole impression of the storm, if it has any, is what it is,
But the rhythm of a series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and back to a slightly less diluted abstract.

Mild effects are the result.
I cannot think any more of going out into all that, will stay here
With my quiet schmerzen. Besides the storm is almost over
Having frozen the face of the bust into a strangge style with the lips
And the teeth the most distinctive part of the whole business

It is this madness to explain...

What is the matter with plain old-fashioned cause-and-effect?
Leaving one alone with romantic impressions of the trees, the sky?
Who, actually, is going to be fooled one instant by these phony explanations
Think them important? So back we go to the old, imprecise feelings, the
Common knowledge, the importance of duly suffering and the occasional glimpses
Of some balmy felicity. The world of Schubert's lieder. I am fascinated
Though by the urge to get out of it all, by going
Further in and correcting the whole mismanaged mess. But am afraid I'll
Be of no help to you. Good-bye.

The first stanza of this excerpt is almost wilfully obscure. We are not told what kind of post 'the post' is and there's a clash of tenses- must be and is being. There's a lot of disruption going on- "values were what / she knows now." comes out of the blues and again the tenses are mixed. Even paying close attention, the words appear to defy sense apart from one or two images- "studio light suddenly invaded the long casement" and "the floor is being slowly pulled apart". The language is mostly everday except for "superb lambent distances that intercalate / This city". The OED defines lambent as "Of a flame (fire, light): Playing lightly upon or gliding over a surface without burning it" and intercalate as "To insert or interpose something additional, extraneous, or out of the ordinary course, between the ordinary members of any series or the successive parts of any whole" which doesn't really make things any clearer.

The rest of this excerpt can be read as Ashbery's justification for not providing too much explanation, characterising over-explanation as a "death-trap" although it isn't clear who or what exactly is going to die.

He cleverly points out how poems can put themselves into question and ventures a definition- "the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and back to a slightly less diluted abstract". This helps us make a bit more sense of the first stanza and the whole excerpt seems to set out Ashbery's style which he has more less adhered to ever since. His reluctance to explain his work can also be seen as a warning to readers to search for coherent meaning and to concentrate more on the words and images rather than what they may signify.