John Ashbery ranks among the exemplary postmodernist poets, and his long poem of the mid-sixties, “The Skaters,” is a strong candidate for the title of exemplary postmodernist long poem. Unlike the more obviously disjunctive poems of Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath period, “The Skaters” often appears to make sense locally, inviting the reader to expect to make global sense of the poem. Instead, one encounters an intractable flux of verbal “found objects,” shifting styles and registers, teasing literary allusions and echoes, fragmentary narrative episodes and descriptive scenes. How is one to negotiate or manage such flux?Critics tend to select “key” lines or passages, treating these as interpretative centers or “nodes” around which to organize the heterogeneous materials of the poem. Other materials come to be subordinated in various ways (explicitly or, more often, implicitly) to these“key” passages or are simply passed over in silence, so that the poem is reduced to a skeletal structure of points that yield most readily to a particular interpretative orientation. However, in “The Skaters”Ashbery anticipates this sort of reading, appearing to cater to it butonly in order to entrap and outflank the reader. The present essay undertakes to examine three types of key or nodes in “The Skaters,”demonstrating how Ashbery's text anticipates and preempts interpretative moves in each case. The types of keys to be considered are (1) descriptive(world-oriented) statements; (2) autobiographical (or speaker-oriented,expressive) statements; and (3) ars-poetic (or text-oriented, textually self-reflexive) statements. “The Skaters” appears to be a descriptive poem; it has often been read as more or less veiled autobiography;and it is undeniably self-reflexive. I undertake to demonstrate how descriptions, the ontological rug having been pulled out from under them, are retrospectively reframed as ekphrases. Similarly, putatively autobiographical confessions are reframed as the utterance of a fictional persona. Finally,ars-poetic statements, which seem to promise hermeneutical mastery over the text, are evacuated of that mastery by the indeterminacy of their scope. Moreover, all categories of “key” statement—descriptive,autobiographical, and ars-poetic alike—are deprived of their“purchase” on the text by our chronic inability to distinguish instances of “use” from instances of “mention” in“The Skaters.” Such an account of “The Skaters,” even if it does not “solve” the problems and puzzles with which the poem challenges us, at least enunciates those problems and puzzles and compels us to reflect on our own interpretative procedures.
Brian McHale; How (Not) to Read Postmodernist Long Poems: The Case of Ashbery's“ The Skaters”. Poetics Today 1 September 2000; 21 (3): 561–590. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-21-3-561
Download citation file: