Getting At Experience: Ekphrasis in Ashbery’s “The Skaters”


John Ashbery’s long poem “The Skaters,” from Rivers and Mountains (1966), has been described by one critic as the quintessential postmodern long poem. Incorporating techniques such as pastiche and moments of ars poetic meditation, the text is a series of juxtapositions; it’s hard to know if the poem is even about skaters. And thus it is a good example of what many readers consider Ashbery’s difficulty.

And when the poet Martín Espada discusses his own poetic relationship to Walt Whitman in “A Branch on the Tree of Whitman,” he laments the prevalence in the poetry world of what he considers a move away from communication. For Espada, Ashbery’s difficulty is evidence of contemporary poetry’s cynical disengagement with the world of experience:

Look at the movement toward obscurity…where the goal is to adopt a pose of detached, hip cynicism and not to engage with the world. Whitman is so deeply engaged with the world; you get that sense that he’s so involved. …We see, in a lot of ways, especially in the MFA world, people fleeing from the Whitman model, running in the opposite direction, toward what I don’t know. Toward Ashbery? Toward Stevens in some way? (29)

Espada continues, claiming this move toward “obscurity” is “a flight from anything that could move people, anything that could change people. It is, in some ways, profoundly dishonest” (29). In contrast, Espada claims that the poetry of the political imagination is often “clear, concrete” and “urgently direct.”

This poetry of communication, writing that engages with the world in order to affect change, is explicitly aligned with Whitman, whereas the move toward obscurity, Espada argues, is “anti-Whitman” and “dishonest” (29). Espada’s Whitman is the poet who “cheers up slaves and horrifies despots,” and who will sound his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” But Espada’s implicit claim that the poetry of John Ashbery is “anti-Whitman” conflicts with Ashbery’s own statements about the degree to which Whitman influenced his poetry. Ashbery has written, for example, about the influence of Whitman’s democracy of expression:

My idea is to democratize all forms of expression, an idea which comes to me from afar, perhaps from Whitman’s Democratic Vistas—the idea that both the most demotic and the most elegant forms of expression deserve equally to be taken into account (qtd. in Rothenberg and Jorris 296).

So while this democracy of expression may not be the radical egalitarianism that Espada admires—not the poetry that explicitly says: “all the men ever born are also my brothers…and the women my sisters and lovers…” (LG 1855: l. 85)—Ashbery nevertheless can be read as another branch on the tree of Whitman.

To be fair, Espada is not the first to be critical of Ashbery’s “difficulty” or “obscurity,” but the statements he makes about Ashbery being anti-Whitman suggest that he might be reading Whitman too narrowly. It’s true, Whitman was clearly a political poet; in the preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman writes: “The American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people” (618, my emphasis). But there are also those moments in Whitman’s oeuvre in which the speaker is less confident in the boundless creative power of language. Just before the famous declaration, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” Whitman’s speaker admits “I too am untranslatable.” Untranslatable?

One wonders how this idea can mesh with the Whitman who writes, again in the preface to Leaves, “The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality. If he breathes into anything that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer…he is individual…he is complete in himself…” (621). Whitman might offer an answer in a much-quoted line from “Song of Myself,” in which the poetic “I” boldly claims “I contradict myself.”

What Ashbery inherits from Whitman is a “contradictory” theory of language—a desire to “get at…a general, all purpose experience—like those stretch socks that fit all sizes” that is coupled with an acute awareness of the communicative limits of language (Ashbery qtd. in Shoptaw 1).

In the much-anthologized poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery famously evokes Parmigianino’s sixteenth century painting in order to investigate the limits of representation. This technique, known as ekphrasis, is a well-established poetic form and is defined most simply as “a verbal representation of a visual representation” (Mitchell para. 1). Ekphrasis became a topic of increasing debate and scholarship during the 1990s, and several attempts have been made to refine the term to include the many variations that appear in poetic discourse. John Hollander, for example, writes of “actual” and “notional” ekphrasis, where actual ekphrasis refers to a poem addressing an actual piece of visual art (like Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”). Notional ekphrasis, on the other hand, is a poem that addresses or evokes a representation that is a “purely fictional painting or sculpture that is indeed brought into being by the poetic language itself” (Hollander qtd. in Barry 155). Notional ekphrasis is still evoking a visual representation, but the “otherness” of that visual representation is further complicated because it can never exist outside of the poem which brings it into being.

Representing what must always remain outside the poem is usually the task of ekphrasis.  Mitchell writes:

Unlike the encounters of verbal and visual representation in “mixed arts” such as illustrated books, slide lectures,… theatrical presentations, film, and shaped poetry, the ekphrastic encounter in language is purely figurative… This figurative requirement puts a special sort of pressure on the genre of ekphrasis, for it means that the textual other must remain completely alien; it can never be present, but must be conjured up as a potent absence or a fictive, figural present (para. 10)

But the notion of notional ekphrasis complicates this idea of otherness. While it may be true that a visual object can never be present in an ekphrastic poem, if the object is purely fictional, then the poem is indeed the only place in which it can come into being.

Peter Barry has suggested further subdivisions of the ekphrastic concept; he divides actual ekphrasis into the categories “closed” and “open”. “Closed” ekphrastic poems make it clear that they are not evoking events; they cannot be read as descriptions of anything put a specific visual representation (Barry cites Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” as an example of closed ekphrasis). In “open” ekphrasis, on the other hand, “the object of the ekphrasis is presented ‘unframed’, and so could be taken as a description of (say) an actual scene, rather than a pictorial representation of that scene” (Barry 156). But Barry’s comments on the variations of notional ekphrasis are useful for thinking about Ashbery’s poetry, even those poems that are not usually discussed as being ekphrastic in the actual sense.

Barry argues that notional ekphrasis can be split into fictional and conceptual variations. Fictional notional ekphrasis involves description on a purely fictive object, but in “realist terms” (156). Barry cites Browning’s “My Last Duchess” as an example; the painting is not “real,” but it also cannot do things that paintings cannot realistically do.

Conceptual notional ekphrasis, however, evokes a visual object that is given “characteristics which no real art object could have…one which not only doesn’t, but also couldn’t exist,” like a painting that has a soundtrack, for example. In this case, the object of representation is not only brought into being by poetic language itself, but is also imbued with characteristics which exceed the limits that it would have were it a “real” object.

Finally, Barry says that poems can evoke intersections of these conceptual categories, so that one could read a poem as being situated between open-actual ekphrasis and conceptual notional, for example.

More importantly for a discussion of Ashbery, Barry makes an interesting statement about the ways in which ekphrasis, as a concept, can comment on the nature of all poetry:

Ekphrasis, finally, may be taken as gesturally emblematic of the condition of all poetry, for poetry is only able to engage the ‘real’ through conventional modes of perception and representation which ‘always already’ exist. Thus, (for example) the landscape depicted in poetry is always embedded in ‘discourse’ (156).

This “gesturally emblematic” ekphrasis is very useful for thinking about a poem like Ashbery’s “The Skaters.” The poem, which has very little description of skaters, can be read as ekphrastic in the sense that is engaging the ‘real’ in a way that calls attention to its own status as a representation.

By titling his poem “The Skaters,” Ashbery invites the expectation that the poem will, in fact, be about skaters (and indeed it may be). Instead, however, the reader is met with a range of various discourses, a sea voyage, a desert island episode, vague references to snow, and found language taken directly from a book titled Three-Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do (McHale 137). Additionally, Brian McHale identifies three keys, or nodes, of “The Skaters” that “anticipate and preempts interpretive moves” (140). But there is just enough reference to skaters to make the argument that the poem is indeed a representation of skaters, or that skating is the central metaphor of the poem.

In what is perhaps the closest the poem gets to ekphrasis proper, skaters are described in a hyper visual manner:

Lengthening arches. The intensity of minor acts.
As skaters elaborate their distances,
Taking a separate line to its end. Returning to the mass,
They join each other
Blotted in an incredible mess of dark colors, and again
Reappearing to take the theme
Some little distance, like fishing boats developing from the
Land different parabolas,
Taking the exquisite theme far, into farness, to Land’s End,
To the ends of the earth! (37)

Here the motion of skating is described with the visual language of arches, lines, colors and shapes, but the “theme” extends into “farness.” The skaters, defined in terms that suggest visual art, nevertheless want to break free and reach out “to the ends of the earth!” Ashbery begins the poem with a similar technique, only these lines are an exaggeration of sound: “These decibels / Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound / Into which being enters, and is apart. / Their colors on a warm February day / Make for masses of inertia…” (34). The phrase “into which being enters, and is apart” is emblematic of what I referred to earlier as Ashbery’s contradictory language—“The Skaters” is a poem that wishes to be about everything: skating can be read a metaphor for life or poetry or nothing at all. In fact, the text is relentless in its attempt to undermine its own attempts at representation:

The evidence of the visual is henceforth replaced
By the great shadow of trees falling over life.
A child’s devotion
To this normal, shapeless entity…

Forgotten as the words fly briskly across, each time
Bringing down meaning as snow from a low sky, or rabbits
flushed from a wood (35-36).

A shadow has fallen over “the evidence of the visual,” and yet there is meaning—it is “brought down” like snow or flushed out like rabbits. These images of meaning work rather well for describing “The Skaters.” An image will extend for several lines and then the discourse will shift suddenly, like a frightened rabbit. This technique allows for the expansive reach that poets like Whitman and Ashbery strive for. For when Ashbery speaks of his desire to “get at” an “all-purpose experience,” the burden of communication intensifies. Poems that are too specific in their description or imagery (or politics) run the risk of excluding readers from the experience being evoked. Maybe it seems contradictory, that general experience must be written with seemingly obscure language, but the effect is like Ashbery’s description of skaters: “Taking a separate line to its end. Returning to the mass, / They join each other / Blotted in an incredible mess of dark colors” (37).

But Ashbery is nonetheless aware that these lines are a representation. In one instance, the text makes it clear that it is dealing with absence:

…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 (39).

This is one of many moments in which the poem deals directly with itself. Here the poem claims to devour itself, leaving nothing but absence. Compare this to Mitchell’s comments about the way ekphrasis works:

The ekphrastic image acts…like a sort of unapproachable and unpresentable “black hole” in the verbal structure, entirely absent from it, but shaping and affecting it in fundamental ways (para. 10).

The ekphrastic image is both absent and present. So to is the “real” of “The Skaters.” Ashbery is aware that his representations will never be anything more than representations, but that representations are nevertheless present.

Poetry can thus be a medium of communication in the sense that language can represent the general experiences that Ashbery believes we all share. And one experience that we all share, according to Ashbery, is the desire to connect with the world outside ourselves: “To be out of these dusty cells once and for all / Has been the dream of mankind since the beginning of the universe.” (59) But this dream can never be achieved. Again, Ashbery describes this kind of solipsistic frustration in terms of motion: “The train is still sitting in the station. / You only dreamed it was in motion” (61). The title image of the skaters is also a representation of this dream deferred:

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…(34).

These lines claim to be an “answer,” but the reader is left with a sense of doubt: “colors slip away.” The act of skating must remain absent from the answer: “the profile I cannot remember.”

This back and forth between presence and absence is most thoroughly evoked in the text’s ekphrastic moments. In one section of the poem, the image of a wall calendar is employed to emphasize the slipperiness of representation:

A broken mirror nailed up over a chipped enamel basin,
whose turgid waters
Reflect the fly-specked calendar—with ecastic Dutch girl
Clasping tulips—
On the far wall. Hanging from one nail, an old velvet hat
With a tattered bit of veiling—last remnant of former finery.
The bed well made. The whole place scrupulously clean,
But cold and damp (48).

Interestingly, it is not the mirror which reflects the calendar, but the water inside the enamel basin. A description of these reflections then broadens out into a description of the room in which the image hangs. Then, in a signature Ashberian move, the rug is pulled out from underneath the image: “All this, wedged into a pyramidal ray of light, is my own invention.” (48). The image and the room turn out to be purely fictional, an example of notional ekphrasis. What’s more, Ashbery lifted this line from Lewis Carroll’s White Knight in Through the Looking Glass (McHale 144). So whose invention is it? The image of a Dutch girl (presumably photographed and published in a wall calendar) is reflected in “turgid waters” beneath a “broken mirror,” only later to be exposed as fictitious with lines that are themselves borrowed. How many levels of reflection is this?

In a similar assertion and retraction, a long portion of “The Skaters” evokes a desert island fantasy:

…Now the big cloud that was
in front of the waterspout
Seems to be lurching forward, so that the waterspout, behind it,
looks more like a three-dimensional photograph.
Above me, the sky is a luminous silver-gray. Yet rain, like
silver porcupine quills, has begun to be thrown down.
All the lightning is still contained in the big fat cloud however (56).

Here, a thunderstorm is compared to a three-dimensional photograph (an example of conceptual notional ekphrasis because photographs are usually perceived as two-dimensional representations) And the visual imagery is rich with metaphor: rain like porcupine quills, for example. But the next line of the poem reads: “In reality of course the middle-class apartment I live in is nothing like a desert island” (56). Again, Ashbery undermines the representative quality of his own lines, after the fact.

The poem does this time and time again. At one point, the poem stops to literally explain itself: “It is time now for a general understanding of / The meaning of all this” (38). Then, a few lines later: “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?” (38). And finally: “But this is an important 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 is novel / Or autocratic, or dense or silly.” (39). Once more, the poem gestures toward communication, explanation even, of its own agenda and then retracts. It is these lines that lead up to the discussion of absence and presence that I quoted above, and then we get this statement: “But the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and back to a slightly less diluted abstract. / Mind effects are the result” (39).

And so there is some communication after all, just not in a straightforward and neatly wrapped package; meaning is the result of mind effects, which are the result of the poems juxtapositions of seemingly discordant images and discourses.

In yet another ekphrastic moment, “The Skaters” turns to the image of skating as a metaphor for the jumping between abstract and concrete, and for the complexity of representation: “The figure 8 is a perfect symbol / Of the freedom to be gained in this kind of activity / The perspective lines of the barn are another and different kind of example / (Viz. ‘Rigg’s Farm, near Aysgarth, Wensleydale,’ or the ‘Sketch at Norton’)” (47). Elsewhere Ashbery refers to the vanishing point to which perspective lines recede; here they are compared to skating a figure eight—a motion that is looping (always moving but never getting anywhere) and conceivably infinite (you could skate the same figure eight forever).

So this back and forth motion is again employed to describe the “meaning” of the poem. Additionally, “‘Rigg’s Farm, near Aysgarth, Wensleydale,’ or the ‘Sketch at Norton’” sound like works of art—representations of barns, not actual barns. The poem is thus calling attention to the act of representation—but without losing faith in representation altogether.

In the opening to a chapter on Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Thomas Gardner quotes a few lines from Ashbery’s “Second Presentation of Elizabeth Bishop”:

Only out of such “perfectly useless concentration” can emerge the one thing that is useful for us: our coming to know ourselves as the necessarily inaccurate transcribers of the life that is always on the point of coming into being (144).

Gardner then relates this statement to what he claims to be Ashbery’s project in “Self Portrait”: An investigation of the dynamics between Whitman’s “Me myself” and the world that is other: “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am” (LG 1855: l. 66). Ashbery is interested in the gap between self and portrait. Gardner continues by claiming that Ashbery’s “Self Portrait” is a continuation of what Whitman began in sections 5 and 6 of “Song of Myself’ “when Whitman suggested that the soul’s intuited presence…could be approached through tenderly using the world’s ‘many uttering tongues.’ (145). But for Ashbery, “this ‘larger language,’ these ‘resonances of the totality,’ have already been absorbed and internalized” (145). And so the poem can be a place where experiences are “got at” because language plays such an important role in the ways in which experiences are structured; the totality, as it were, is resonant in language.

It is possible that Ashbery’s poetry, though not nearly as political as the work of, say, Espada’s, is nonetheless a logical continuation of Whitman’s poetic project. Furthermore, Espada’s branch on the tree of Whitman—the poetry of advocacy, of affecting the world—is not unrelated to Ashbery’s branch, which is a poetry of epistemological and ontological questioning, of wondering what exactly is the song of myself. Is the song the same as the self? Or must it always remain only a song? At least two distinct, yet related, ideas link Ashbery’s project (according to Gardner anyway) directly back to Whitman: the concern with the relation of the Me myself to the world, and the idea that language, the “many uttering tongues,” is the point of contact between self and world.

These two concerns align quite nicely with what, according to Brian McHale, critics have described as the two phases of Ashbery’s poetry (and postmodern poetry in general): 1) a disjunctive phase; and 2) a stage of pastiche, or found linguistic objects. Both of these phases, it could be argued, have their sources in Whitman and are highlighted in Ashbery’s poem “The Skaters.” Both phases spring from the desire to “get at…a general, all-purpose experience,” as contradictory as it may seem.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Rivers and Mountains. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

Barry, Peter. “Contemporary Poetry and Ekphrasis.” The Cambridge Quarterly 31.2 (2002): 155-65.

Espada, Martin. “A Branch on the Tree of Whitman: Martin Espada Talks About Leaves of Grass.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 26.1 (2008): 23-34.

Gardner, Thomas. Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

McHale, Brian. The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “Ekphrasis and the Other.” Picture Theory. University of Chicago Press, 1994. Google Books. 1 Dec. 2009. Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry. Harvard UP, 1994. Google Books. 1 Dec. 2009.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. Ed. Michael Moon. New York: Norton, 2002.

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