Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Snowflake or the Storm? Reading Ashbery's "The Skaters"

You're probably yearning for a 2400 word reading of John Ashbery's "The Skaters," aren't you? Well, you're in luck! I've just edited this out of the manuscript of Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself.  Sadly, the one footnote in the passage is a bit uncooperative as to format, so I've just included it in parentheses in the main text.  Have at it!

The Snowflake or the Storm?

            John Ashbery's long poem “The Skaters,” like his earlier poem “Europe,” has its origins in an old book purchased from a Parisian book stall—in this case Three Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do, in which Ashbery found the passage “some sounds, of course, it is almost impossible to reduce to writing, as for example, the hollow scam and murmur produced by a multitude of skaters…” This, along with the book’s similarity to the “Things to Make and Do” sections of his childhood Book of Knowledge, overwhelmed Ashbery with nostalgia for his childhood in upstate New York (Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde, 122). The poem’s sense of loss and loneliness reflects not only this moment of nostalgia, but Ashbery’s circumstances. Begun in 1963, it reflects a period when Ashbery, still reeling from the reception of The Tennis Court Oath, felt particularly “bewildered, defeated, and alone” (Shapiro “Interview”). Out of this solitude and nostalgia came one of the earlier sustained achievements in what would become the dominant mode of the longer poems Ashbery’s mature period—what we might call, not the long narrative poem, but the long anti-narrative poem.
            The anti-narrative poem has many qualities of the narrative poem: scale, a variety of incidents, and, unlike most of “Europe,” a discursive, talky, reflective narrator. What it lacks, though, is a sense of orderly progression, a sense that the parts can all be linked into a coherent totality. It is not only anti-totalization: it is anti-teleological, in that the parts serve no single end. The critic Brian McHale describes the anti-narrative nature of “The Skaters,” and the ways in which it is commonly read, with admirable concision:
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. (591)

“The Skaters” embodies this “intractable flux” at the level of form, with its digressiveness and its non-sequiturs. It also thematizes its own non-totalizability and anti-teleology, and links them to both Ashbery’s isolation from utilitarian society and his homosexuality.
            The first of the four sections of “The Skaters” opens with an image of a group of skaters on a frozen pond:
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, 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. (Collected Poems 147)
The movements of the skaters stump “the absolute” because they don’t seem merely novel, but somehow predestined—and so we are introduced already to questions of telos, or end, and of pattern and non-pattern. After further considerations of novelty and order, the poem offers us images that elaborate upon these themes:
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.
How strange that the narrow perspective lines
Always seem to meet, although parallel, and that an insane ghost could do     this,
Could make the house seem so much farther in the distance, as
It seemed to the horse, dragging the sledge of a perspective line. (Collected Poems 149)

What are we to make of the images of meaning here? Snowflakes in a storm, and rabbits in rout, are decidedly not oriented toward a specific end: they are chaotic, plural entities, unpredictable in movement. Meaning, then, is plural and chaotic. All of this seems to be in contradistinction to the orderly world of the painting with its single-point visual perspective, where everything is assigned a clear position in an ordered space. But even the orderly world of perspective can be subverted here by the perverse eyes, as it is when the perspective line of a road’s edge leading to a vanishing point becomes, instead of something static, something pulled along by the horse in the picture. The apparently ordered is as prone to disorder as the onrushing crowd of rabbits. Later, when we read of a “great wind” lifting a number of panels, including the painting of the horse, into the air, we see “the perspective with the horse” disappear “in a bigarrure of squiggly lines.” The orderly world of perspective shifts into something like a cubist arrangements of lines and misaligned planes (150).
            These images for the shifting nature of meaning and order prepare us for what amounts to a farce of interpretation, a passage of the poem purporting to be an interpretation of the poem itself (Helga, here, is a character introduced into “The Skaters” only briefly, and for unclear reasons):
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, wanting 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 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’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… (Collected Poems 152)

We need, it seems, explanation: the labeling and describing of the poem’s elements, the mapping out of how the parts compose a whole. But what details signify? Ashbery has put “too much in” for the structure to remain stable, he has failed to leave enough out for the poem to be reduce to a comprehensible whole. Of course the questions of what to put in and what to leave out only matters if one wants the poem to add up, as Ashbery clearly does not want it to. It is the poem’s own excessiveness that leads it to devour anything that might present itself as the poem’s essence.
            Near the end of the first section of “The Skaters” we return to the image of snowflakes in a flurry, reworked, now, as a meditation on the relation of part tow whole:
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… (Collected Poems 152-153)
The parts are not the parts, the final sentence tells us, nor the whole the whole: neither can be put in a consistent relationship to the other. Even the seemingly most significant sentence in the passage bends and warps to avoid being reduced to paraphrasable meaning: “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.” The possessive attached to “whole,” and the parts that follow it (including the nonstandard relation of “so” and “that”) bend the syntax into a kind of pseudo-meaning. Even as we sense we are being told something about the irreducibility of the poem to a single meaning, we witness a sentence enter into suggestive irreducibility.

The second section of “The Skaters” links the idea of the non-teleological to social alienation and the cultural position of the homosexual in the middle decades of the twentieth century—a position with no pre-fabricated narrative along the lines of the heterosexual man’s prescribed path from singleness to married family man climbing the career ladder. The section depicts a tourist’s voyage, a cruise with no apparent end. The joyful narrator revels in this, except when the specter of utilitarian work raises its ugly head:
Now we are both setting sail into the purplish evening.
I love it! This cruise can never last long enough for me.

But once more, office desks, radiators—No! That is behind me.
No more dullness, only movies and love and laughter, sex and fun. (Collected Poems 158)

The opposition between an aesthete’s delight in the exotic and the dullness of the workaday world, with its emphasis on actions as means to definite ends, comes straight out of “The Instruction Manual.” Fortunately, the specter of work has been confined to the past here, and we are liberated from its strictures. The voyage continues, and our protagonist settles into a spectator’s relationship with the world. “This is just right for me,” he tells us, “I am cozily ensconced in the balcony of my face” (158): he stands back from his own existence, looking on at the world from on high as a kind of aesthetic spectacle.
            This continues until the voyage is stopped by inclement weather, and we hear that “The whole voyage will have to be cancelled” (159). It is significant that, when the aimless voyage is cut off, we find ourselves stranded at on an island where we hear “The Wedding March,” and see a “couple descend/The steps of the little old church” (159). The wedding march is a journey very much at odds with the wanderings of the aesthete-tourist: it is teleological in the extreme, leading to the social and religious sanctioning of a union that, at the time of the poem’s composition, could only be specifically heterosexual. When the voyage does resume, it is with the accompaniment of some of the poem’s most homoerotic imagery —”man nightly/Sparingly descends/… all of him/Pruned, erect for vital contact” (161).
            To understand the importance of this passage, we might turn to D.A. Miller’s classic of queer theory, Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Here, Miller tells writes of a heterosexual couple, telling us “the couple is in full and open possession of a story, a story, moreover that one hardly exaggerates in our culture to call the story. Outside the heterosexual themes of marriage and oedipalized family,” he continues, “…the plots of bourgeois life… would all be pretty much unthinkable” (44). Judith Roof, glossing the passage, adds “our very understanding of narrative as a primary means to sense and satisfaction depends upon a metaphorically heterosexual dynamic” (Come as You Are: Sexuality and Narrative xxii). Most narrative forms in western culture have revolved around plots that, in the era before gay marriage and the raising of children by gay couples, have been overwhelmingly oriented toward heterosexual norms, and have marginalized homosexuality. {{FOOTNOTE: An example may be in order here by way of clarifying what is meant by the heterosexual bias of narrative form, and gay alienation from traditional narrative. In demonstrating the heterosexual bias of conventional narratives, Judith Roof asks us to consider the role of the “female comic second” in Hollywood film. This character, generally a wisecracking yet not traditionally feminine friend of the female lead, serves a supporting role in the marriage plot, but has little or no real narrative herself. When we watch, for example, the scenes in which Ida Corwin appears as the female comic second in Mildred Pierce, and take them in isolation from the rest of the film, we find only fragments and narrative stasis: she has no arc to follow. Roof has argued, in All About Thelma and Eve: Sidekicks and Third Wheels, that lesbians received no narrative role in midcentury American popular culture, and were offered only characters without narrative with which to identify.}} Ashbery’s presentation of the wedding march as the antithesis to the aesthete’s voyage without destination invites us to see the wandering of his voyager—and the narrative wandering of “The Skaters,” as tied to his homosexuality. This is not, of course, to say that no gay works involve traditional narrative, nor that all anti-narrative works are linked to homosexuality. Rather, it marks Ashbery’s own eschewal of conventional narrative as connected to his sexuality as well as to his eschewal of the values of a utilitarian society and its office desks.
            The concluding sections of “The Skaters” continue to underline the connection between Ashbery’s alienation from mainstream (heterosexual and utilitarian) society and his refusal to let his narrative reduce to a totalizable meaning or a teleological end. In section three, for example, he contemplates his status as a “professional exile” (171), and presents himself as a Crusoe figure, marooned at a far remove from the ordinary world where people work and marry. And near the end of section four he speaks of the need “To refuse the square hive”—a term redolent of both labor and breeding (178). Then, in the final lines of the poem, he presents us with a kind of cosmic order, in which “The constellations are rising/In perfect order: Taurus, Leo, Gemini” (178). But this perfect order is not the order of the constellations as it is traditionally seen: Ashbery has inserted his own birth sign, Leo, outside of its conventional place. We can take it as the subversion of traditional order through the assertion of his own idiosyncratic identity. If we do, we find we are once again in the world of Dwight Macdonald, defending the individual against the forces of homogeneity.
            “The Skaters,” then, is very much a poem of aesthetic autonomy, escaping co-optation to any totalizing interpretation. It is also marked by Ashbery’s origins: his sexuality, his alienation from utilitarian work, and his generation’s emphasis on the individual rather than on any collective political program.

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