The Skaters

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"The Skaters" is a 739-line long poem by American postmodern poet John Ashbery (b. 1927). Written from 1963 and in close to its final state in 1964, it was first published in Ashbery's fifth collection of poems, Rivers and Mountains published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.[1][2][3]


According to an interview Ashbery gave to The Paris Review, he wrote the poem largely on typewriter.

when I was writing “The Skaters,” the lines became unmanageably long. I would forget the end of the line before I could get to it. It occurred to me that perhaps I should do this at the typewriter, because I can type faster than I can write. So I did, and that is mostly the way I have written ever since. Occasionally I write a poem in longhand to see whether I can still do it. I don't want to be forever bound to this machine.[4]

Ashbery later described the poem as "A meditation on my childhood which was rather solitary" and he often associated his childhood not as a painful experience but one of boredom.[5] Ashbery agreed with that boredom was formative to his art, similar in vein to the statement of Larry Rivers to fellow New York School poet Frank O'Hara that "the history of art and the history of each artist’s development are the response to the discomforts of boredom."[5][6]

It is thought by several critics that the title "The Skaters" refers to a passage in British poet William Wordsworth's autobiographical long poem The Prelude (1805), or possibly to a passage by American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau in Walden[7]

Critical reception[edit]

"The Skaters" is a puzzling poem that incorporates "techniques such as pastiche and moments of ars poetic meditation"—that is, a rhetorical technique in which the poem is a writing about writing, as in metalanguage—where "the text is a series of juxtapositions; it’s hard to know if the poem is even about skaters."[8]

In analyzing "The Skaters", critic Brian McHale states that the poem "appears to make sense locally" but 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."[9]



  1. ^ Ashbery, John. Rivers and Mountains. (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966), 34-63.
  2. ^ Ford, Mark. "Chronology," in John Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956-1987 (New York: Library of America, 2008), 998.
  3. ^ The poem later appeared in Ashbery, John. Selected Poems. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), 32-62; and in a compilation of Ashbery's first five books: Ashbery, John. The Mooring of Starting Out. (Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 1997), 194-223; and later in Collected Poems 1956-1987. (New York: Library of America, 2008), 147-178. Excerpts of the poem appeared in the Ashbery, John. Selected Poems. (New York: Viking Press, 1985), 71-79 and (London: Paladin, 1987), 75-83.
  4. ^ John Ashbery interviewed by Peter A. Stitt. Interviews: John Ashbery, The Art of Poetry No. 33 in The Paris Review No. 90 (Winter 1983).
  5. ^ a b Ashbery, John. Interview with Janet Bloom and Robert Losada, in Packard, William (editor) The Craft of Poetry Interviews from The New York Quarterly. (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 119.
  6. ^ Rivers, Larry and Weinstein, Arnold. What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 113.
  7. ^ Herd, David. John Ashbery and American Poetry. (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000), 109.
  8. ^ jsnjns (blog). Getting At Experience: Ekphrasis in Ashbery’s “The Skaters” 21 November 2010. Retrieved 2 July 2013.
  9. ^ McHale, Brian. "How (Not) to Read Postmodernist Long Poems: The Case of Ashbery's 'The Skaters'" in Poetics Today 21(3) (Fall 2000), 561-590. doi: 10.1215/03335372-21-3-561

Further reading[edit]

  • Ashbery, John. "John Ashbery in conversation with Mark Ford" (London: Between the Lines, 2003).
  • Bernstein, Charles. "The Meandering Yangtze. Rivers and Mountains (1966)" in Conjunctions 49 (Fall 2007).
  • Kermani, David. John Ashbery: A Comprehensive Bibliography, including his art criticism, and with selected notes from unpublished materials. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1976).
  • Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).
  • Milesi, Laurent. "Figuring out Ashbery: ‘The Skaters’" in Revue française d'études américaines 67: La poésie américaine: constructions lyriques (1996).
  • McHale, Brian. "How (Not) to Read Postmodernist Long Poems: The Case of Ashbery's 'The Skaters'." in Poetics Today 21-3 (2000).

External links[edit]