Today I wrote, “The spring is late this year.
In the early mornings there is hoarfrost on the water meadows.
And on the highway the frozen ruts are papered over with ice.”
The day was gloves.
How far from the usual statement
About time, ice—the weather itself had gone.
—John Ashbery (from The Skaters, IV)
In his Berlin story, Something About the Railway, Robert Walser wrote, “Nowadays, anywhere there is nature, trains are also found.” How true it is: almost all along its route, the best views of the Hudson between New York City and Poughkeepsie are from the train, not by foot. But there’s one place near to us where anyone on foot can have the ne plus ultra of views, weather permitting, of course.
One’s only form of distraction is really
To climb to the top of the one tall cliff to scan the distances.
[The Skaters, III]
The weather hasn’t been in the least obliging as of late, but the recent spate of bitter cold did give us one day’s grace. We made for the abandoned railroad bridge, restored to life as a walkway high over the Hudson River, and watched masses of broken ice flow by. We imagined what it might be like to cross the river jumping from chunk to chunk of ice, though we knew it would be nuts to try.
We thought we spotted ice chunks moving both north and south—the Hudson River flows both ways at Poughkeepsie—but that was only our imagination, too. And we tried to figure out where the icebreaker had likely gone through. Mostly, though, we just walked and stood at the ledges, on the lookout for trains along the shoreline and taking in the views.
Afterward, we retired to the Ice House Restaurant at the river’s edge, where, warm and dry, we watched the ice flow past and ordered a cleverly concocted Bloody Mary each, a Reuben sandwich, and fish and chips. A fine day out, and the only one we’d had in quite a while. It’s been a bit of a bore.
But how is it that you are always indoors, peering at too heavily canceled stamps through a greasy magnifying glass?
[The Skaters, II]
I do what I always do when winter hits and the outdoors seems a (railroad) bridge too far: I reach into the stack of books I’ve been meaning to read, choose some music to put on, pose myself a question or set a task—or both. I was tempted by Wallace Stevens’s An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, of which I’d been reminded on reading Mark Kerstetter’s typically thought-provoking Mondays with Pessoa (and Stevens and Rilke) post, only to recall how phenomenally difficult that poem is.
But I was tempted, and I still am. For one, the line “Flickings from finikin to fine finikin” kept running through my head, though surely because of its sound and not its sense. Helen Vendler wrote of the canto that contains those lines that, “Stevens invokes, in canto xxxi, the poetics of the small.” [On Extended Wings 190]. So much like W. G. Sebald’s comment that Robert Walser was “a clairvoyant of the small,” as indeed Walser was.
The thought of meandering down the thread of smallness as a possible connection between Stevens and Walser was enticing, but their aesthetic sense about “smallness” was poles apart. Stevens seemed to fret about it, while Walser seemed simply to enjoy. Stevens, after all, was terribly strict about his poetry. As he admonished William Carlos Williams:
. . . My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the extreme necessity to convey it one has to stick to it ; . . Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic or what you will, everything adjusts itself to that point of view; and the process of adjustment is a world in flux, as it should be for a poet. But to fidget with points of view leads always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility.
A bit po-faced (a word new to me I’ve been eager to put to use), I thought, so I opted for The Skaters, by John Ashbery, that well-known fidgeter with points of view and unabashed aficionado of new beginnings.
. . . I am cozily ensconced in the balcony of my face
Looking out over the whole darn countryside, a beacon of satisfaction
I am. I’ll not trade places with a king. Here I am then, continuing but ever beginning
My perennial voyage . . .
[The Skaters, II]
It’s not that The Skaters isn’t sometimes considered difficult, too, it’s just that Ashbery seems to offer his poems with a bemused congeniality, inviting readers to come on board and revel in their flow.
While I’m in the midst of reading The Skaters, I always love it—it has a way of breaking the ice gathered in my brain on any given day. The poem does a sort of skating around of its own, giving new meaning to the word “meander” (though Ashbery doesn’t use the word in the poem, unlike, say, “bubbles,” which he uses four times).
When I come out the other end, I’m never sure exactly where I’ve been, but it doesn’t seem to matter—I always find something new to savor and something that beckons me back into the poem.
. . . Into the secretive, vaporous night with all of us!
Into the unknown, the unknown that loves us, the great unknown!
[The Skaters, II]
Ashbery sometimes gives the impression that he’s lost in the poem himself:
As balloons are to the poet, so to the ground
Its varied assortment of trees. The more assorted they are, the
Vaster his experience. Sometimes
You catch sight of them on a level with the top story of a house,
Strung up there for publicity purposes. Or like those bubbles
Children make with a kind of ring, not a pipe, and probably using some detergent
Rather than plain everyday soap and water. Where was I? . . .
[The Skaters, I]
Yet take another look, and he’s telling you something quite particular about what he’s up to when he writes a poem. For example, after “Where was I?” he wrote, “The balloons/Drift thoughtfully over the land, not exactly commenting on it.” That’s exactly what Ashbery does. As he wrote in The Skaters, “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 . . .”. [The Skaters, I]
Though Ashbery’s use of terms suggesting logic—hence, thus, yet, because, therefore—is often subversive, at other times, he tells you exactly what you need to know, or more to the point, what to do, when reading, to travel happily along the byways of the poem:
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 the series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and
back to a slightly less diluted abstract.
[The Skaters, I]
That “rhythm of the series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and/back to a slightly less diluted abstract” is in its own way as good (and as elusive*) a guide to The Skaters as the basso ostinato (recurring bass line) is to the Bach Chaconne.
For the longest time, I’ve wondered what Ashbery was doing with the phrase “The day was gloves.” Was he in conversation with Wallace Stevens’s line, “The day was green”? [Stevens, The Man with the Blue Guitar] Well, maybe. But more likely the “answer” lies in The Skaters itself.
Today I wrote, “The spring is late this year.
In the early mornings there is hoarfrost on the water meadows.
And on the highway the frozen ruts are papered over with ice.”
[The Skaters, IV]
The lines offer a straightforward, “positive” description of what “I” sees and sets down in words: no mystery, just elegant words limning a wholly recognizable winter scene. But with one of those “swift kicks” Ashbery is known to enjoy,** the poem veers off into abstraction: “The day was gloves.” [The Skaters, IV] The phrase stands on its own, without “the costly stuff of explanation.” [The Skaters, I] Not quite on its own, though, for there is this: “How far from the usual statement/About time, ice—the weather itself had gone.” [The Skaters, IV] The words, taken together, are one of the poem’s balloons, perhaps, not just drifting, but drifting “thoughtfully over the land.” [The Skaters, I]
Ashbery, it turns out, selected Robert Walser’s Microscripts as one of his favorite books for 2010. Ben Lerner, in a review of another Walser book, A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories, wrote:
Walser is often less concerned with recording the finished thought than with capturing the movement of a mind in the act of thinking; it’s the motion that stays with you, not a stable set of meanings.
Something very like that occurs when I read The Skaters. It’s as if the skaters move along the poem’s surface, propelling the poem forward as they “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!
[The Skaters, I]
In Something About The Railway, Robert Walser wrote,
What a great massing and intermingling! At the ticket windows there are often veritable public assemblies and imperiously demanding mobs, as though we found ourselves in a year of passionate revolution. Everyone wants to receive his ticket as quickly as possible, but usually he has failed to sort out the exact change in advance as admonished by the station’s solicitous management. The idler is better off: he need not run and need not fear that the express train will pull out right under his nose. [Berlin Stories 86-87]
Sometimes it’s a fine thing to be an idler, strolling without defined purpose, meandering along The Skaters, or simply watching the Hudson River’s ice-patterns form and disperse.
I also posed myself a musical question: Why don’t I warm to the work of Thomas Adès more than I do? I wouldn’t call his works either “too tame” or “too strange,” and some have certainly drawn me back for another listen. But, after a while of listening, something seems to go amiss. I listened to several instrumental works on Spotify to see what I might find out. My responses are individual and not intended as a judgment on the merits of these works.
Two of the works that drew me back for a second listen were In Seven Days, for the rhythmic pulse on which it opens, and Polaris, for its delicate use of orchestral color. While Polaris, in particular, has staying power for me, as I listen to various Adès works over time, or to a group of Adès works together, the similarities in and among them start to wear thin. As best I can describe it, the architecture of the works to which I’ve listened seems to rely extensively on ascending and descending lines, often employing spiraling motifs. After a while, my ears succumb to listening fatigue. I long for the work to break out of its pattern and free my ears to go somewhere else.
For a listening list on Spotify, click here.
The list includes the following instrumental works by Thomas Adès:
Asyla 1997 (Orchestra; winner of the 2000 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition)
Concentric Paths 2005 (Violin and Orchestra)
Tevot 2007 (Orchestra)
In Seven Days 2008 (Piano and Orchestra)
Polaris 2011 (Orchestra)
. . . as well as two versions of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin, one performed by Arnold Steinhardt, the other by Hilary Hahn. (The fifth movement is the Chaconne referred to in the post.)
Polaris and Tevot, by Thomas Adès
The Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor (James Ehnes, violinist):
*Arnold Steinhardt said, of the basso ostinato in Bach’s Chaconne:
The basso ostinato also perplexed me. This recurring bass line was supposed to do just that — to repeat endlessly without significant alteration and to serve as the work’s distinctive theme. Yet Bach refused to stick consistently to the bass template he fashioned for the beginning and chose rather to draw from several quite distinctive and different ones.
**The reference to “swift kicks” may be found here, and my transcription of the colloquy in which the phrase appears is reposted below:
Filreis: Do you want to respond to Susan’s suggestion that you taught her how not to go in a straight line?
Ashbery: Well, I apologize. [laughter] I guess I’ve encouraged a lot of deviant behavior in my writing. Since, as you may have gathered, I don’t think in a straight line or with a purpose and kind of let things happen to me and at the same time giving them a nudge or a swift kick. So this does produce a sort of zig-zag effect in my life and art, which I’m okay with, since I believe that things are meant to be like that.
Credits: Except as noted here, the quotations are from the sources linked in the text. The quotations from The Skaters may be found here. The quotations from Robert Walser are from Berlin Stories, which may be found here.
thank you for this marvellous comparison of the three poets! Your essay reminded me of skating miles and miles over the huge overflowed and frozen meadows in Bremen each winter in my youth. I will have to put on my skates at least two times again to see all the single snowflakes in their beauty and let them melt on the tip of my tongue.
Can you imagine: I first read “The day wears gloves” – but I love “was gloves” even more. You with your love of rhythm and music will love “But the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps, from abstract into positive and/ back to a slightly less diluted abstract” – I see the falling whirling snowflakes dancing out of the grey sky, softly landing on the skin and caressing as those lovely lines you quote.
Britta: This is a lovely recollection, and I’m so pleased to have provided a prompt for you to relate it here. “The day wears gloves” strikes me as another very attractive phrase that I will have to put to use at some point.
Such a knowledgeable and beautifully written piece of connectedness, Susan.
SW: You are too generous! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It was fun to write.
I’m up in a far from frozen north, from Glasgow to the Borders, so now I don’t have more time than to gasp at the photos. Which confirm why I love the Neva and the Hudson best of all rivers (I wept when I first saw St Petersburg’s giant all frozen, though recent viewing of film taken during the siege gave it a grimmer meaning – starving citizens drawing water from a hole in the ice; many lay down and died there). I think of you in your fastness and look forward to returning to grasp your connections when I’m home.
David: I hope one day to see the Neva myself, though I suspect not in the depth of winter! I look forward to your return visit here, if and when you can. For one, you may be the only one who can offer further insight on the “Adès problem.”
Sue, I have read “Skating Above the Ice” before, and it must have been through you, because you introduced me to Ashbery. I have looked and can’t spot the post of (I think) about a year ago. I remember “The day was gloves” and the immediate sensation of being drawn into the day and the gloves: a childhood sense memory of a frozen day being all about the mittens – their thickness and warmth, and how did they get wet? (“Don’t play in the snow on the way to school!”), and hanging them to dry, with the others, along the edge of the schoolroom.
I hadn’t thought anyone could come close to Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” for conveying the sense of disconnected, though conscious, meandering, until Ashbery’s “The balloons/Drift thoughtfully over the land, not exactly commenting on it.” And I like your drawing in of Walser’s idler.
Interesting musical choices, as well. The two Ades sound to me so like the forbidding voice of the ice that I quit them early. But the Bach, well! Impressive likening of poem to music, by the way! The Chaconne is all melting ice and spring’s sudden rivulets – a perfect accompaniment for this exploration, hope-filled. You may have been doing some of your own wintry wandering, but your thoughts here pull all the balloon strings together nicely. Well done! — Elizabeth
Elizabeth: I suspect you’re thinking of the post “Just Walking Around” https://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/just-walking-around/, where I quote “the day was gloves,” too, along with my other favorite, “Hasn’t the sky?” Speaking of drawing connections, I love your drawing of a connection from Wordsworth to Ashbery! As for Adès, I don’t like to think my own “Adès problem” will put others off. His work is highly regarded, after all. But I am certainly happy to come together for a listen to the Bach Chaconne, no question about that!
Here’s something we’ve shared: the bridge. In July of 2012 my wife, my sister, and I walked from the Poughkeepsie end to the middle and back. I can assure you there was no ice on the Hudson then, but almost certainly more people on the bridge than when you recently went.
Another shared thing, though obliquely, is Fernando Pessoa, whom I first learned about in an intensive introductory Portuguese language course at Queens College in the summer of 1965. What has stayed with me all these years is one poem’s opening line “A Europa jaz, posta nos cotovelos,” in which Pessoa sees the image of Europe on a map as if it were a person lying down, propped up on its elbows. At the end we learn that that Portugal is Europe’s face, which “stares, with a Sphinx-like and fatal glance / toward the Occident, the future of the past.”
Steve: We might well have walked past one another on the bridge! It is beautiful any time of year, though the frigid temps, accompanied by wind, certainly keep me away lately. As for Pessoa! Is that marvelous quotation from Occident? I have been looking all over for Pessoa’s poem “Occident,” in a decent translation, ever since seeing some lines from it in the DC Metro, of all places. More on that may be found here: http://lostintranslationdc.blogspot.com/2011/01/trans-atlantic-poetry-navy-memorial.html
What I quoted is from Mensagem (Message); specifically the first part of it, which is called Brazão (Blazon); and more specifically the first part of that, Os Campos (The Fields); and even more specifically the first of that section’s two halves:
The poem that you asked about, Ocidente (with one c in Portuguese), is also from Mensagem, specifically from its second part:
What appeared in the subway is all of Ocidente, though you now see that it’s part of a much larger collection.
Everything I’ve linked to is in Portuguese, but now that you know what you’re dealing with, you may be able to find an English translation.
In English, however, is this little biography of Pessoa, whose name means ‘person’ in English:
Steve: Thanks so much for the lead (not to mention the clarification on Occident). Hoping I can find it now!
I walked with the two of you, watching the river run below, and then I sat with you in a warm room, surrounded by poets, savouring their thoughts and flowing with the rhythm of their words.
And your post is like a piece of your imagination: hopping from ice floe to ice floe, here and there, always moving, always landing on the next thread of the whole, never just drifting, following a beautiful, liquid path of exploration and illumination.
I could almost see the air vibrate around you with the intensity of your pleasure.
Friko: Well, of course I love the images you conjure up here (though I often feel I’m simply infinitely distracted). We’re definitely back to the warm room now, as the temperatures have descended again to single digits. I look forward to another spell just warm enough to allow us to get back on the bridge. Even though I take the same photographs over and over, it’s irresistible to try and record it. We’re very lucky for the determination of those who saw through the project of saving and restoring the bridge. (PS: I do now have a book of Walser poems in hand, and am looking forward to that.)
Beautiful – your photos, your reading of ‘The Skaters’, your weaving of the photos and the reading together, your leaps of imaginative pleasure (imagining jumping from ice chunk to ice chunk). Children know naturally how to stare off into space and let their minds go. Adults typically forget how to do it, then sometimes have to retrain themselves (through meditation techniques, for example).
I think your reading of the poem is right on, and I like what Elizabeth said about Wordsworth, a poet I’ve begun to read because of Ashbery. And throwing Walser – that famous ambler – into the mix is delightful too.
Oh, and then there’s Stevens! I think of a couple more “F” words, in addition to your “fret”: Finicky, Fastidious. Please, if you can elucidate the final tercet of ‘New Haven’ (or indeed shed any light on the poem at all) I’d be very appreciative. You’ve mentioned his disagreement with Williams several times now, and so it’s become an itch I have to scratch. But when I examine the passage from Kora’s Prologue (bearing in mind this is from 1920) I feel that I need to know more. Stevens seems to think, here, that Williams is too casual, his attention alights here and there like a fly; he doesn’t focus. And Williams thinks it’s important to “loosen” his attention; after all, the prologue is to a series of texts called “improvisations”. I sympathize more with Williams in this minor dispute, and it goes back to what I wrote about some of Stevens poems in ‘Parts of a World’. I hesitate to say he’s trying to put a pin through the heart of that butterfly, but he’s not trying to fly with it either. I guess I should say I’m totally biased toward Williams.
What, I wonder, would either of them – Williams or Stevens – think of ‘The Skaters’! No doubt Stevens would think it was unbearably diffuse, perhaps downright deviant. But Williams? I wonder. I love to read Ashbery’s poem ‘A Modern Instance’ over the collective 1920 shoulders of Williams and Stevens!
Sorry I can’t weigh in on Adès. I’ve listened enough to these clips only to know the first taste wasn’t delicious, but I don’t place too much stock in that first taste. You know how much I revere Bach, though, and your comparison of the Skaters lines to the basso ostinato is beautiful.
Mark: Where to begin! How interesting you’ve begun to read Wordsworth because of Ashbery. I want to know more! In writing the the post that I’ll be putting up next (for better and for worse), J quoted a line of Wordsworth to me, which led to reading the complete poem, and in the way Elizabeth noted, the dots do somehow connect to Ashbery. Who’d have thought it? Certainly not me.
It’s a funny thing about Stevens/Williams. I haven’t got very far with Williams (though I have at least now read Spring and All once through), and Kora is on the list, but somehow I haven’t yet found my way in to his work. This is terribly simple-minded, but he often seems to be jumping up and down in a sort of fantastic fury. I don’t feel I can just relax and enjoy the poems! Yet there on the other side is the terribly sober-minded Stevens, on whose poems I always enjoy ruminating once I start in, but at the same time he has all those “f’s” we’ve each identified. Next to him, Ashbery just seems downright friendly (to use another kind of “f” word). I wondered, too, what WS and WCW would think of Ashbery. I agree it’s almost certain WS would frown upon Ashbery’s work. With WCW, it’s harder to know, as you say. And hilarious to think of them each reading “A Modern Instance.” I suspect each of them, in their own way, would bring another “f” word to bear, as in “what the . . .” I mean really, just the way it starts: “In the republic of other things/when we live in a bathroom, weird issues/short out what sense orders for us.” Priceless. I really have to change my predilection for choosing a poem or two and going back to it again and again–I would have missed this if you hadn’t pointed it out.
Now, as for the last tercet of New Haven, I have many miles to go before I sleep with this poem, and that’s certainly not the only reason why. I will turn back to it, as I have to The Skaters, from time to time, and perhaps something will become “clear” enough to state, who knows? Helen Vendler does speak directly to this, and while I am far from understanding what she posits, either, here’s an interesting “fun fact”: “his courage faltered at an abstract conclusion when he read the poem aloud, [but] he rearranged the stanzas when it was issued in book form so as to give the abstract the beautifully yielding last word.” I can see what she means by “beautifully yielding”: I always like the way these lines move, too, but, as is often the case with me, I can enjoy the sound and rhythm without comprehending the sense. You may also be amused by Vendler’s observation about the lines that they “give us Stevens as the noble disembodied preceptor-shade, rebuking us for our grosser theories and our inattentive premises.”
Now, as for Bach–I really enjoyed discovering this about the Bach Chaconne and was even more delighted with the chance to slip it in this post. What a beautiful piece it is!
Thank you for removing the gloves, so that we could experience the cold of the icy waters. As one who has been longing to experience a bit of nature that stretches beyond flat landscapes of plowed fields damped with snow, your play with Ashbery’s poem, and your wonderful photos, gave me a taste of life outside these lackluster borders. Ironically, Ashbery was on my mind today as I wished to purchase Poetry for a featured Ashbery post- sadly, b&n only copy was in sad shape… I couldn’t purchase. Perhaps I will seek an online option since you’ve now inspired me. Truly a delight to visit this site late in the evening while listening to a cold wind and Chet Baker try at harmony – a nice background for this fine literary stroll. ~ a
angela: So of course I’m curious about what the Ashbery post was you hoped to get! And as for the “taste of life outside these lackluster borders,” I do know what you mean, though it’s interesting that, for me, after living in Iowa for several years and outside Chicago for many more, my eye is always cheered by a big expanse of open space, corn stubble crusted with frost, and maybe a lone tree on the horizon. When I left Iowa for New York City, a friend born and bred in Iowa said to me, “Say goodbye to the horizon.” I hadn’t the slightest idea what she meant at first. She wasn’t altogether right, as, in Manhattan, if you go to the water’s edge, always in easy reach, the horizon is right there. But, as I wrote over your way, it’s all in the balance. I get bored up here, beautiful though it is, particularly when it’s so frigid outside I really don’t want to venture out. (Of course, it could be worse. We could live in Yakutsk: http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2014/jan/22/coldest-city-in-the-world-in-pictures.)
Even before I reached your comment that “The Skaters” has “a way of breaking the ice gathered in my brain on any given day”, I’d found the conceit of poet as ice-breaker teasing me. No Auden here, but there might be a poem in that thought.
I was delighted by the way your use of “meander” was picked up in at least one comment. While you used the word as a verb, it also can be a noun, just as “floe” makes a nice pairing with “flow”.
All of this movement – you across the bridge, the ice under the bridge, the poet making the metaphorical leaps from here to there – made me think of Aristotle, the Peripatetic School and its axiom: “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses”.
Your post seems a wonderful example of just that point. An indoor exegesis of the poem would be possible – perhaps even worthy. But cold, ice, freezing air and water – it seems as though they made your thoughts sparkle and crack with all the delightful energy of winter. Wonderful post!
shoreacres: Oy! Among other things, now I’ve got to put Aristotle back on the list! You are way, way ahead of me on that (but that should come as no surprise). I absolutely love that axiom, not to mention the very idea of the Peripatetic School itself. “Indoor exegesis” is a priceless phrase, putting in mind once again Ashbery’s lines, “But how is it that you are always indoors, peering at too heavily canceled stamps through/a greasy magnifying glass?” The worst of it is, the frigid temperatures have returned, and while this would be balmy weather in Yakutsk (see response to angela above), I do find I return to the greasy magnifying glass in lieu of venturing outdoors. But, then, as of late, I had Jeremy Irons reading the Four Quartets to “keep me warm.” Next post relates to that, but hardly an exegesis. I am exceedingly glad, at least, to have embarked on a full tour of those poems, and I shall return to them from time to time.