Since reading John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror just a short while back, I have begun again, at the beginning this time. Thus I have swung through Some Trees, have sworn at the incomprehensibilities of The Tennis Court Oath, and have climbed up and sailed down, respectively, Rivers and Mountains. I have also dipped into the secondary literature on Ashbery, which has mostly disappointed. Today, however, I did read an interesting paper by Brian McHale, with the unfortunate title, “How (Not) to Read Postmodernist Long Poems: The Case of Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’.”
The central goal of McHale’s article is to discourage a particular method of reading postmodernist long poems, which goal he achieves by showing how this method fails in the case of Ashbery’s “The Skaters,” the long poem that concludes Rivers and Mountains. Here, three questions arise: (1) what is the problematic method of reading? (2) what is so problematic about it? and (3) why do I care? In turn, then.
McHale describes the problematic method of reading as follows:
Critics tend to select “key” lines or passages, treating these as interpretive 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 interpretive orientation.
As for why this method of reading is problematic, in McHale’s view, the above quotation already largely hints at why. It is a highly selective manner of reading, in which certain passages are selected as focal points, and the rest of the poem is read in the light of those passages. It reads the poem as possessing a sort of organization that is as likely to be imposed by the reader as in the poem itself. Or, more properly, it reads part of the poem as having that organization; the rest is “simply passed over in silence.”
As a result, McHale argues, this method of reading “fosters the illusion that interpretation grounded in key nodes can master or exhaust the text, when really it only samples the latter.” This is a general reason for worrying about this sort of reading. Indeed, it seems more general than McHale makes it out to be, as it applies to interpretations of any long poem (and maybe any short poem), whether or not it is postmodernist. McHale further argues that this method of reading is particularly inappropriate in “The Skaters,” since, in that poem, Ashbery methodically undermines it. More on the details of this below.
Before that, however, let me address the last of my three questions: why do I care? I care because this is more or less how I read poems. In my two previous posts on Ashbery (linked at the start of this post), I applied such a method first to “As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat” and then, even more boldly, to the entirety of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. And I think I was right to do so. I think, that is, that something goes wrong in McHale’s critique. It’s not that he reads “The Skaters” badly, or that he’s wrong about the limitations of this method. He’s right about those limitations, and he reads “The Skaters” very well, at least so far as I am able to judge.
The problem, rather, is that McHale draws the wrong conclusion from his critique. It doesn’t speak against this form of nodal analysis altogether. It simply shows us how to do it better, by detailing ways that it can go awry. To see that, let’s delve a bit into the details of his critique.
The bulk of McHale’s article is devoted to showing how three distinct approaches to identifying key nodes in “The Skaters” all fail. The first approach organizes the poem around its descriptions, taking these to be direct representations of the world. These then accumulate further poetic material, yielding the entire poem. But, McHale argues, these descriptions prove over and over again to be ontologically “leaky,” to be secondhand or referential in some unexpected way. Consider just one example:
This, after all, may be happiness: tuba notes awash on the great flood, ruptures of xylophone, violins, limpets, grace-notes, the musical instrument called serpent, viola da gambas, Aeolian harps, clavicles, pinball machines, electric drills, que sais-je encore!
This seems, at first glance, like a list of musical instruments, or, if we are suitably unimpressed by the electric drills, sources of sound more generally. But in the middle of this list are limpets (a type of aquatic snail) and clavicles (not clavichords). What appeared to be a coherent description crumbles on analysis.
A second approach to the poem seeks to read it autobiographically, with the poem’s four parts corresponding, respectively, to Ashbery’s childhood, his time at Harvard and in New York, his expatriation in Paris, and his projected old age. But any attempt to get more fine-grained than this breaks down. In autobiography, the crucial organizing principle is going to be the “I,” but, as so often in Ashbery, the “I” of “The Skaters” does not speak with a single voice. Instead, it shuffles through a multitude of incompatible voices, the vast majority of which cannot plausibly be associated with Ashbery.
Finally, many critics have approached Ashbery’s poem by organizing it around the many passages in which the narrator appears to comment on the poem itself. Especially prominent here is the famous passage in the poem’s first part, which begins, “It is time now for a general understand of / The meaning of all this.” As McHale shows, however, this passage, so far from illuminating the poem as a whole (or even the poem up to that point) instead undermines itself: it turns out to be a poetic instantiation of the liar paradox. Once again, the reader looking for organizational foci is bound to be frustrated.
The case McHale makes on all of these points is compelling. But what his arguments show is not that it is wrong to read Ashbery in this way. They show exactly the opposite. Insofar as McHale’s reading illuminates the poem, it does so precisely by showing that the poem has its effects precisely by disorienting the reader who approaches it looking for such organizational foci. The reader who does not take that approach is simply going to miss out on that disorienting effect. The poem is lost on such a reader.
As I see it, then, McHale’s reading of “The Skaters” has two upshots, one local and one general. The local upshot is that prior critics of the poem have been too willing to take the existence of key nodes for granted, and so have missed out on how the poem deliberately disrupts them. In this way, McHale’s reading of the poem is a better instantiation of the method he is ostensibly criticizing: better because it does not falsely assume that such nodes must ultimately be found.
The more general upshot is that this nodal method of reading must be done with the right attitude. Insofar as it is done with the expectation that these nodes will provide mastery over the full text, McHale is entirely correct that it is misguided—and not just in the case of Ashbery. But this is asking too much of the method. What the method can do is to provide a reading that heightens some strands of a poem at the expense of others. So long as those strands are truly present, there can’t be any objection to this. Even in more tightly knit poetry than Ashbery’s, more goes on than the human mind can at one time hold before it. Selection is necessary, and not a problem so long as it is recognized. In Ashbery especially, the reader is overwhelmed with details that cannot readily be unified. To make any kind of sense of it, certain parts have to be elevated over others. The key is to do so provisionally.
The real criminal that McHale has identified is not, therefore, the search for nodes. The real criminal is dogmatism, the desire to take a certain reading as final or exhaustive. Dogmatism, as skeptics of all ages have insisted, is inimical to inquiry. In this case, a dogmatic attitude toward a particular reading of a poem leaves that poem largely unread. The skeptic, on the contrary, by accepting that that same reading is partial and provisional, makes use of it without attachment and, when the time is right, moves on.