New critical edition of John Ashbery’s “The Skaters”

Charles Bernstein just made an announcement about an exciting new project that just went live on the web: a “genetic” critical edition of John Ashbery’s long poem “The Skaters” created by Robin Seguy.  It offers digital versions of earlier drafts of the poem along with the final published edition, so you can follow along and see how the poem as we know it emerged, along with all sorts of other data about it (including an index, word frequency charts, and so on).

This site will be invaluable for anyone who wants to study the poem in detail or learn more about Ashbery’s writing and revising process — without having to spend days in the archives at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, where Ashbery’s papers are housed.  It’s also one of the first and most successful examples I’ve seen so far of a scholar bringing the new tools of the digital humanities to bear on post-1945 American poetry specifically.  And better yet: it is apparently the first in a whole series that will “make freely accessible critical editions and analytic tools for an array of 19th to 21st century French and American poetry collections.”

It’s particularly exciting because “The Skaters,” which Ashbery wrote in 1963-1964, and which appeared in his 1966 book Rivers and Mountains, is such an important poem in Ashbery’s evolution, one of his earliest masterpieces and a turning point in his work, not to mention one of my personal favorites (for those interested, there is a discussion of the poem in my book Beautiful Enemies, p. 143-146).

Ashbery was living in Paris at the time, far from his New York School pals (a fact that becomes one of the central themes of the poem), and when his friends back home read the poem in letters he sent, they were absolutely blown away by its genius, its humor and beauty, its dizzying variety and playfulness, and the way it seemed to reinvent the long poem.  After reading “The Skaters” for the first time, Kenneth Koch was floored by it; he wrote to Ashbery that reading the poem “makes me feel all cheered up and forlorn and filled with envy and despair (an ideal condition for writing poems, I believe).”

“The Skaters” also had an enormous impact on the young poets who would soon be known as the New York School’s “second generation.”  David Shapiro has frequently mentioned that reading the poem (and hearing it read by Ashbery at a legendary reading in 1964)* was one of the formative aesthetic experiences of his life:  “What I loved about ‘The Skaters’ was that it seemed so vast. I asked Kenneth [Koch] what ‘The Skaters’ was about before I had read it, and he said it was not about anything, it was a whole philosophy of life.”

It’s wonderful to have the chance to see how “The Skaters” evolved and to have such a rich critical edition of this landmark work available for free online.

Here is Bernstein’s announcement:

It is my great pleasure to announce Robin Seguy’s  genetic edition of John Ashbery’s great poem “The Skaters.” This is the first in the newly created Text/works series, a digital library that intends to make freely accessible critical editions and analytic tools for an array of 19th to 21st century French and American poetry collections.

We are very grateful to John and David Kermani for making the typescripts, as well as the text of the poem, available.

In its current state, this edition offers:

     – a plain text version of the poem, with optional display of the lines and stanza numbers;

     – the transcription of two typescript drafts of the poem, as well as 20 poems and fragments—18 of which are unpublished,—pertaining to the first typescript’s dossier. The genetic dossier is displayed, with all variants, in four formats: HTML and XML-TEI, along high-resolution image files and searchable PDFs of the original pages;

     – three annotated versions of the text: one showing “referential” data such as names, places, time markers, etc., the second the use of personal pronouns, and the third thematic data such as sounds, colors and weather notations throughout the text;

     – a full searchable index, with links to the poem lines;

     – a few elements of quantitative analysis, such as number of occurrences and frequencies for lexical items, etc.

* This important reading — at Washington Square Art Gallery, August 23, 1964 – is available in PennSound’s amazing collection of Ashbery readings, here.  The note mentions that Bill Berkson, who gave the introduction to the reading, recalls that “the standing-room-only audience included Edwin Denby, Frank O’Hara, and ‘many of the younger New York poets (Padgett, Berrigan, Towle, Shapiro) and also Andy Warhol.'”

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