John Gould Fletcher’s poetry career intersected with that of some of the greats of 20th-century literature, including Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell and Conrad Aiken. His poem “The Skaters” exemplifies his mature style, influenced both by the Imagist school of poetry and by Japanese art. Having left his native Arkansas as a teenager, he returned there in middle age, bringing with him the literary sensibilities that helped shape the poetry of his era. “The Skaters” is part of that legacy. Its theme results from the interworkings of image, form and metaphor.
The short-lived but influential Imagist movement of the early 20th century constituted a reaction against the emotional and wordy Romanticism that had been popular. Imagist poets focused on the clarity of a single image, one “thing,” as Pound dictated, in a moment of time. The moment that Fletcher focuses on in “The Skaters” is a winter scene on a frozen river, with skaters looping and curving over the ice. The images are not only visuals, describing the skaters’ birdlike swooping, but also sounds, describing the click and grind of the skate blades.
“The Skaters” uses free verse; its five lines have varying lengths, no rhymes and no regular rhythm. Its conciseness, typical of Imagist work, also recalls Japanese poetry. In his autobiography, Fletcher recalls that he did not attempt to recreate a “hokku,” or haiku, a terse Japanese poem, but that it easily passed as one with a publisher. In fact, Fletcher tried to avoid specific verse forms as much as possible, preferring to let the images stand alone.
As concrete as the poem’s images are, they also rely on a key metaphor, with which Fletcher opens “The Skaters”: birds in flight. In fact, he does not make the title explicit until the poem’s third line; the opening lines describe “Black swallows,” whose curving flight resembles the movements of skaters. Fletcher returns to the bird metaphor in the poem’s final line, comparing the silver skates to “wing-tips.”
The overall theme of “The Skaters” builds from its concise focus on these images of sound and sight. Fletcher was deeply interested in nature, despairing at the growth of industrialization as he aged. This poem makes explicit the connection between humans and the natural world. It also suggests that in this connection, humans are free, wheeling like birds; the images suggest movement, beauty and liberation. The form underscores this theme, because the movement of the words themselves is free, unencumbered by a set form or meter.
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