I think the difference in reception has much more to do with the readers' purpose than with Ashbery himself. When we read works in a literature class, we read to comprehend. We feel pressured to be able to translate some demonstrable point out of the verbal chaos. It's one of the real failings of the traditional English class, and one I'm still struggling to confront.
Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins also noted this problem and wrote about it in the following poem, which can be found at the Poetry 180 website (I HIGHLY recommend this site for all future teachers, for whom it was expressly designed):
Introduction to PoetryI ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
My hope is that by structuring an English class around teaching poems rather than around tests and written arguments, we've somehow let go of the need to torture out the meanings of poetry and can explore, instead, the ways they provoke our thinking and tickle our ears. This hasn't *entirely* happened yet (the author is still front and center rather than left on a distant shore), but I think we've made some degree of progress, and I'm proud of us.
Back to Ashbery.
If ever there was a poet bound to frustrate his readers with his slipperiness, it's him. I begin "They Only Dream of America" feeling confidently in the land of Whitman with his leaves--no, pillars here (a significant change!)--of grass, which meshes so nicely with the title that I stride on boldly into stanza 3 where I'm immediately mired. By the time I get to cigars (Freud?) and keys which are signs (Saussure? Semiotics?), I'm totally adrift. The question is, can I bear the drift, or must I fight for meaning? Am I bothered by the total lack of pronoun referents, or am I content to consider the possible referents?
Over and over, I fall in love with his language. Example:
There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it. ("They Only Dream..." 23-4)
I've re-read that line about ten times over this morning, and still it hits me on a gut level with both its music and its accuracy.
"Street Musicians" is much clearer in terms of the picture it conveys (the title helps, but the poem itself keeps referring back to the musicians and feeling consistent in a way that "They Only Dream" does not. (Perhaps this is the influence of the dream itself on the first poem.) Still, Ashbery doesn't stay squarely and only on the topic but allows it to trigger larger reflection. By the time we hit the final lines, he's into hardcore questions about the human race in general, its origins, and its relationship to the Earth itself:
Our question of a place of origin hangs
Like smoke: how we picnicked in the pine forests,
In coves with water always seeping up, and left
Our trash, sperm and excrement everywhere, smeared
On the landscape, to make of us what we could. (19-24)
Which takes me back to another favorite line earlier in the poem, in which he describes the way one is "wrapped in identity like a coat" (3). Individuality isn't innate here but acquired and worn. I wonder if there's an implied connection here to original sin, the banishment from place, and the putting on of clothes to hide shame...
But this post is over-long. We'll see where this takes us all in class Wednesday. Suffice it to say that I fully understand why those who are willing to let go of their need to "understand" a poem come to love Ashbery. After all, the world itself is incomprehensible. His poems capture that but still give us space to reflect without descending into utter hopelessness.