From Some Trees: "Pictures of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers":
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.
In a far recess of summer
Monks are playing soccer.
These two couplets capture a great deal of the spirit and nature of Ashbery's poetry: built on non-sequitur and fragmentary, disjunctive imagery, it seems Ashbery's technique depends on two goals. First, to extend the range of metaphor beyond the traditional purpose of comparison. Second to convert the moment of surprise (which has always been a goal of poets, even very narrative-focused ones) from its common result—a pause—to a new function—an acceleration.
Yet these two goals are in essence the same motion. The traditional power and use of metaphor has always resided not in comparison, but in the act of self-recognition that underlies any and all comparisons. That is to say, metaphors only work insofar as we internalize the explicit comparison and measure it against something—a ratio, an experience, a sense of harmony—within ourselves. "Is my beloved like a summer's day?" is a question more about me—the way I have measured and do measure my beloved—than it is a question of aligning traits, properties, parameters and predicates.
Extending the range of metaphor beyond comparison, therefore, means breaking the desire for self-recognition, the need for internalization. I say this is the same motion as the conversion of surprise from a moment of arrest to a process of acceleration because it is in this pause that one initiates the process of internalization, of self-measuring that operates as metaphor, though is not necessarily read as such. Surprise in a poem is not just a semantic caesura, but a redirection or refraction of meaning back through all that has come before. We re-read or re-think the poem to see if we missed a word of foreshadowing or preparation. At the moment in "Porphyria's Lover," for instance, where we read "And strangled her," we are not quite anticipating violence and naturally return the previous lines to see if we overlooked a subtext or nuance that would have earlier revealed the speaker's intent. Even the line immediately prior ("Three times her little throat around") does not truly make explicit what we assume to be a latent violence, and so we go hunting through the whole poem, interpreting every line in the light of this moment of shock. The deeper question we are asking is not, however, "how did the poet set up this moment," but "why was I surprised? How could I have missed the signs?" Surprise necessitates a process of re-internalization of the poem, of internal re-contextualization which allows us to absorb the shock into a new interior version of the poem which smooths out the surprise and makes it consistent with a sort of internal equilibrium which I believe we all calibrate differently, but which is necessarily a part of reading.
But to inject persistent surprises, disjunctions, non-sequiturs, is to overload this operation: to read the poem successfully, one must disregard one's internal sense of harmony and equilibrium, must cease the process of self-measuring and internalization. Reading a typical poem and encountering a metaphor or a moment of surprise is like walking through a lovely room and suddenly passing a mirror. One stops a moment to recognize that it is one's likeness, not someone else's, that it is coherent (albeit reversed) and coterminous with your self-image, and then one passes on. The pause is necessary. But to walk through an Ashbery poem is to find oneself surrounded by mirrors, and the proper thing seems to be to continue walking, accelerating, even, past the images tauntingly pressing your for attention and the pause of self-recognition. "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" indeed.
Or in Ashbery's own words:
But there is something else—call it a consistent eventfulness,
A common appreciation of the way things have of enfolding
When your attention is distracted for a moment, and then
It's all bumps and history, as though this crusted surface
Had always been around, didn't just happen to come into being
A short time ago.