I've just re-read Ashbery's long prose poem, "The System" from his 1973 book "Three Poems": forty pages of highly-wrought prose, in which it's impossible to follow the thread of any argument for more than a few lines, and yet which is somehow a seductive, highly enjoyable read. The reader soon comes to realise that this poem is a self-contained, sealed unit. Once you stop expecting it to yield a 'literal' meaning, you can enjoy it, and, more importantly, allow it to yield up much less obvious meanings. Soon after reading the said poem I came across this description:
"... he has been criticised for his emptiness. If we substitute the work "superficiality" we are closer to his poetic conception, for he is simply attempting to construct - or...to "counterfeit" the world of appearances. ...plot counts for very little, and the philosophical content, if it exists, counts for even less. Everything is a pretext for descriptions and digressions, and each dissolves in turn into images, antitheses, and rhetorical figures. If anything moves in the poem, it is ... the imagination of the poet. He... halts at a word or color, fondles it and prolongs it, and makes of each period an image, of each image a world. The poetic discourse flows slowly along, divides into "leafy parentheses" that are like beautiful islands, and continues to meander among landscapes, shadows, lights and realities, all of which it redeems and immobilizes... Hence, there is no conflict between substance and form because he turns everything into form, into a crystalline or tremulous, polished or undulating surface."
This is in fact Octavio Paz talking about the sixteenth century Spanish baroque poet Luis de Góngora, but it seems it could equally apply to certain periods of Ashbery's work, and certainly to the "The System" and the other works in his 1973 book "Three Poems". I'm lent support in my musings by a review of Ashbery by David Lau, in which Lau speaks of "The various baroque formal means immanent to the syntactical sublimity of what used to be called literature", which, Lau asserts "are one way of representing a frayed-beyond-repair ... hope for radical aesthetic invention". It could be argued that the baroque, at least in seventeenth century Spain, came out of the decadence of that culture in its decline. How far that may be said of Ashbery's baroque poetry in relation to our present state is a moot point.
John Bloomberg-Rissman had this to say when we discussed this subject during some email correspondence:
"Re: Ashbery, the baroque, etc. I went into LA yesterday to meet Bob and found myself w/some time on my hands before his arrival. I read a bunch of the 1st of JA’s Three Poems. While those are “of a period” and certainly not fully representative of his entire oeuvre, I’d have to say (thinking through the Three Poems lens, but trying to keep his entire career in mind) that he’s not baroque, at least not in Paz’s Góngora-sense. I think JA’s a destroyer of surfaces in that one never knows where one is. At least a destroyer of surfaces in the sense of surface relating to representation of a specific place/time “out there”, i.e., he doesn’t “"counterfeit" the world of appearances”, he renders such a world moot, because it’s constantly shifting out from under one, as in a dream. Further, while one could, however argue that in JA “there is no conflict between substance and form”, I don’t’ think that's because JA “turns everything into form, into a crystalline or tremulous, polished or undulating surface.” I think, in fact, he is actually quite expressionist in a weird way, because what keeps I can’t say one I can only say me moving through his oddly mutating language-landscapes, is the depth and truth of the emotions that somehow barnacle themselves to the flow (odd image, but somehow fitting, at least at this moment). Now that I know how to read him, and it took years, I always find his poems deeply moving. Maybe not some of the early ones, in the first few books, or at least not so much, they are in a way explorations of how far he can push beyond the conventions, (tho I know the early books are many people’s favorites). Tho that’s to periodize too much. And even many of the early ones are moving in their way."