Calista (@stuffedowl) just tweeted this poem from a 1977 issue of Poetry, and I had my usual Ashbery experience: reading it several times in awe, wondering why I don't write poems like that, wondering why I bother writing poems at all, etc. First, here's the poem.
THE ICE-CREAM WARS
Although I mean it, and project the meaning
As hard as I can into its brushed-metal surface,
It cannot, in this deteriorating climate, pick up
Where I leave off. It sees the Japanese text
(About two men making love on a foam-rubber bed)
As among the most massive secretions of the human spirit.
Its part is in the shade, beyond the iron spikes of the fence,
Mixing red with blue. As the day wears on
Those who come to seem reasonable are shouted down
(Why you old goat! Look who's talkin'. Let's see you
Climb off that tower—the waterworks architecture, both stupid and
Grandly humorous at the same time, is a kind of mask for him,
Like a seal's face. Time and the weather
Don't always go hand in hand, as here: sometimes
One is slanted sideways, disappears for a while.
Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous
Clouds appear above the lawn, and the rose tells
The old old story, the pearl of the orient, occluded
And still apt to rise at times).
A few black smudges
on the outer boulevards, like squashed midges
And the truth becomes a hole, something one has always known,
A heaviness in the trees, and no one can say
Where it comes from, or how long it will stay—
A randomness, a darkness of one's own.
Now, some thoughts on meaning and obscurity in poetry.
~ Despite its syntactic rightness, one could fairly say that this isn't an "easy" poem; it begins with an in-medias-res-ness and the "it" of the first sentence has no clear antecedent. If you're Mark Edmundson you're going to pound your fist and stop reading. But you have to read poetry with trust; you have to trust that this interesting opening is going somewhere even though there's a big fat undefined variable in the equation.
~ Obscurity is built into the form of poetry. Turn the obscurity down to zero and a text won't look much like a poem anymore. How much obscurity is too much? That's up to the reader to decide, but here's the reason you can't pit meaning against obscurity: obscurity is where much of poetic meaning happens. Clarity of language is like the resolution of a photograph; more definition leaves less room for interpretation. We experience poetry as art—as something that makes us think, and therefore makes us smarter—in part because the language of poetry does not have perfect clarity. Meaning blooms in the fuzzy parts. This is why people often find poetic meaning and beauty in randomly generated "nonsense," like spam emails.
~ Note all the rhyme and near-rhyme (concentrated toward the end), the attention to line as unit. People who don't read Ashbery must assume he doesn't use these devices, since he's always held up as the exemplar of poetry's descent into formlessness.
~ Another big thing that makes a poem a poem and not something else is the tension between the line and the sentence. "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous clouds appear above the lawn" is a fine sentence, but before you get to the clouds, you are forced to pause a moment and concentrate your thinking on the partial sentence: "Then later it's forget-me-not time, and rapturous." We don't yet know that the clouds are rapturous, and so we assign the adjective back to "time." In poem-space, "rapturous" does refer back to time, just as much as it refers forward. Ashbery's choice to break the line there makes the referent ambiguous, so it's a blooming moment.
~ Remember the anecdote about the guy who said he liked Ashbery, then was challenged to quote a line? (The implication being, Ashbery lines float out of your head as soon as you're done reading them, as opposed to, say, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad.") The very exercise is whatever, because I can't think of a line from Seamus Heaney, not because he doesn't write memorable lines, but because I don't care about Seamus Heaney. But what's more quotable than "The truth becomes a hole, something one has always known"? And you can't forget the ending, because it rhymes.