Although John Ashbery has won many top prizes and has his admirers, he remains a controversial poet. His admirers believe him to be a poet of consequence--a major figure. They praise him for his linguistic innovations, his rambling perspectivism, his revolutionary nihilism, and his indeterminate meaning. On the other hand, his detractors consider him obscure and a player of language games, and some consider him nothing more than a fake.
In APRIL GALLEONS, his twelfth collection, Ashbery sees himself merging with and becoming part of the collective life of humanity. At the same time, to him even two lovers have an independent life. From this viewpoint, his “I” carries on a dialogue with someone called variously “you,” “we,” “us,” or “he.” In this vein, his poetry is talk, spattered with contractions, faulty grammar, and cliches.
Attempting to render the complexity of the phenomenal world, Ashbery describes the ways man might perceive sense impressions, tracing the meanderings of man’s mind as he tries to grasp external reality in terms of its time, space, and change. As Ashbery has previously observed, however, although “life holds us, it is unknowable.” In compensation, man is capable of dreaming into existence a magical world of his own devising. In celebrating this imaginative power, the poet offers readers, as a critic has observed, “an open field of narrative possibilities.”
Ashbery’s main weakness, apart from his persistent colloquial style, is the often cryptic quality of his verse-- the result of an attempt to incorporate into poetry the aesthetics of music and painting together with the language-skepticism of modern philosophy. Nevertheless, despite its enigmas, his poetry has a curious interest and even a peculiar charm.