Ashbery's poem is a reflection on being out in the evening, but in a larger sense, it has to do with themes of belonging, or alienation, and the uses of poetry. These themes are brought out by Ashbery's use of seemingly random images, all loosely connected by his title, if...
Ashbery's poem is a reflection on being out in the evening, but in a larger sense, it has to do with themes of belonging, or alienation, and the uses of poetry. These themes are brought out by Ashbery's use of seemingly random images, all loosely connected by his title, if nothing else.
These images include a man, the "other stranger," who is unnoticed in the background (although Ashbery has noticed him) who intends to "stop," although apparently pretending that he does not wish to stop. This man is contrasted with "another," who "went mad from drinking seawater" (5) because he "lacked the courage of his convictions" (4). It's unclear what connects these two men (other than their juxtaposition in the poem), but it is characteristic of Ashbery that their connection matters less than the perceived motivations, which the poet somehow is able to understand: the first man is pretending, the second is a coward.
Ashbery's exclamation "Oh evenings!" serves as a loose organizing principle for these details, although part of the poem's point appears to be to conceal their significance. For instance, what is being "looked up" in line 6? The poem makes that question secondary to the problem of "where" to look "it" up, which "became an end in itself." To what "purpose" are the fleas doing sums (7–8)?
These kinds of questions persist as detail piles up in the poem. What (and whose) "savage argument" is being discussed in lines 12–13? If we understand this argument to be the same as the poet's "original argument" (20), then perhaps we can think of the poem itself as a "savage argument," but one with a "hole" in it, which might refer to the inadequacy of "keeping our places, assuming no more credit than what is due" (21–22).
In other words, Ashbery's often surreal combinations of details are just that: random experiences to which we readers should not give too much credit. Perhaps the "hole" in Ashbery's argument/poem is the expectation that these things ought to make sense beyond their "positive shine." Perhaps these expectations are the "germs" that the people/readers will spread.