Ashbery’s finest work may be in his long poems, where the space gives him time to develop a sense of what it is like to attempt to deal with a specific, recalcitrant subject. A shorter poem, such as “Mixed Feelings” (from the volume Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror), while being a good poem, provides a kind of five-finger exercise in understanding Ashbery’s peculiar charms as a poet. The idea is a simple one. The poet either thinks he is smelling frying sausages while looking at an old photograph, or he is, in fact, doing so. It hardly matters. What does matter is his attempt to date the picture, which is not too difficult, because he recognizes the aircraft in the photograph as one used in World War II.
Some young women are leaning against it. He imagines their names, typically common names for women at the time, and thereby provides a perceptive confirmation of the fact that times change, as does the style in choosing names for children. He wonders how he would explain to them how much the world has changed in more than thirty years. Would they want to listen, he wonders, standing as they do with that smart knowingness of young women? Perhaps they would tell him to get lost, using the slang of the day. Perhaps they would rather go to a café for a cup of coffee. Ashbery is, in fact, slyly evoking the social world of wartime, when servicemen tried to pick up young women with a smart quip and were often rebuffed just as smartly....
(The entire section is 582 words.)