In March of 2005, Slate magazine published an article titled 'The Instruction Manual: How to Read John Ashbery'. Here is an excerpt:
It is hard to talk concretely about Ashbery's poetry, because his subject is, so often, aesthetic consciousness—what he calls "the experience of experience." On the one hand, the poems have the dashed-off look and feel of pop culture-inflected postmodernism, inspired by the radical innovations of Dada and French Surrealism. On the other hand, at their heart is a kind of high Romantic yearning for wholeness: In a sense the poems are simply about being unable to give up that longing. At the center of an Ashbery poem isn't usually a subject (à la Philip Larkin) but a feeling (à la Jackson Pollock). That feeling is conjured up by the interplay between aesthetic conviction and amiably bland bewilderment; amid all the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life is the enduring hope that, as one speaker puts it, "at last I shall see my complete face." The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It's only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.
To read the full article, go to the Slate website.
More recently (Dec 8, 2008), the Christian Science Monitor ran a little review of Ashbery: Collected Poems 1956-1987. The review is helpful in understanding better how to read Ashbery's poetry. Here is an excerpt from that little book review:
Reading Ashbery involves the ability to make sudden shifts between slangy and literary language, between rational analysis and irrational intuition, and to fuse seemingly unrelated images from paintings, film, and daily life. His poems seem to narrate stories – but they are stories constantly interrupted by paradoxes and contradictions, all part of a storytelling sensibility that loves unsolved and unsolvable mysteries.