What is the result of looking at a lyric such as Ashbery's for a reader who believes, with Stevens, that artworks help us to live our lives? Because a poet wants above all to make, in each effort, something unique and irreplaceable, he would not like to have all his works collected together as conveyors of his ethical sense. It is precisely the individual drive of each artwork, capable of "distorting" the original moral urgency of the artist, that makes moral paraphrase so difficult. Ashbery, writing on R.B. Kitaj, says that the graphic artist is "constantly scrutinizing all the chief indicators - poetry, pictures, politics, sex, the attitudes of people he sees, and the auras of situations they bring with them - in an effort to decode the cryptogram of the world" [Reported Sightings, 308].
For the poet, who is no less observant than the graphic artist or the novelist, but for whom the social order has to be conveyed in words rather than through painted images, dramatic scenes, or the interaction of characters, poetry is a place for the decoding of the resistant semiotics of the contemporary. As the poet's mental accumulation meets the compelling law of form, it is regularized from unintelligibility into a shape that seems "right." The morality of this act, as Wallace Stevens said, consists in rejecting proposed forms that merely "console / Or sanctify." Forms that "console" or "sanctify" are concessions to a nostalgic sentimentality. Parmigianino - and Ashbery after him - refuses the consoling or sanctifying concession implicitly present in transcriptive mimesis, while nonetheless allowing recognizable figuration and emotional intimacy to play dominant roles in his art.
In praising Chardin, Ashbery once wrote of the "magnificent progress" possible as the artist "help[s] the spirit to take a new step":
If one takes the down-to-earth as point of departure and neither makes nor wastes any effort in trying to rise to an exalted or splendid level, every effort, every contribution of the artistic genius goes into transfiguring the manner of execution, changing the language, and helping the spirit to take a new step, thus constituting magnificent progress. [Reported Sightings, 47]Part of the "down-to-earth," for poets, is fostering within the lyric poem a climate of mutual trust between poet and reader. Ashbery here stands between his predecessor in the past, the Francesco he both summons and dismisses, and the fictive reader of his own self-portrait in verse. He addresses both of his invisible listeners in tones of intimate comprehension and sympathy. Ashbery's invisible listeners - "Francesco" in fantasy and ourselves in reality - animate the poem from private meditation on an artwork into colloquy with a corresponding other, from the solitude of the lyric chamber to an imagination twinning us with someone more like us than we had imagined. Poems constitute their invisible listeners as persons who understand, who will complete the expressive circuit of thought and language initiated by an artwork, and who will engage in the imagined ethical modeling of an ideal mutuality. - Helen Vendler