The words HE and SHE in John Ashbery's Fantasia on "The Nut-Brown Maid", 1975, could be swapped without trauma, or trauma only to those thinking of the original ballad. The natures of these two 'voices' are unstable – they could even be the same voice talking to itself – or a thousand voices, anyway - Ashbery said his poems occurred to him as conversations between voices. The selves of HE and SHE (if you try to imagine that they have them) are beyond your power of judgment. I think of Bridget Brophy trying to find a form for that state. The Jewish characters in Flesh are only bothered by their religion because people expect it to make them manifest themselves in certain ways; they are supposed to pin themselves down by accepting a Jewish cookbook from a relative. Ashbery repeats the shape of things answering one another but he doesn't have the things, only the structure of answering. The shape is is so simple, he tells you: just write HE followed by a block of text and then SHE followed by another block. His Landscape (After Baudelaire), 1984, written in dumb rhyming couplets. "When the storm rattles my windowpane | I'll stay hunched at my desk, it will roar in vain." Simplification is one method of tyranny, said G. Hill in that Paris Review interview everyone quotes. There is the Ashbery but that appears at the start of a line or a sentence with the contrasting states being somewhat nonsensical, undercutting, or strange, like the fruit that exist suddenly to make a point in the title poem of Shadow Train, 1981 ("but the strawberry" …): "To desire what is | forbidden is permitted. But to desire it | And not want it is to chew on its name like a rag | To that end the banana shakes on its stem | But the strawberry is liquid and cool, a rounded | Note in the descending scale, a photograph | of someone smiling at a funeral."
Robert Archambeau wrote about Ashbery in Prelude:
Describing Ashbery’s characteristic mode as the “Mallarmean sentence” [Fredric] Jameson tells us these sentences “unfold in a perfectly grammatical way and offer the syntactical part of the mind a set of operations which has no other identifiable motivation and which thus unexpectedly simply designates itself as pure operation, as pure syntactical process to be completed.”
No one can prove the but is right, nor can they call it wrong. Say the point after the but is like the trees in his early poem, Some Trees, 1956:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.
And glad not to have invented
Brophy feels glad that the unsupported but takes away our right to invent the thing by giving it place, purpose, and meaning.