My Funkytown acquaintance Kristi Maxwell writes over at her blog, "Thinking: We should banish the terms "difficult" and "difficulty" from our discussions of poetry." Though I like the idea of banishing certain terms from poetry discussions, I wonder who takes care of this. Where are the thuggish poets to do this? Will the Poetry Society of America send over John Ashbery to confuse us and Yusef Komunyakaa to make us cry? Will the Academy of American Poets take conference fees from us and brick us in, cask-of-amontillado-like, behind Norton anthologies? Will Billy Collins come tickle us until we wet ourselves and cry uncle? Or will some devious character place the collected poems of Robert Lowell and James Merrill precariously on some top shelf to topple onto us and trap us in some awkward position so we can only count down the moments until our last breath?
Seriously, though, I think I agree with Kristi, at least in principle. Calling certain poetry "difficult" is like calling certain children "difficult": why won't you just behave and do as I'd like you to? What's with all the noise and seeming nonsense? "Difficult" is simply a term that obscures the real discussion--what is this poem doing or trying to do? (I imagine this term is particularly annoying in workshop.)
At the same time, though, "difficult" can be useful. The syntax in Paradise Lost, for example, is difficult to access, especially because we have to read complex sentences with line breaks. Plus, we like our sentences short and obvious these days. But that difficulty is a good (and important) thing in Paradise Lost. The syntactic difficulty seems like a fruitful thing to talk about. Also, I think "difficulty" can be a good starting point. So what do you mean, difficult? Is the poem illogical? Or does it rely on another kind of logic? Say, the logic of sound. Or does it follow wordplay and rhyme with little apparent attention to the immediately comprehensible?
And if we get right down to it, any poem worth reading is "difficult" in some way. (Sweeping generalization alert!) Good poems require a high level of attentiveness, even if (as in the case of, say, Frost) they seem narratively simple to understand. Another way of saying this: what is the aesthetic of the non-difficult poem?
But these are just some starting thoughts, and I'm not a poet or scholar of poetry. Someone more coherent and intelligible take over from here.
Update, 12/15, 9:31 am. In the comments, Kristi says what I meant to say, only more clearly--when people use the word "difficult," they're referring to the surface of the poem. So thanks to Kristi, "more coherent and intelligible" than me as I predicted.