My colleague R--, who teaches poetry to the same set of students I do, writes:
In defense of difficulty, I often hear myself making versions of the following statements to students:
1) I rarely love most what I love most easily. For a poem (or a song
or a piece of music or a painting...) to have abiding interest for me, there has
to be something puzzling about it. This seems to me a useful, even
meaningful distinction between art and entertainment, and I do think of poetry
as art (though it can also be very entertaining). And, this is NOT a class
distinction of high/low art, but, rather, one of art as a meaningful
1a) I want a lot out of art. I don't want it to be cute or cuddly; I want it to blow my mind. I want it to change the way I think about its own medium (whether words or sounds or paint or bronze), and, perhaps especially with poetry, I want it to therefore change the way I experience my everyday world. There are poems, songs, paintings, etc. that have changed my life. Without them, I would not be who I am today. And those that persist in my mind's eye are inevitably those that were "difficult" when first encountered.
2) As an undergraduate prof. of mine told me when I was first reading Proust, "It doesn't matter if you throw it against the wall; what matters is if you want to pick it up again."
3) "Difficulty" is really just another name for not having your expectations reinforced. "Accessible" is really just another name for habitual. For me, art is about progressivity (though, as you well know, this does not mean a kind of mindless hurtling forward, but rather a conscious and conscientious (re)working of the materials at hand.
Anyone else with talking points on difficulty? Send them along!