We stood on the rented patioNo course on modern painting or music would avoid what's "difficult" — cubism, abstract expressionism, atonality. But in English studies, accessibility often trumps other considerations.
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.
Granted, one cannot ask students to read what they simply cannot read. But in my teaching, I've found that asking students to read beyond their means can sometimes create genuine excitement. Poems with a significant element of opacity and mystery (one form of "difficulty") are sometimes the best choices: they can create a more level playing field, or, to switch the metaphor, a playing field with so many unpredictable spots that teacher and student together are maneuvering with attentive uncertainty. I once taught Guillaume Apollinaire's "Les Fenêtres" [The Windows] to an introductory poetry class whose students dazzled me with the attention they brought to the poem. They knew that while I had ideas, I didn't have "the answer," which seemed to give them permission to come up with ideas of their own (very good ones). Opacity and mystery are, I would suggest, what made the closing lines of Frank O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky" so compelling when they turned up in Mad Men. Removed from the context of a classroom, these beautiful lines became an occasion of feeling. In that context, "What does it mean?" is not an anxious request for an answer but a reverent acknowledgment of enigma.
The problem with turning to something like the Gioia poem quoted above is that it tells students that they're right, that poetry should be simple and transparent, that it shouldn't resist the intelligence, that it shouldn't touch upon possibilities of thinking and feeling that might exceed one's present abilities. Some words from the poet Kenneth Koch are helpful here, from Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (New York: Touchstone, 1999):
Reading a poem includes knowing and not knowing. Uncertainty, shock, and surprise, as well as music and knowledge, may be a part of what the reader gets.It's important for teachers to acknowledge that.
There are, it should be added, poems that are deliberately and perhaps permanently unclear. . . . Poets may wish to give, and readers be interested in the experience of getting, shocks of intellect, emotion, and sensation without entirely knowing where they are coming from.
A related post
Frank O'Hara and Mad Men