Following interesting chit-chat among Josh, Jordan & Mike.
I have some trouble with both Josh's & Mike's formulations. Josh makes "difficulty" sound easy. Just another of those sophisticated pleasures we arty intellectuals share, part of the general joie de vivre. It's a sunny perspective.
Mike faults poets for not recognizing the coterie problem, the extent of the challenge involved in finding a way for poetry to "break in" to the awareness of the ordinary reader of fiction & non-fiction.
I guess my reservation about both arguments hinges on the nature of difficulty. Basically I think it's kind of a "boundary problem", a question of the framework. That is, the kind of difficulty we think we have in mind - the sort of problematic that grips the reader in an unshakeable wrestling hold, from which they will never get free - this level of difficulty is, fundamentally, not a literary question. That is, it is not something that can be finessed by aesthetics or rhetoric. In fact, it stems from the core of a difficulty with words & word-mongering itself: that words & deeds are not always the same thing; that life & literature are incommensurate; that promises and vows can be emptied of content, become vehicles of illusion, vanity, hypocrisy & deceit.
From this perspective, literary relevance, impact &/or difficulty is more of an ethical rather than a technical-aesthetic issue; it remains difficult even for the most sophisticated & talented writer, since it reaches into human commitments rooted beyond the literary "making" itself.
The art which most compels a readership seems often to emerge from a seemingly insoluble impasse or crisis or dilemma - a dilemma which, through the talent of the poet, results in a representation which has meaning for both the poet and for "society". It may stimulate a radical re-working of literary style & subject-matter. We are talking about a phenomenon which does not follow either from exhortations to the literary community to "work harder at it" (ala Mike), or from mere literary sophistication (ala Josh), which takes pleasure in arcane works, but shuns the ethical implications or demands that words sometimes entail.