This came from a comment of a friend of mine. She said she did not understand the poems of Amy De'Ath, a young poet whose first book, Erec & Enide, was published last year from Salt Modern Voices. Now, I don't have any problem with, in fact I think the collection is really strong. It occurred to me that it must have something to do with the different ways people read poetry.
My friend is very intelligent (in fact she has three degrees), but I think it would be fair to say that she thinks linearly. That is, she thinks in a logical fashion: one idea follows either logically or chronologically from another. Which is perfectly fine with most mainstream poetry, which usually has some kind of argument, or narrative; but it doesn't work very well as a way of approaching much contemporary non-mainstream writing. Hence the difficulty.
Reading non-mainstream poetry is not a question of 'difficulty' as such. None of Amy De'Ath's poems are in any real sense of the word, about difficult subject matter. A lot of them could be described as 'occluded love poems', and in poems like Poetry for Boys, there is a feminist approach that again is occluded. What is a difficulty is not the subject but the approach to the subject. The approach (approaches?) is indirect, circular, deliberately imprecise.
It's like the painting in Frank O'Hara's Why I Am Not a Painter, in which a painting called Sardines ends up as a painting without sardines in it, because "it was too much." The idea of sardines is in the title but not in the painting anymore. So this kind of poem is partly an abstraction from the world, rather than a direct reflection of the world.
It's fair to say that even the most ostensibly realist poem is aware of itself as ultimately failing to live up to the actual experience, or the emotion, that begins it. Language always fails to describe a sunset; or an experience in exactly the way you wish it to. The non-mainstream poet is intensely aware of that fact, highlights that failure, makes it a feature of the poem.
There's also another feature that I want to call the "atmosphere around the poem." I sometimes read poems by mainstream poets that seem to be perfectly fine in themselves; they express an emotion or relate an experience in clear terms, and I know what they mean. Except there's another poem surrounding that poem, a kind of invisible poem that is everything that the poet has left out. So a love poem is surrounded by all kinds of implications about how women are seen by men, about the society that accepts certain romantic tropes and ways or relating but not others, about the whole history of courtly love poetry from Wyatt to the present day, etc...
There is, in other words, a map of meanings, not just a particular route through that map. The mainstream poem, generally speaking, is a route through all those meanings. The contemporary non-mainstream poem is heading toward a more rhizomatic way of reading, where particulars routes are not privileged over other ways of reading, and this means that a mind more used to a singular, linear view might have difficulty because it's looking for a linear reading, an argument or a narrative that isn't there.
As Deleuze and Guattari have it in A Thousand Plateaus, it is the difference between a map and a tracing. A map offers many routes through; but a tracing only offers one. In this sense, the old AtoZ books offer a multitude of routes, but the SatNav only shows you one way: the supposedly more efficient, more direct route. It gets confused if you veer off course, however, and go exploring through the back streets and back routes; or decide you're not going there after all.
So it is with non-mainstream poetry: it has no particular destination, or a series of destinations, or only one destination with a variety of different routes to getting there. Or, as in Amy De'Ath's Letter to John Clare, we have a poem that is approaching the eighteenth century poet, but not biographically, and by a variety of routes that are surrounding the poet's life and work. Maybe it never gets there, maybe John Clare's presence was "too much"; but he's actually still there, under the layers of language.
These thoughts are by no means complete; but I offer them to my readers as a possible way in to reading work that is perhaps 'beyond their comfort zones.'