In analysing a range of 20th century poems and excerpts, stylisticians and literary critics have individuated a number of linguistic and textual features which they relate – with various degrees of explicitness – to the complex notion of ‘difficulty’. While there is a fair amount of agreement in the set of phenomena identified, to the best of my knowledge these have never been analysed, grouped and classified from a linguistic and unified perspective. This is the chief aim of the present paper, in which I reconsider previously discussed poetic excerpts in order to derive a checklist of linguistic phenomena demanding further investigation and even future empirical testing. Another major aim is that of illustrating how widespread and problematic the use of ‘difficult’ and ‘difficulty’ is, often implying quite distinct senses. The meaning of this pair will be kept indeterminate throughout the whole paper, where it simply refers to the personal usage of the critic or stylistician at stake. At the end of the paper, by contrast, a clearer characterization will emerge in the light of the textual excerpts analysed: difficulty is regarded as a combination of semantic opacity and hypothesized processing effort at syntagmatic level. However, being part of a wider ongoing research project, a more satisfactory formulation is still to come. Finally, an additional outcome of the paper is that of adding some evidence to the study of poetic language by taking into account recent poetic developments that so far have been given little attention in stylistics.
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