Thursday, March 29, 2007

Confessional Poetry

A Flowing Ceremony of Trouble and Lighti

Confessional poetry is the art of suffering. — M.L. Rosenthal

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

In her book on Anne Sexton, Caroline Hall defines confessional poetryii as "a reaction against the Eliotic school of extinction of personality"iii, "a specific and legitimate movement in twentieth century poetry, […] at once a modern manifestation of an ongoing tradition, a reaction against a previously dominant mode, and a unique development", then adding that we should not be surprised "that its advent provoked such violent and emotional reaction among critics and readers alike. Such responses were no doubt motivated and inspired in part by the very personal, violent, and emotional nature of the poetry itself."

As Mark Doty remarked in his essay The 'Forbidden Planet' of Character: The Revolutions of the 1950s (1991), referring to Wilbur's metaphor of art as a window (temperate, reasoned art) as opposed to art as a door (the world as an extension of the poet's worldiv), it was a time when poets finally decided not only to open the windows, but to break them, and to widen them into doors.

In 1959, two milestones of confessional poetry were published: Lowell's Life Studies and Snodgrass's Heart's Needle (both award winners). The first book that is considered confessional, however, is Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, published in 1956v, almost exactly one hundred years after Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In his review of Howl for The Nation, Rosenthal wrote:

Ginsberg hurls, not only curses, [...] everything—his own paranoid memories of a confused, squalid, humiliating existence in the "underground" of American life and culture, [as well as] mock political and sexual "confessions" . . .
While Lowell and Snodgrass used a milder tone than Ginsberg, they still approached themes that were very personal, like dissolution of marriage and fear of estrangement, thus creating powerful poems packed with meaning and feeling. In Skunk Hour, Lowell explicitly says that his mind is "not right", not only a confession, but a confession in a quite colloquial, unashamed tone. They also made use of (sometimes racing) associative logic, a device that was then most successfully used by Sylvia Plath.

Anne Sexton holds a unique position among the confessional poets (Snodgrass, Lowell, Sexton, Plath and Berrymanvi). Her poems read more like a diary than poems in spite of all ambiguitiesvii and fictionalization (see i.e. The Double Image, a poem addressed to her daughter and started under the influence of Snodgrass, whom she greatly admired, a poem multiplying images in infinite regress in a way remindful of Borgesviii), as Brian Gallagher remarks in A Compelling Caseix - the diary of a doomed artist, a mental patient and a dying goddess, or simply a woman who doesn't fear to talk about taboosx like abortion and suicide in public, a woman who at the same time is well versed in mythology, religion and literature. They are poems that reflect "deep painful sections of her life"xi, at the same time though failing to tell her "terrible story" thoroughly in spite of all the realistic, even repulsive details, as James Dickey puts it in his review of To Bedlam and Part Way Backxii. They are poems of human intimacy and unique suffering, poems of personal failure and mental breakdown that arise from the will to understand and the will to purge, poems of sudden insight and also poems of rawness and guilt, but not poems of self-pity. They are poems meant to "rescue one's life from chaos", as Anne Sexton put it in a 1965 interview with Patricia Marx, the chaos that was also a result of the changes American society was undergoing. Ultimately they are poems of unique individuals, their "inscape" - all features typical of confessional poetry as opposed to other schools like the New York school. Anne Sexton confessed she suddenly found herself "in the poets" when she first attended a poetry course, asserting that she felt real among them (as opposed to her stereotyped role of housewife and mother typical of the American dreamxiii), discovering the power of "language"xiv. In Transformations, Anne even transformed Grimm's fairy tales by adding a personal note to them and addressing her own insecurities and fears and by shifting them into our time.

Confession obviously needs two interlocutors: a penitent (who is not always the same person as the poet) and a confessor, a technique remindful of the dramatic monologue, with the difference that, in confessional poetry, the auditor doesn't have to remain hidden. And none of them has the monopoly of truth of course. Many of Sexton's fans identified with the persona described in her poems, although their lives might have been (and probably were) quite different. Anne received almost 900 letters from fans, all with their personal stories of course, and yet convinced to see their own lives in her descriptions, a fact accentuated by her deliberate ambiguity, like the expression "my brother" that we find in her poetry, without having any proof that that person was really her brother. She herself left the question open in an interview. As Lowell remarked, it is allowed "to tinker with facts" in poetry, this does not make the facts less real.xv Anne also often referred to her children as if she had only one daughter instead of two, and she never had an illegitimate child or an abortion.

Anne Sexton's poetry is a poetry of life, a poetry of experience in spite of her constant longing for death (because "the worms know better"xvi), thus differing from Sylvia Plath's poetry, a poetry that mythologizes deathxvii, although she obviously also has a lot in common with Plath (with whom she was befriended).

In our days we can safely assert that confessional poetry is far from defunct. Indeed, David Graham and Kate Sonntag published an anthology of contemporary autobiographical poetry, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiographyxviii, emphasizing the still lingering concern of both poets and critics for the "I". The authors of this anthology describe this tendency as "the notion that first-person lyrics can embrace a larger social vision, achieving revelation over narcissism, universal resonance over self-referential anecdote."

What Brendan Galvin criticized in some confessional poetry, however, is not the confessions it contains, but rather its lack of context, that makes the reader feel quite uninterested. The reader must get involved in those dark emotions ("deepest scars, secrets, grieves and desires"xix) that emerge in confessional poetry, he must recognize himself. Good confessional poetry is concerned with experiences that affect us all or "could" affect us all. Therefore it must contain details apt to win the reader's trust; indeed the reader must become an "accomplice" in rendering the final meaning of the poem. Sometimes though, the reader may be reluctant to accept his complicity, and this is when the inverted bowl of Sexton's For John must be disguised as a "strange sun" to appeal to him. As Kafka had said: "A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us". And Sylvia Plath had commented: "I think that personal experience shouldn't be a kind of shut box and a mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be generally relevant to such things as Hiroshima and Dachau, and so on". Sylvia Plath's comment is crucial in understanding confessional poetry. Confessional poetry is a means of dialogue and communication, it is a means of avoiding Narcissus' fate by finding a way to talk to Echo, it is not negative self-absorption, but a way of communing with the "something outside of oneself". Indeed, pure narcissismus proves a dead end. In For John, the persona only sees her own death when staring in the mirror: "my own selfish death / outstared me".

It is important at this stage to differentiate between "confessional poetry" and "self-expression". As Regan Good remarks in the Fence Magazinexx, confessional poetry has a universal value in spite of its personal confessions, it reveals universal truths, while self-expression is narcissistic in the negative meaning of the term, a "narrow diary of the mind"xxi. It is a poetry of the real world, "real situations, behind which the great gods play the drama of blood, lust and death", as Sylvia Plath puts it. Anne Sexton, for example, writes in The Fury of Sunsets:

All day I've built / a lifetime and now / the sun sinks to / undo it. / why am I here? / why do I live in this house? / who's responsible? eh?
This is clearly a powerful way to express universal doubts through personal questions, one's own persona. Although Anne Sexton has often been accused of narcissism, her narcissism, if at all, is a textual, not an autobiographical narcissism, as Gill remarks. Her poems focus on the speaker/persona to convey higher meanings behind the details of the case in question or also simple common ground, like the "commonplaces of the asylum" in For John.

And it is also a way, as A. Alvarez remarked, to break the mould of what he termed "the accepted Academic-Modern style" of the poetry that preceded the confessional movement.

Sylvia Plath, the other great confessional poet, is able to reveal universal truths through her use of emblems. Poems like Ariel, Lady Lazarus and Edge are poems that are not only confessional, but present the woman in them in a new, dignified light.

The figures in Plath's early poems are not as weak as the personas in the poems of other confessional poets, they maintain a sort of ritualistic defence against their situationxxii, her poems are poems that reflect the fight of the mind against extreme circumstances through intensification of its manipulative skills, which results in parody. The speakers of these poems are intelligent persons who don't succumb to circumstances, persons made rigid by suffering. It is through many of these speakers in her poems that Sylvia Plath reveals her own terrifying self-knowledge. In her middle period, Sylvia then writes poems whose characters cannot cope any more with their overwhelming, destructive life experiences, as in Zoo Keeper's Wife. Finally, in her later period, the speakers of her poems seem to be torn between the acceptance of their fate and loss of control over their lives and the need to find a way out of it, even through self-torture, as in Tulips. Sometimes the speaker's mind even rejoices in its self-imposed pain, as in The Tour.

As already stated, Sylvia Plath's poems address universal truths. Even a poem like Lady Lazarus, that is considered the most confessional of Plath's poems together with Daddy, must be read as a poem that reveals the way the suicidal person thinks, not only the speaker, but every suicidal person.

Confessional poetry is an important movement that shouldn't be disregarded as narcissistic, but rather be welcomed as a new way to involve the reader in the hermeneutic process and to approach universal values through the thematization of events out of the speakers' lives.


Byrne, E., Examining The Poetry Of Confession And Autobiography: After Confession: Poetry As Autobiography

Evans, S., Anne Sexton and the Confessional Poetry Movement

Gill, Jo, Twentieth Century Literature: Narcissism in Anne Sexton's Early Poetry

Good, R., My eyes have seen what my hand did, Fence Magazine, v.1 no.2

McCaffery, R.J. A Certain Sense of Order:  Confessionalism and Anne Sexton's Poetry

Uroff, M.D., Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration, in Iowa Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1977, pp. 104-15

Yezzi, D., Confessional poetry & the artifice of honesty, The New Criterion Vol. 16, No. 10, June 1998


i Berryman in Canto Amor

ii The term "confessional poetry" was introduced by Rosenthal in a rather disdainful tone, referring to "personal confidences, rather shameful".

iii Cf. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent". This current, originally meant as a reaction to Emerson's expansiveness, was then followed by the New Critics.

iv A feature that was introduced by Whitman's Leaves of Grass

v By the end of the Sixties, it had already sold 250,000 copies.

vi Berryman made an essential observation regarding confessional poetry. In 1970 he namely told an interviewer: "My idea is this, the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point he's in business."

vii For example in "You, Doctor Martin"

viii Cf. also the "cracked mirrors" and the inverted glass bowl (which, like the cracked mirror, reflects a broken, distorted, "superficial" image, thus functioning as a prism and reaching a balance between mirror and lamp) in For John, as well as the linguistic devices (I/you) that aim at rendering multiplicity

ix Denver Quarterly 21 (1986), 96

x Up until the end of the eighteenth century, it was considered indecent even to talk about daffodils one had seen in a field, or about one's grandfather's tackle box in the attic, remarks Billy Collins in "My Grandfather's Tackle Box", a situation that started to change with the Romanticism, based on John Locke's ideal of the uniqueness of the individual consciousness.

xi In 1968, Anne Sexton herself had pointed out in an interview that "pain engraves a deeper memory" than joy.

xii In this book Anne describes her experiences in a mental hospital in a very direct, frank way, comparing the patients to schoolchildren.

xiii Cf. also Sylvia Plath's The Applicant.

xiv Cf. Ostriker, Alicia, "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience" in Sexton: Selected Criticism. Ed. Diana Hume George. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

xv Later, however, in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, Ted Kooser will express a certain scepticism and unease about the tendency to intermingle facts and reality, regarding it as a breach of the "agreement" between poet and reader. If this blending occurs, it has to be made clear in order not to deceive the reader into believing something that has not happened. In particular, Kooser condemns poets who invents facts about their persona in order to win the reader's sympathy and affection. Most other critics allow for some blending for the sake of literature. Intentional deceiving, however, is still criticized.

xvi In Anne Sexton's The Fury of Sunrises

xvii Cf. Johnson, Greg in "The Achievement of Anne Sexton" The Hollins Critic (1984)

xviii Robert Phillips had called the age of confessional poetry of the 50s and 60s the great "Age of Autobiography".

xix Cf. Clare Pollard

xx V.1 no.2

xxi Cf. Sexton's For John

xxii Cf. Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper

1 comment:

bizandlegis said...

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Thanks for all posts

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