The Poetry of Confession
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it –
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face featureless, fine
This excerpt comes from the poem “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath
, one of the most famous – and infamous – poets of the 20th century. Many of Plath’s poems, such as this one, belong to a particular school of poetry known as Confessional Poetry. With a distinct style all their own, Plath and her fellow Confessional poets will be forever remembered for their brutal honesty, emotionality, and the personal quality of their poems.
Confessional poetry emerged in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and was identified by its use of the personal pronoun “I”. At the time, T.S. Eliot and other poets were advocating an impersonal style in their poetry, and a detached loss of connection with the reader. Confessional poetry emerged partly as a reaction to this train of thought; rather, the Confessional poets originated their school on the idea of themselves as unique individuals bringing something personal and distinctive to readers. The rise of this brand of poetry also coincided with the notorious political and social changes that occurred at the same time, and much of this was reflected in the poems. These changes allowed the Confessional poets to explore issues in their work that had previously been taboo, and had never been discussed before in such a public forum, such as abortions, divorces, mental disorders, and suicide. Moreover, these poets were able to use their real lives as “inspiration” for their art, giving it an intimate diary-like quality. Although autobiography was by no means a new technique for poetry at the time, the Confessional poets brought it to a new, intriguing, and guiltily-scandalous level.
Confessional poetry gained its momentum in 1959 with the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and W.D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle. Robert Lowell was born in Boston in 1917, and initially entered the world of poetry by writing formal poems in the style of the New Critics. Although he received ample praise for his work, Lowell’s personal life wasn’t so happy – he dealt with marital strife and serious depression, and was hospitalized on a number of occasions. In his mid-fifties, he was influenced by other Confessional poets to delve deeper into his personal experience, and consequently attempted more autobiographical and free-style poems. His poem “Man and Wife” reflects his marital troubles when it concludes:
Now twelve years later you turn your back
Sleepless, you hold
your pillow to your hollows like a child,
your old-fashioned tirade –
loving, rapid, merciless –
breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.
This poem nicely reflects the autobiographical aspect of Confessional poetry, as anyone aware of Lowell’s personal life would realize how true the words ring. Poems filled with so much genuine emotion help to bring the reader into an empathic position, and to actually imagine being in the speaker’s situation.
W.D. Snodgrass was born in Pennsylvania in 1926. His book Heart’s Needle won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In his poem “Sitting Outside,” Snodgrass talks frankly and openly about the death of his father in the Confessional style:
…His left arm
in a sling, then lopped off, he smoked there or slept
while the weather lasted, watched what cars passed,
read stock reports, counted pills,
then dozed again. I didn’t go there
in those last weeks, sick of the delusions
they still maintained…
This poem illustrates the importance of, in Snodgrass’s own words, “how to pack a poem with feeling.” Emotionality is a key element in the Confessional poems, and the simple diction within these lines does not fail to offer plenty of heartbreaking sentiment. Additionally, many Confessional poems were written about family members, daughters, sons, and in this case a father. The realism of these relationships makes the poems even more poignant. Snodgrass closes “Sitting Outside” with “I must have been filled / with a child dread you could catch somebody’s dying / if you got too close. And you can’t be too sure.” The blunt manner in which this reflection is shared allows the reader to see into the speaker’s personal feelings, and allows a deeper attachment to be made with both the poem and the poet himself.
Sylvia Plath was, of course, one of the most famous of the Confessional poets. She was born in Boston in 1932, and although she had a relatively normal childhood, she suffered a mental breakdown toward the end of her college years, perhaps signaling that there were deep emotional problems that needed to be dealt with. Plath coped with these issues in her poetry after she was influenced by Lowell’s Life Studies. One of her most well-known poems, “Daddy,” illustrates her open and unbridled fascination with the dark side of divinity, as she commonly questioned her personal relationship with God within her poems:
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
Along with the ample allusions to God, the poem “Daddy” is, obviously, about Plath’s own relationship with her father. The reader gets a clear sense in the poem of the ambivalent and contradictory nature of the relationship between the two, as she at once both expresses her deeply emotional loss and, as in the last line, calls her daddy a “bastard.”
Anne Sexton, another noteworthy Confessional poet, was born in 1928 in Massachusetts. She was first encouraged to write poetry when her doctor convinced her it would do her good, after she experienced an unfortunate mental breakdown. Later, in 1967, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Live or Die. Sexton is especially known for expressing the feelings and difficulties of being a woman in her poetry, such as the taboo issues of menstruation and abortion. One such poem is “Wanting to Die”:
I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.
Still-born, they don’t always die,
but dazzled, they can’t forget a drug so sweet
that even children would look on and smile.
One aspect of Confessional poetry especially obvious from this excerpt is the fact that these poets have no discretionary limits. In this poem, Sexton has no fear of revealing the disturbing, almost sordid details of her real life disturbances. “Wanting to Die” is an intimate look at the poet’s life, and hauntingly sticks with the reader for its mixture of lyrical language and graphic details and descriptions, bordering on gruesome.
One final important Confessional poet is John Berryman, born in Oklahoma in 1914. Berryman’s most reputable work was 77 Dream Songs, published in 1964 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In a different style than the other Confessional poets, many of Berryman’s poems are written in sonnet form. Additionally, Berryman veered away from the autobiographical use of “I” and instead used his alter-egos, “Henry” and “Mr. Bones,” to express the personal and intimate details of his life. In “Dream Song 1,” Berryman writes:
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
This poem shows again how well the Confessional poets were able to use their real lives for inspiration and subject matter in their poems. In “Dream Song 1”, the double effect of the dramatic and tragic language set in a sing-song rhyme expresses the irony of life and its difficulties.
The group of Confessional poets greatly succeeded at giving us an intimate depiction of their true lives, and a certain level of understanding of how tragic and depressing real life can be. Their use of the personal “I”, intimate and often sordid details, and taboo subject matter all revealed in a highly emotional and very autobiographical form continued to be utilized and copied during the twentieth century. Later Confessional poets such as Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov infused their poetry with connections to deeper, socio-political issues of the time. Indeed, Confessional poetry remains a popular style both in reading and in writing to this day.
Unfortunately this group of poets also left another legacy besides their genius and revolutionary poems. Although many cited that one of their reasons for writing in this style was to “escape their inner demons,” this outlet didn’t seem to be enough. Many of the aforementioned group of poets suffered from serious mental illness, and some of them, including Plath, Sexton, and Berryman, ended their own lives before their time. Sad and confusing, these events have left the work of the Confessional poets overshadowed by this deeper layer of morbid fascination and interest in the troubling events that would have lead such talented people to such a demise.
Indeed, many modern critics use this evidence of the mental illnesses of the Confessional poets to judge and devalue the work of these talented writers. Most of the Confessional poets originate from similar white, middle class backgrounds, and are also highly educated, prompting some critics to claim that this style of poetry is merely a bunch of whiney middle-class white folk, complaining about their miserable lives. Others wonder if the use of “I” excludes some readers rather than forming an intimate connection. Still others believe that confessional poetry is almost a method of false advertising: they point to evidence that some of the poets may have actually exaggerated their true life events to make for a more interesting read, and that the use of the autobiographical style makes for a false sense of connection with the reader. As with any style of poetry, the merits of Confessional poetry are often passionately debated, but the fact remains that these poets maintain a powerful and significant influence over poetry and other works about poetry to this day.