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Confessional poetry is a style of poetry that emerged in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s that has been described as poetry "of the personal." The content of confessional poems is autobiographical and marked by its exploration of subject matter that was considered taboo at the time. This subject matter included topics like mental illness, sexuality, and suicide.
The school of poetry that became known as "Confessional Poetry" was associated with several poets who redefined American poetry in the 1950s, including Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, and W. D. Snodgrass. Some key texts of the American "confessional" school of poetry include Lowell's Life Studies, Plath's Ariel, Berryman's The Dream Songs, Snodgrass' Heart's Needle, and Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back. One of the most prominent, consciously "confessional" poets to emerge in the 1980s was Sharon Olds whose focus on taboo sexual subject matter built off of the work of Ginsberg.
Life Studies and establishment of "confessional" mode
In 1959 M. L. Rosenthal first used the term "confessional" in a review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies entitled "Poetry as Confession", The confessional approach in poetry can be differentiated from other modes of lyric poetry based upon its use of shameful confidences that Rosenthal said went "beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment". Rosenthal mentions earlier tendencies towards the confessional but notes how there was typically a "mask" that hid the poet's "actual face". He stated, "Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal." In a review of the book in The Kenyon Review, John Thompson wrote, "For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest: what they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry."
Nevertheless there were clear moves towards the "confessional" mode before the publication of Life Studies. Delmore Schwartz's confessional long poem Genesis had been published in 1943, and John Berryman had written a sonnet sequence in 1947 about an adulterous affair he'd had with a woman named Chris while he was married to his first wife, Eileen (however, since publishing the sonnets would have revealed the affair to his wife, Berryman didn't actually publish the sequence, titled Berryman's Sonnets, until 1967, after he divorced from his first wife). Snodgrass' Heart's Needle, in which he writes about the aftermath of his divorce, also preceded Life Studies.
However, Life Studies was the first book in the confessional mode that captured the reading public's attention and the first to officially be labeled "confessional." The poems in Life Studies that were notably "confessional" were the poems in the book's final section in which Lowell alludes to his struggles with mental illness and his experiences in a mental hospital. Plath remarked upon the influence of these types of poems from Life Studies in an interview in which she stated, "I've been very excited by what I feel is the new breakthrough that came with, say, Robert Lowell's Life Studies, this intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which I feel has been partly taboo. Robert Lowell's poems about his experience in a mental hospital, for example, interested me very much."
Confessional free verse poetry became the popular approach in the second half of the 20th-century American poetry due, in large part, to the popularity of American poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s and 60s. However, this popularity resulted in something of a backlash in the 1970s and 1980s, leading some poets and entire poetry movements to go out of their way to avoid writing in the confessional mode.
For instance, one of the foremost poets of the Deep Image school, Robert Bly, was highly critical of what he perceived to be the solipsistic tendencies of Confessional poets. He referenced this aesthetic distaste when he praised the poet Antonio Machado, in the preface to his 1983 translation of Machado's poetry, Times Alone, for "his emphasis on the suffering of others rather than his own".
- The Nation, September 19, 1959), reprinted in Rosenthal 1991, pp. 109 – 112. Rosenthal somewhat reworked the review into an essay "Robert Lowell and the Poetry of Confession" in his 1960 book The Modern Poets
- Ian Hamilton, 'A Biographer's Msgivings', collected in Walking Possession, Essays & Reviews 1968 – 1993, Addison-Wesley, 1994. ISBN 0-201-48397-1
- Rosenthal, 1959.
- Thompson, John, "Two Poets", Kenyon Review 21 (1959), pp. 482 – 490.
- Kirsch, p. 2, makes this observation in his reassessment of the historical context of Life Studies.
- Mariani, Paul. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman.
- Orr, Peter, ed. "The Poet Speaks - Interviews with Contemporary Poets Conducted by Hilary Morrish, Peter Orr, John Press and Ian Scott-Kilvert". London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.
- Bly, Robert (translator), Machado, Antonio, Times Alone, Wesleyan University Press, 1983, ISBN 978-0-8195-6081-0, page 1.
- Kirsch, Adam, The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets, W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.
- Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, Virago Press, London, 1991. ISBN 978-1-85381-307-8.
- Rosenthal, M. L., The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction New York: Oxford University Press, 1960 ISBN 0-19-500718-2
- Rosenthal, M. L., Our Life in Poetry: Selected Essays and Reviews, Persea Books, New York, 1991, ISBN 0-89255-149-6.
- Sherwin, Miranda, "Confessional" Writing and the Twentieth-Century Literary Imagination, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. ISBN 978-0-230-21956-4.