Confessional poetry or "Confessionalism" is a style of poetry that emerged in the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is sometimes also classified as a form of Postmodernism. It has been described as poetry of the personal or "I", focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously and occasionally still taboo matters such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide, often set in relation to broader social themes.
The confessional poet's engagement with personal experience has been explained by literary critics as an effort to distance oneself from the horrifying social realities of the twentieth century. Events like the Holocaust, the Cold War, and existential threat brought by the proliferation of nuclear weapons had made public matters daunting for both confessional poets and their readers. The confessional poets also worked in opposition to the idealization of domesticity in the 1950s, by revealing unhappiness in their own homes.
The school of "confessional poetry" was associated with several poets who redefined American poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, including Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, and W. D. Snodgrass.
Life Studies and the emergence of Confessionalism
In 1959 M. L. Rosenthal first used the term "confessional" in a review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies entitled "Poetry as Confession", Rosenthal differentiated the confessional approach from other modes of lyric poetry by way of its use of confidences that (Rosenthal said) went "beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment". Rosenthal notes that in earlier tendencies towards the confessional there was typically a "mask" that hid the poet's "actual face", and states that "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."
There were however 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.
Life Studies was nonetheless the first book in the confessional mode that captured the reading public's attention and the first labeled "confessional." Most notably "confessional" were the poems in the final section of Life Studies in which Lowell alludes to his struggles with mental illness and his hospitalization at McLean's, a mental hospital in Massachusetts. 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." A. Alvarez however considered that some poems in Life Studies "fail for appearing more compulsively concerned with the processes of psychoanalysis than with those of poetry" while conversely Michael Hofmann saw the verbal merit of Lowell's work only diminished by emphasis on "what I would call the C-word, 'Confessionalism'".
In a poetry class he taught at Boston University in the late 1950s, Lowell would go on to inspire confessional themes in the work of several prominent American poets. In 1955, Lowell requested a position at the university in part based on the suggestions of his psychiatrist, who advised Lowell to establish a routine in his life to help mitigate the effects of bipolar disorder. Lowell's class drew in a number of talented poets, including Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. Sexton joined the class in 1958, and working with Lowell proved pivotal in building her poetic voice. In 1958, Sylvia Plath would also join Lowell's course. After exposure to the personal topics in Lowell and Sexton's poems, Plath was drawn to confessional themes herself and began including them in her own work.
Other key texts of the American "confessional" school of poetry include Plath's Ariel, Berryman's The Dream Songs, and Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back, though Berryman himself rejected the label "with rage and contempt": "The word doesn't mean anything. I understand the confessional to be a place where you go and talk with a priest. I personally haven't been to confession since I was twelve years old".
Another significant, if transitional figure was Adrienne Rich; while 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.
Criticism and Rebellion
In the 1970s and 1980s, many poets and writers, like Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, and Franz Wright, were strongly influenced by the precedent set by Confessional poetry with its themes of taboo autobiographical experience, of the psyche and the self, and revelations of both childhood and adult traumas.
In his introduction to Sylvia Plath's posthumously published poetry collection Ariel, Robert Lowell commented, "These poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder, a game of chicken, the wheels of both cars locked and unable to swerve... And yet Sylvia Plath's poems are not celebration of some savage and debauched existence, that of the damned poet, glad to burn out his body for a few years of continued intensity. This poetry and life are not a career; they tell us that life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it."
In a 1977 interview with Paris Review, Richard Wilbur also sharply criticized Confessional poetry, saying, "One of the jobs of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable, not by falsehood, but by clear, precise confrontation. Even the most cheerful poet has to cope with pain as part of the human lot; what he shouldn't do is to complain, and dwell on his personal mischance."
Furthermore, Deep Image poet Robert Bly, made his distaste for Confessional poetry very clear when he praised Spanish poet Antonio Machado for, "his emphasis on the suffering of others rather than his own".
Furthermore, the biographers of Confessional poets have noticed a shared ambition among all of these writers to become celebrities. In concurrence with the proliferation of popular culture during the 1950s, Confessionalism offered readers a detailed view of the writer's persona, making Confessional poets into "stars" rather than private creators in the more traditional mode of poets like Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur. In light of the considerable public attention which Confessional poets received and their very intensive desire for this fame, Confessional poetry is now classified by some literary critics as a form of celebrity culture.
A literary movement called the Language poets formed as a rebellion against Confessional poetry and took as their starting point the early modernist poetry composed by Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky. Despite this, Language poetry has been called an example of postmodernism in American poetry. Its immediate precursors were the New American poets, especially the New York School, the Objectivist poets, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance.
By far the most controversial rebellion against Confessional poetry is known as New Formalism, which argues for the return to rhymed, metrical, and narrative poetry. New Formalism began during the 1970s and early '80s when younger poets from the Baby Boom Generation began to fight back against the unchallenged dominance of both free verse and Confessional poetry. The clash between movements continues to this day.
In The Narcissiad, Gwynn parodied both the clichés and excesses of Confessional poetry in the following words:
- "Our Younger Poet, weaned early from his bottle,
- Begins to cast about for a role-model
- And lacking knowledge of the great tradition,
- Pulls from the bookstore shelf a slim edition
- Of Poems of Now, and takes the offered bait,
- And thus becomes the next initiate.
- If male he takes his starting point from Lowell
- And fearlessly parades his suffering soul
- Through therapy, shock-treatments, and divorce
- Until he whips the skin from a dead horse.
- His female counterpart descends from Plath
- And wanders down a self-destructive path
- Laying the blame on Daddy while she guides
- Her readers to their template suicides --
- Forgetting in her addled state, alas,
- Her all-electric oven has no gas."
- Poets, Academy of American. "A Brief Guide to Confessional Poetry | Academy of American Poets". poets.org. Retrieved 2020-06-02.
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- Ousby 1998, pp 89
- Hoffman, Steven K. (Winter 1978). "Impersonal Personalism: The Making of a Confessional Poetic". ELH. 45 (4): 687–709. doi:10.2307/2872583. ISSN 0013-8304. JSTOR 2872583.
- Blake, David H (2001-12-01). "Public Dreams: Berryman, Celebrity, and the Culture of Confession". American Literary History. 13 (4): 716–736. doi:10.1093/alh/13.4.716. ISSN 0896-7148. S2CID 170123684.
- 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
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- Kirsch, p. 2, makes this observation in his reassessment of the historical context of Life Studies.
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-  Stitt, Peter. John Berryman, The Art of Poetry, "The Paris Review", No. 53, Winter 1972.
- Ousby 1998 pp. 199, pp.792
- Robert and Mary Bagg (2017), Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study, University of Massachusetts Press. Page 222.
- Robert and Mary Bagg (2017), Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study, University of Massachusetts Press. Pages 222-223.
- Bly, Robert (translator), Machado, Antonio, Times Alone, Wesleyan University Press, 1983, ISBN 978-0-8195-6081-0, page 1.
- Blake, D. H. (2001-04-01). "Public Dreams: Berryman, Celebrity, and the Culture of Confession". American Literary History. 13 (4): 716–736. doi:10.1093/alh/13.4.716. ISSN 0896-7148. S2CID 170123684.
- Robert McPhillips (2006), The New Formalism: A Critical Introduction, Textos Books. Page 98.
- R.S. Gwynn (2001), No Word of Farewell: Selected Poems 1970-2000, Story Line Press. Page 109.
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- 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.