Survivor/Confessional Poets and Poems I Love

(photo by AlisonTyne at Etsy)

I have found a number of poets and poems that really get to me–poems about surviving. These amazing poets have a found somehow (I try desperately to do this but am not quite there yet) how to make their suffering/survival/abuse/ lesson/narrative universal. In my poems I have such a hard time weighing–is it too much “I”, too personal, too confessional. Maybe I just need to say the hell with it, and keep writing, developing.

My favorite poet (that I consider Confessional, Post-confessional, Modern-Confessional–whatever) is Amy Gerstler (you can go to her links and bio on my sidebar). When I talk about making surviving universal, to see what I mean check out Amy’s poem “Lost in the Forest.” It is stunning, the ending image takes your breath away, makes you open up somewhere inside, and relate. And she says so much without actually saying it–the details are metaphorical. How has she accomplished this? I also think of Silvia Plath–in particular: Child. (I love her constant references to moon and bone). The way she has it all so balanced–the poem’s story, and then its last line–BAM. And of course, Anne Sexton–the first time I listened to The Double Image I cried (ok maybe because it was WAY TOO close to home, but it was so original).

Nick Flynn (especially in “Father Outside” and maybe “Self-Exam”–I have yet to read his poetry book Some Ether, dying to) also has his own, ripped out, raw way of showing a truth, writing the facts, the situation, what happened (beautifully) without involving his emotion, but your emotions get involved, and what happens is we assume a deep, deep ache and loss and lots of pain, but living with it, getting over it, but knowing it was there.

And let’s not forget Sharon Olds, my second favorite. Satan Says blew me outa the water. I read the whole book (ok, it’s little) as fast as I could, I was so taken up, shocked, and in love with her honesty and again–I could relate. She is more specific, so how does she make it work? It’s not less universal though you think it would be. How, people, HOW?!

I’d like to share a poem by Lisel Mueller from the book The Armless Maiden (recommended for all those who’ve been through childhood abuse):

Bedtime Story

–by Lisel Mueller


The moon lies on the river

like a drop of oil.

The children come to the banks to be healed

of their wounds and bruises.

The fathers who gave them their wounds and bruises

come to be healed of their rage.

The mothers grow lovely; their faces soften,

the birds in their throats awake.

They all stand hand in hand

and the trees around them,

forever on the verge

of becoming one of them,

stop shuddering and speak their first word.

But that is not the beginning,

it is the end of the story,

and before we come to the end,

the mothers and fathers and children

must find their way to the river,

separately, with no one to guide them.

That is the long, pitiless part,

and it will scare you.


Beautiful, eh? Some other poets–Stephen Dunn, Mary Saracino, Mark Strand, Francisco Matos Paoli, Charles Wright…there must be more. I”m searching for more. Ok, I must share other one.

This one is by Sharon Olds:

Now I Lay Me


It is a fine prayer, it is an excellent prayer, really,

‘Now I lay me down to sleep–‘

the immediacy, and the power of the child

taking herself up in her arms

and laying herself down on her bed

as if she were her own mother,

‘Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,’

her hands knotted together knuckle by knuckle,

feeling her heart beating in the knuckles,

that heart that did not belong to her yet

that heart that was just the red soft string in her

chest that they plucked at will.

Knees on the fine dark hair-like hardwood

beams of the floor–the hairs of a huge animal–

she commended herself to the care of some reliable keeper

above her parents, someone who had a

cupboard to put her soul in for the night,

one they had no key to, out of their reach

so they could not crack it with an axe, so that

all night there was a part of her

they could not touch. Unless when God had it

she did not have it, but lay there a raw

soulless animal for them to do their dirt on–

coming toward her room with those noises at night and their

fur and their thick varnished hairs.

‘If I should die before I wake’ seemed so

possible, so likely really,

the father with the blood on his face,

the mother down to 82 pounds, it was a

mark of doom and a benison

to be able to say ‘I pray the Lord

my soul to take’–the chance that, dead,

she’d be safe for eternity, which was so much

longer than those bad nights–

she herself could see each morning the

blessing of the white dawn, like some true god coming,

she could get up and wade in the false

goodness of another day.

It was all fine except for the word ‘take’,

that wourd with the claw near the end of it.

What if teh Lord were just another one of those takers

like her mother, what if the Lord were no bigger than her father,

what if each night those noises she heard

were not her mother and father struggling to

do it or not do it, what if those

noises were the sound of the Lord wrestling with her father

on the round white bedroom rug,

fighting over her soul, and what if the

Lord, who did not eat real food,

got weaker, and her father with all he ate and

drank got stronger, what if the Lord

lost? ‘God bless Mommy and Daddy and

Trisha and Dougie and Gramma Hester and

Grampa Harry in Heaven,’ and then the

light went out, the last of the terrible kisses,

and then she was alone in the dark,

and the darkness started to grow there in her room

as it like to do, and then the night began.

I urge you all to check out The Survivor Chronicles (I’m published there–“Vapor” and one more soon to be published): , and while you’re there check out Mary Saracino’s poem “Grace”–beautiful.

My poetry is about surviving a number of things, and sometimes they’re not about survival at all, but for a placing of what happened, a place to set it down and examine, not pity or feel sorry. I hate pity and self-loathing and I even hate being told I’m a “survivor”–its such a lame word, I don’t know what it means to me, its empty. But I see it in others. Strange. But what I write about are going through and making it through childhood abuse, mental illness, psychosis, struggles, finding myself, identity, the truth. Not that there really is any one truth to a thing, but to see more clearly.

Ok, another. This one reminds me of my crazy struggle with Complex PTSD and psychosis when it was in full-swing, and my daughter was six years old. It was a heart-breaking time, it was so hard to be a mama, so a hard to be an anything when you lose yourself. I was so afraid she’d be so affected by it, so changed, but kids are fricken tough. It was like our relationship paused until I got better, and we’re just fine. Ok, here:


–by Sylvia Plath


Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.

I want to fill it with color and ducks,

the zoo of the new

whose names you meditate–

April snowdrop, Indian pipe,


Stalk without wrinkle,

Pool in which images

Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous

wringing of hands, this dark

ceiling without a star.

A couple of lines from Charles Wright (from Looking Around):

It’s only in darkness you

can see the light, only

from emptiness that things start to fill.


I think of Randall Jarrell, Wendell Berry, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Hecht, Robert Lowell…I know there’s more.

The Profound Truth

–by Francisco Matos Paoli (Song of Madness)


My footprint has glittered

upon the depths of a distant


My eyes have reached to

the blue horizon

where the singing dawn


of a bound love.

And within the brief circle

in which I live,


is a star in orbit

traversing my wounded



I’m searching for more. What with a world full of violence and people seeking seeking seeking the way, this kind of poetry should be much more obvious. But maybe it’s better this way, this seclusion, it keeps out the impersonators–because this is stuff you can’t replicate–your story is your own. If you have any you’d like to share, please do so. Thanks, again, for reading.

7 thoughts on “Survivor/Confessional Poets and Poems I Love

  1. Spectacular. Yes– you should just write, and not worry about this. If your work is good poetry, the rest will truly take care of itself. Be the survivor voice even as you are the broken voice at times; they go together, yes? I’m just putting up a post about this at SW. xxxj


  2. Wow Amy,
    I’m a poet of survivorship, too. *shakes your hand*
    I LOVE Amy Gerstler. I heard her read up in Milwaukee a few years back. She has crazy curly hair. Such a fun gal. Love her work. Does she have a new book out?

    But anyway – I write super-confessionally, too. At least, I used to. I’m in a transitional mode right now and I haven’t done poetry in a few months… much to my chagrin… but I feel very drawn to your essay and to you and your poetry. I will peruse your poems and stuff when I have a moment to myself here. Thanks for being exactly who you are!!



  3. write on girl…if that is what your heart dictates then I believe that is what will help you (and others) heal. The most important thing I learned about sharing my story with others is that I am not the only one who has gone through these things…I am not unique and therefore, not alone. It is my aloneness that I get really crazy.

    So, I have to stay connected with others who have been where I have been…others who understand what it is like and most importantly, others who have found healthy ways to recover from the affects of abuse. There are so many support groups…personally, I find these much more beneficial than professional counseling but maybe I just have not found the right therapist yet.

    Finally, one of the things that helps me come to accept the things I had no control over…the things I went through, the things that happened to me and around me…is that I can now use these experiences to give others, who have gone through them too, strength and hope.

    I can take horrible experiences and use them for good…to help others. That is the way I was helped. Before I found others who had been where I had been, I went through years of seeking help from those who could not help me because they either couldn’t relate because they didn’t experience it themselves or they were professionals (ie counselors) who couldn’t share their personal stories back and forth with me.

    All of this is just my experience. Everyone has to find a way that works for them, everyone has to find their path, walk their own journey to recovery but not alone…never alone.


    1. Sheila, I love what you’re saying here. I totally agree about the realization that you’re not alone (boosting your getting-over-the-worst) and then reflecting that to others that do feel alone. Opening up and sharing my stories and thoughts and poetry was done initially to get it all outa my head and onto something tangible. I was alone. Then I started meeting more and more people in similar situations and I felt/feel so close to them because of it–even if it is just a blog! As for finding the right or best therapist–I don’t believe there is one–they’ll help you obviously but I believe we have it inside of ourselves to heal. We’re made of such stuff. I love your heart, your compassion, and obvious selflessness.


  4. Great poems. Your writings are the footprints you leave behind as you walk through the hills and vales of your life. They all count, are part of the sum (so keep up the prose, too.) Olds is a survivor of history in ways Plath could not be, but the terrible beauty of Plath’s poems may prove to be the ultimate survivor. Of eternity. Surviving the life is a lot trickier.



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