Confessional poetry is marked by its intimate autobiographical subject matter that is sometimes referred to as grotesque. Masturbation, depression, suicidal tendencies, alcoholism, drug abuse are all openly discussed. This type of poetry is commonly associated with work from the movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. (read about it more here)
The Academy of American Poets defines Confessional Poetry as “Poetry of the personal or ‘I’ “.
Robert Lowell —Life Studies
W.D. Snodgrass —Heart’s Needle
Anne Sexton—To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and All My Pretty Ones —and the first time I heard her read her poem “The Double-Image” I bawled my eyes out. She also wrote “The Room of My Life” and I wrote a similar poem after reading that–you can read it HERE.
Sylvia Plath —Ariel
Theodore Roethke (his “In a Dark Time” is in my top five)
…that’s to name the well-known beginners of Confessional Poetry.
Poetry that discussed the “personal” was hardly new in the 1950’s and 60’s. In the fourteenth century Petrarch penned sonnets that frequently used the first person and discussed the poet’s feelings and musings on humanity. Similarly Shakespeare’s sonnets, written in the sixteenth century, expose facets of the poet to the reader. Yet what distinguishes the Confessional poets from other personal poetry is their rejection of the standards for appropriate content that saturated Academia during the middle of the twentieth century. During the 1950’s New Criticism’s sterile, and objective view of literature pervaded. The confessional poets’ disregard for this approach in favor of an intimate and autobiographical one was shocking.
Elizabeth Bishop wrote that she disliked the poetic trend of, “more and more anguish and less and less poetry”(Kirsch X). M.L. Rosenthal wrote in a review, “ It is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of confidences, rather shameful….” (Parini 636). It was the confessional poets’ willingness to discuss these “shameful” matters with a frankness that can be unnerving that sets them apart from their contemporaries. Robert Lowell and his students W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, “…forced a mutation of critical standards…”(Parini 633).
I’m more interested in the Post-Confessional Poetry–I read a lot of the poets mentioned above, but I feel a more immediacy in the poets from the 1970s and on. These include:
John Berryman (Dreamsongs), Robert Pinsky (History of My Heart), Bill Knott’s poem “The Closet” (so sad), Donald Hall’s Kicking the Leaves, Jon Pineda (in particular, “Losing a Memory,” “This Poetry,” and “Coma”–I just read those here at Fishouse).
My other favorites are Marie Howe (check out “Lullaby“–stunning, and so is her poetry collection What the Living Do), Sharon Olds (Satan Says–amazing collection), Judith Harris, some of Amy Gerstler, Nick Flynn (“Father Outside“), Stephen Dunn (“Emptiness“), Mary Saracino, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, James Wright….I wonder if Matthew Dickman’s “Grief” is post-Confessional? And my very favorite–Louise Gluck (“Mutable Earth,” “Elms,” “The Untrustworthy Speaker,” “The Garment.“
Now it has become popular to write memoirs about overcoming traumatic experiences and mental illnesses.
Louise Gluck, “Snow”:
Late December: my father and I
are going to New York, to the circus.
He holds me
on his shoulders in the bitter wind:
scraps of white paper
blow over the railroad ties.
My father liked
to stand like this, to hold me
so he couldn’t see me.
staring straight ahead
into the world my father saw;
I was learning
to absorb its emptiness,
the heavy snow
not falling, whirling around us.
Sharon Olds “Time Travel”
I have learned to go back and walk around
and find the windows and doors. Outside
it is hot, the pines are black, the lake
laps. It is 1955 and I am
looking for my father.
I walk from a small room to a big one
through the doorway. The walls and floors are pine,
full of splinters.
I come upon him.
I can possess him like this, the funnies
rising and falling on his big stomach,
his big solid secret body
where he puts the bourbon.
He belongs to me forever like this,
the red plaid shirt, the baggy pants,
the long perfectly turned legs,
the soft padded hands folded across his body,
the hair dark as a burnt match,
the domed, round eyes closed,
the firm mouth. Sleeping it off
in the last summer the family was together.
I have learned to walk
so quietly into that summer
no one knows I am there. He rests
easy as a baby. Upstairs
mother weeps. Out in the tent
my brother reads my diary. My sister
is changing boyfriends somewhere in a car
and down by the shore of the lake there is a girl
twelve years old, watching the water
fold and disappear. I walk up behind her,
I touch her shoulder, she turns her head–
I see my face. She looks through me
up at the house. This is the one I have
come for. I gaze in her eyes, the waves,
thick as the air in hell, curling in
over and over. She does not know
any of this will ever stop.
She does does not know she is the one
If you have any favorite Confessional poets, poems, or writers–PLEASE SHARE! I want more to read!
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