Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3624
With the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959, the term “confessional” began to be used to refer to poetry that drew from and described the poet’s own experiences, often including some type of psychological breakdown or mental health treatment as well as familial conflict rendered in a dramatic manner. This was a major departure from the high modernism of the first half of the twentieth century, wherein poets such as William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens sought to impress their learnedness on readers, frequently using Greek and Latin and referring to artists and works of art that would be familiar only to readers with similar educational backgrounds. The modernist poets used poetry as “an escape from personality,” as Eliot said, not as a way to express personality, a primary motive of confessional poets. Although the term “confessional” refers to the content of the poems rather than the techniques used by confessional poets, they themselves argued that they were just as artistically and technically conscious as their modernist predecessors but more direct and accessible in their subject matter.
This departure from the detachment of modernism created controversy, and confessional poetry was not widely accepted as a legitimate art form at the time of its origin. More traditional poets and critics considered it to be solipsistic, even narcissistic, and its subject matter, such as bodily functions and taboos, inappropriate. Over the years, however, confessional poetry has become recognized as a type of art that illustrates the idea of the personal becoming political, offering insight into psychological upheaval and family drama as well as what writer William Faulkner described as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” The technical proficiency recognized in the work of modernist poets has also been noted in that of confessional poets, particularly in the tension that is created through the use of traditional form and nontraditional subject matter. Four poets in particular are known for this skill and for being pioneers in the confessional mode: Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.
Often known as the founder of confessional poetry, Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was the product of an upper-class Boston family that included Amy Lowell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and his great-granduncle James Russell Lowell, a poet and ardent abolitionist. Robert attended but did not graduate from Harvard University, at one point deciding to leave for Tennessee to camp on the lawn of a poet whom he idolized, James Tate.
Under the influence of modernist poets such as Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, Lowell had developed an appreciation for their dedication to classical form and became proficient in it but felt the need to break away from what he described as the “distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult” poems that he was crafting. In Life Studies, his collection of poetry and prose that became known as a landmark of confessional poetry, he experimented with a new style and received great acclaim for it. Beginning with the poem “Beyond the Alps,” written in classical style, complete with exact rhyme (“sponge/lunge,” “snow/go,” and “gongs/belongs”), this volume traces Lowell’s familial influences from childhood to adulthood. Showing the complacency that is a luxury of the wealthy, Lowell describes the tradition of the grand tour of Europe that would be typical for a family such as his, confiding, “ I envy the conspicuous/ waste of your grandparents on their grand tours—/ long-haired Victorian sages accepted the universe, / while breezing on their trust funds through the world.” With references to Paris, Rome, Catholicism, and Greek mythology, Lowell upheld the classical tradition yet gave hints of the confessional in his references to his family. In the prose piece “91 Revere Street,” Lowell chronicles the trials and travails of his early upbringing with an overbearing, class-conscious mother and a father who could not decide whether he wanted to retire from the navy, compounded by the pressure Lowell’s mother put on his father to retire so that the family could start collecting from his trust fund. Rather than being traumatized by their late-night arguments, Lowell describes eagerly anticipating them. Perhaps even then he was considering them as material for future writing.
In later years, when he attended Harvard University, Lowell dedicated a poem to one of his peers, Delmore Schwartz, also attending Harvard at the time. In “To Delmore Schwartz,” he describes the poets’ difficulties with daily domestic duties, including “ keep[ing] the furnace lit!/ Even when we had disconnected it.” Lowell refers to a visit from T. S. Eliot’s brother, Henry Ware, and describes his and Schwartz’s views of themselves as the next great poets, although the specter of madness is lurking underneath for both of them, with “cigarette smoke circling the paranoid.” Lowell quotes Schwartz as saying “’We poets in our youth begin in sadness;/ thereof in the end comes despondency and madness.’” This anticipates the mental illness for which Lowell was treated and to which Schwartz succumbed.
“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” chronicles Lowell’s relationship with his grandfather. At the very beginning of the poem, he demonstrates their closeness with his childhood complaint: “I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa!” His parents with their “watery martini pipe dreams at Sunday dinner” simply cannot compete, since “Nowhere was anywhere after a summer/ at my Grandfather’s farm.” He admires the “works of [his] Grandfather’s hands” and the décor of his house, which “was manly, comfortable,” unlike himself at five and a half in his “formal pearl gray shorts,” feeling like a “ stuffed toucan/ with a bibulous, multicolored beak.” This feeling of ridiculousness and inadequacy is also a subject of confessional poetry. In “Dunbarton,” another poem about his grandfather, Lowell describes their comfort together, with his grandfather finding “his grandchild’s fogbound solitudes/ sweeter than human society” and stopping “ at the Priscilla in Nashua/ for brownies and root beer.” Even raking leaves with his grandfather was an adventure for Lowell, as they “defied the dank weather/ with ’dragon’ bonfires.” The poem ends with an image of physical closeness and nurturing: “In the mornings I cuddled like a paramour/ in my Grandfather’s bed.” In “Grandparents,” he yearns for his deceased grandfather to once again “Have me, hold me, cherish me!,” showing a desperation for love that he did not feel from his parents and that he seems to have known he might never have again.
W. D. Snodgrass
Although he studied under Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass (1926-2009) did not consider himself a confessional poet. In fact, he disliked the term because of its religious connotation and because critics associated it with writing as therapy. However, Snodgrass is widely considered one of the founding members of the confessional movement, primarily because of Heart’s Needle (1959), a collection of poems chronicling his divorce and his loss of custody of his daughter as a result.
In “Papageno,” dedicated to Janice, his wife at the time, Snodgrass describes how he “went to whistle up a wife” but that his mouth was “padlocked for a liar” and that he “ could not speak/ To hush this chattering, blue heart.” He beckons to his future wife, “Come take this rare bird into hand;/ In that deft cage, he might sing true.” Signs of tension appear when the speaker in “Riddle” says, “You have the damnedest friends and seem to think/ You have some right to think.” Still, the couple has “ grown/ Closely together where most people shrink.” It seems that they are too close for comfort, although the speaker suggests, “ if there’s a world between/ Us, it’s our own.” Ironically, physical distance is emphasized in “Song,” with the speaker describing how he and his “woman” are inextricably linked through the “ rich/ soil, friable and humble,/ where all our murders rot,/ where our old deaths crumble.” This image of mortality is reinforced by the speaker’s description of his reach as “far from you, wide and free,/ though I have set my root/ in you and am your tree.” This seems to be a desperate attempt to hold onto that which is slipping away.
The long title poem, “Heart’s Needle,” chronicles a father’s estrangement from his daughter in the aftermath of a divorce, Snodgrass’s own experience. To mark the passage of time, he uses an image of himself and his daughter digging a garden when she is three years old. He advises her to pay attention to the growing sprouts: “You should try to look at them, every day/ Because when they come to full flower/ I will be away.” He compares himself and his former wife to “ cold war soldiers that/ Never gained ground, gave none, but sat/ Tight in their chill trenches.” They “ sever and divide/ Their won and lost land.” The speaker compares the child to a wishbone and shows a desire for the child to choose sides when he boldly suggests, “It may help that a Chinese play/ Or Solomon himself might say/ I am your real mother.”
The father is frustrated at his inability to control the situation, lamenting that he cannot tell his daughter “ why/ the season will not wait;/ the night I told you I/ must leave, you wept a fearful rate/ to stay up late.” His frustration is exemplified in “ broken lines// of verses” that he “can’t make.” During the same year, although the child is still three years old, he notices, “You are already growing/ Strange to me.” He watches her “ chatter about new playmates, sing/ Strange songs” and even admits, “You bring things I’d as soon forget.” He recalls a night when his daughter had a fever and “wheezed for breath,” as if she were drowning. The speaker then gives his daughter the cruel truth: “Child, I have another wife,/ another child. We try to choose our life.” Pushing his daughter on a swing—where he must “shove” her away, then see her “return again,” “drive” her off again, then “stand quiet” until she comes—is a metaphor for the push-pull relationship between himself and his child, as he must relinquish her at certain times and may regain her only when permission is granted. The father is chagrined at his lack of parenting skills, describing himself as an “absentee bread-winner” who takes his daughter to eat in local restaurants and buys “ what lunches we could pack/ in a brown sack.” He eventually learns to “ fry/ omelettes and griddlecakes so I// could set you supper at my table.” He relates, “As I built back from helplessness,/ when I grew able,/ the only possible answer was/ you had to come here less.” The father and daughter indulge themselves with sweets at Halloween, and he craves them after she leaves.
As the father and daughter grow more distant from each other and friends ask how she is doing, the speaker admits, “ I don’t know// or see much right to ask./ Or what use it could be to know.” Her pictures above his desk seem “much the same.” Despite their geographical closeness, he feels them growing apart, observing how “The world moves like a diseased heart/ packed with ice and snow./ Three months now we have been apart/ less than a mile. I cannot fight/ or let you go.” “They” have said that if he loved her, he would leave and find his own “affairs.” However, he and his daughter again visit the zoo, looking at the bears and raccoons, “punished and cared for, behind bars,” stretching “thin black fingers” out to them. He ends the poem with a commitment to permanence: “And you are still my daughter.” He is determined not to let his daughter slip away the way he let his wife slip out of his grasp.
Like Lowell, under whom she studied, Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an apprentice to the classical form and heavily influenced by Yeats, Pound, and Eliot. She had her first poem published at age eight. Plath was raised by a single mother after her father died when she was ten. Her symbolic killing of the image she created of him in her mind is chronicled in her poem “Daddy,” in which the speaker describes her attempts to “get back” to her father by killing herself and how she made a “model” of him, “A man in black with a Meinkampf look,” to cope with his death.
Plath was an overachiever throughout her school years and won many prizes for her poetry before she enrolled in Smith College. While in college, she won a coveted guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine. She graduated from Smith College in 1954 with the highest honors and also won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Oxford University. In 1953, Plath attempted suicide, and throughout her life, she struggled with mental illness, including manic and depressive episodes; she eventually succeeded in committing suicide. Despite the emotional and mental inconsistency she experienced, Plath was a prolific and respected poet during her lifetime. However, the posthumous publication of Ariel (1965), a collection containing her most highly skilled and dramatic poems, gained her the fame that would make her practically a legend. It also generated a great deal of controversy regarding the circumstances of her death following the breakup of her marriage to Ted Hughes, one of Great Britain’s most important poets. This controversy and speculation has eclipsed her poetry at times, but astute critics have recognized the brilliance of her technical skill and practically mystical ability to evoke profound responses from readers, as exemplified in Ariel.
“Morning Song” (from Ariel) begins with the promise of hope, with the speaker addressing her child: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” However, like the speaker of Snodgrass’s “Heart’s Needle,” the mother feels estranged from her child, claiming “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/ Effacement at the wind’s hand.” Rather than providing the image of nurturing that readers might expect in a poem spoken by a mother to her child, the poet shows a mother noting her lack of connection to her child and perhaps even consciously distancing herself from her child to cope with the challenges of motherhood. In “The Rabbit Catcher” (from Winter Trees, 1971), the trap itself is used as a metaphor for a constricted marriage: “Tight wires between us,/ Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring/ Sliding shut on some quick thing.” Even more grotesquely, “The Applicant” (from The Collected Poems, 1981) parodies the “selling” of marriage, particularly in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with a promise that is unfulfilled, comparing the prospective wife to a suit, “Black and stiff, but not a bad fit./ Will you marry it?/ It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof/ Against fire and bombs through the roof./ Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.” This product comes with a further guarantee: “in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,/ In fifty, gold./ A living doll, everywhere you look./ It can sew, it can cook,/ It can talk, talk, talk.” The cultural critique of a poem such as this has earned Plath a reputation for stridency and bitterness. The fact that she would examine marriage in such an uncompromising manner and present it as another “bill of goods” that is “sold” to the American public shows her inventiveness and courage to refute what was considered the sanctity of marriage.
The risk taking continues with “Lady Lazarus” (from Ariel), one of Plath’s most striking poems, in which the speaker boasts of her suicide attempts: “I have done it again./ One year in every ten/ I manage it—” In her references to Nazism (“ skin/ Bright as a Nazi lampshade”) and the circus, with “The peanut-crunching crowd/ Shoves in to see/// The big strip tease,” Plath combined metaphors to create a surreal and grotesque scene in which the suicide attempt itself is a performance, and the speaker has “nine times to die,” like a cat. The speaker boasts:
DyingIs an art, like everything else.I do it exceptionally well.I do it so it feels like hell.I do it so it feels real.
She even compares it to a calling and admits that it is the “ theatrical// Comeback in broad day,” the “miracle” that “knocks [her] out.” However, there is a sacrifice to be made, “ a charge// For the eyeing of her scars” and the “hearing” of her heart, as well as a charge for a piece of her hair or clothes. Despite being picked apart by prurient onlookers, she rises like a phoenix, “Out of the ash” with her “red hair,” and she “eats men like air.” Not only is suicide not treated as socially unacceptable or a taboo subject, but instead it is glorified in this poem. Plath portrays suicide as a vocation that holds a fascination for those who witness it as well as those who experience it, anticipating the public’s response to Plath’s own suicide.
Like Snodgrass and Plath, Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was a student of Lowell. In fact, she and Plath were in a workshop with him at the same time. However, unlike Plath, Sexton started writing poetry relatively late in life, after several suicide attempts and institutionalization, when her therapist suggested that she write as a form of therapy. She also saw a Public Broadcasting Service program on sonnets, wrote one herself, and was so pleased with the results that she decided to enroll in a poetry workshop, where she met her lifelong friend, the poet Maxine Kumin. She started to publish her work and win prizes for it. Although some critics considered the subject matter of Sexton’s poems, which included menstruation and abortion, inappropriate and even offensive, others appreciated her directness and risk taking as well as her technical proficiency.
All My Pretty Ones (1962) is one of the best examples of confessional poetry in its willingness to address subjects often considered inappropriate for poetry at the time. The title poem shows ambivalence toward the death of a parent. After her mother’s death, the speaker finds photographs among her deceased father’s things. Rather than cherishing the pictures, the speaker says, “I’ll never know what these faces are all about./ I lock them into their book and throw them out.” She addresses her father as “ my drunkard, my navigator,/ my first lost keeper, to love or look at later,” and then finds a five-year diary that her mother kept, chronicling her husband’s “alcoholic tendency.” Ultimately, the speaker reconciles with her father, deciding, “Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you,/ bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you.”
In “Starry Night” (from All My Pretty Ones), inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the same title, the speaker describes how “ one black-haired tree slips/ up like a drowned woman into the hot sky” while “The town is silent” and “The night boils with eleven stars.” “Oh starry starry night!” the speaker proclaims, “This is how/ I want to die.” The line is repeated in the second stanza, after a description of the moon bulging “to push children, like a god, from its eye,” with “the old unseen serpent swallow[ing] up the stars.” This surreal image reveals the personification of the scene in which the speaker projects herself, expressing how she wants to die: “into that rushing beast of the night,/ sucked up by that great dragon, to split/ from my life with no flag,/ no belly,/ no cry.” Unlike the speaker in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” this speaker does not want to go out with a theatrical bang but rather by being sucked into a vortex and vaporized. The glamorization of death makes this poem controversial. A similar attitude can be found in “Her Kind” (from To Bedlam and Part Way Back, 1960), in which Sexton describes how a “possessed witch” who has done her “hitch” is “misunderstood” and “is not ashamed to die.” Readers would more likely expect her to not be afraid to die; the use of the word “ashamed” implies that there could be a reason for shame, such as suicide, often considered a cowardly way to die. Sexton’s treatment of it flies in the face of that.
“The Abortion” and “Woman with Girdle” (both from All My Pretty Ones) bring up subjects that some consider best avoided in poetry. With the refrain “Somebody who should have been born/ is gone” in “The Abortion,” Sexton creates an ambiguous meaning similar to the feelings a woman might have following the procedure. There is a sense of loss, that an event that should have occurred has not, yet the woman relates in a matter-of-fact manner, “I changed my shoes, and then drove south.” Although she wonders “when the ground would break” and “how anything fragile survives,” she does not seem to regret her decision, although she considers herself a coward for not saying what she means, or what she describes as “this baby that I bleed.” In “Woman with Girdle,” Sexton lingers on the parts of a woman’s body that she is trying to conceal with the girdle that was such a popular undergarment at the time that Sexton wrote the poem. The speaker directly addresses the woman (who could be a woman reading the poem) by noting, “Your midriff sags toward your knees;/ your breasts lie down in air.” As the woman stands in her “elastic case,” the speaker notices how she “roll[s] down the garment” and exposes her “belly, soft as pudding,” similar to the way that Sexton and other confessional poets exposed the “underbelly” of society in the 1950’s and 1960’s through their art.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 154
Davison, Peter. The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Describes the environment in which confessional poets worked with and learned from each other in poetry workshops as well as their social interactions with each other in the vibrant literary climate of Boston from 1955 to 1960.
Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. Argues that the technical prowess of poets Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath, similar to a surgeon’s discipline and skill, has been overshadowed by their confessional subject matter and tumultuous lives.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. “What Was Confessional Poetry?” In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Describes the origins, subjects, and themes of confessional poetry as well as representative poets and their work.
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