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...
(The entire section is 3,778 words.)