The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“First Confession” is the opening poem in X. J. Kennedy’s first collection of poems, Nude Descending a Staircase. This twenty-four-line lyric depicts the emotions of a young man as he experiences his first confession, a ritual in the Catholic religion. The poem’s placement in the collection is significant, for it serves as Kennedy’s first poetic “confession” and basis of his art.

The poet’s attitude toward traditional form in this poem sets the tone of Kennedy’s entire poetic career, irreverent, impatient with authority, yet obedient to it. Traditional form is clearly evident in the poem’s six quatrains, all of whose lines rhyme and contain a basic four-foot regularity. This ballad structure allows Kennedy to address the restrictions of poetic ritual in a dramatic presentation of a young man’s struggle with religious authority. While the drama of this first confession unfolds, another kind of initiation is taking place as well, that of the poet, who balances the authority of poetic form with a spirited and personal desire for freedom of expression and emotional release. This dual character of the poem enhances the emotional tension arising from the young man’s fear of punishment and his impulse to defy it.

Although the poem’s young speaker is recalling his first confession, the recollection is made immediate and highly dramatic. The speaker’s emotional state is emphatically expressed from the outset: His...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s language and structures are well suited to the emotional state of a young man facing the ordeal of confession. The lines are short, each having four stresses, and most of the words in the poem are single-syllable. Twenty-one of the poem’s twenty-four lines end on a word of one syllable, and all of the rhymes are stressed—that is, all are masculine rhymes. These structural features suggest fleeting impressions, impatience, rapid movement, even hurried breath. Sometimes, too, vividly expressive language, such as scuffing steps and a slat shooting back, contrasts with language that conveys an ironically indistinct formality, such as “The robed repositor of truth.”

Sound, too, plays a major role in the poem. Both consonance and assonance are used liberally to convey the young man’s agitation, as in the opening lines: “Blood thudded in my ears. I scuffed,/ Steps stubborn, to the telltale booth.” The repeated vowel sounds in “blood,” “thudded,” “scuffed” and, in the second line, “stubborn” mimic the thumping of the young man’s heartbeat; the resistant shuffle of his feet is echoed in the alliteration of “scuffed,” “steps,” and “stubborn.” Even the word “telltale” suggests that the young man may be somewhat tongue-tied before his confessor.

Although the lines are relatively and uniformly short, Kennedy varies the length of his sentences to express dramatic shifts. In the confessional booth,...

(The entire section is 452 words.)