Robert (Schaeffer) Phillips L. S. Dembo - Essay

L. S. Dembo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a description of a general tendency in post World War Two American poetry, the term "confessional" is probably useful enough. Robert Lowell casually applied it to his own work in a Paris Review interview several years ago and M. L. Rosenthal succeeded in giving it currency in The New Poets (1967). Now [in The Confessional Poets] Mr. Phillips has come along with a whole book on the subject, seeking to establish the emergence of a "movement" or "school" or, at the very least, a "mode." Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, and possibly Anne Sexton are the cofounders … and John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, and Sylvia Plath are among the chief practitioners. Mr. Phillips summarizes their work thus:

It is highly subjective.
It is an expression of personality, not an escape from it.
It is therapeutic and/or purgative.
Its emotional content is personal rather than impersonal.
It is most often narrative.
It portrays unbalanced, afflicted, or alienated protagonists.

—and so forth…. He then devotes a chapter to each poet in which, as he says, he serves as a reader's guide.

All in all, it is a tedious business, and it is so precisely because Mr. Phillips never gets beyond the kind of general description to which the term "confessional" is limited. His explications usually being little...

(The entire section is 464 words.)