Confessional poetry is a branch of Postmodernism that emerged in the United States in the 1950s. It is a style of poetry that is personal, often making use of a first-person narrator. The use of this particular perspective makes it likely that a great majority of these poems are reflective of the poet’s own life. But, this is certainly not always the case.
The Origins of Confessional Poetry
The term “confessional” was first used by a reviewer looking over Robert Lowell’s fourth book, Life Studies in 1959. The reviewer, a man by the name of M. L. Rosenthal, described Lowell as moving beyond what other poets had engaged in when it came to sharing one’s emotions and experiences. The poems, Rosenthal stated, read as personal confidences. Readers connected with Lowell’s desire to engage personally. He broke through the barriers of the traditional, idealized poetic figure and became an individual, one of a kind and relatable to those who sought out his work.
Life Studies served as more than just a conduit for the creation of the term “confessional” though. It changed the face of poetry and influenced some of the major writers of the budding movement, such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Prior to its solidification in the late 1950s, poets such as John Berryman and Delmore Schwartz were writing works that are now considered as confessional poems. The former, Berryman, compiled a collection of sonnets that described his own infidelity.
Confessional Poetry Today
Just as modernism pushed back against traditional forms of poetry from prior decades and centuries, there was a reaction to confessional poetry from writers in the 70s and 80s. These poets saw the movement as much too sentimental and self-indulgent and eventually cast aside the free verse style that had become popular and reinstated meter and rhyme within the New Formalism movement. That being said, it is impossible to ignore the influence that the movement has had on writing since the term “confessional poetry” was first coined in 1959. Today, its impact can be felt in contemporary poetry and memoirs. Most interestingly though it has influenced the vastly popular style of slam or spoken word poetry. some of the most moving examples of slam poetry come from writers who bare their personal experiences on stage and are able to engage with the audience in a meaningful way.
Who are the most important poets of the movement?
When you first think of confessional poetry and the emotionally poignant and tortured themes underlying these works, writers such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath come to mind. But, there are a great deal more who often go under-appreciated but made important contributions to this particular movement.
For an example of individual experience chronicled in poetry, let’s take a look at Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’. It is a deceivingly simple poem, structured in the form of a villanelle. Here are stanzas five and six:
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Within the poem Bishop utilizes the first-person perspective, appearing to address her own losses, from the life-altering to the simply irritating. The speaker meditates on what it means to lose something, and how through practice, she has come to master it.‘I Am In Need of Music’ is another great example of Bishop’s work. Other writers you should know who wrote in the confessional style are Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg and John Berryman.
Other Examples of Confessional Poetry
It is impossible to discuss confessional poetry without considering the work of Sylvia Plath. She penned some of the best, and most skillfully crafted, examples of this style that still resonate, at a deep level, with contemporary lovers of poetry. Some examples include ‘Daddy,’ ‘Lady Lazarus,’ ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ and ‘Morning Song’. Plath’s writing is noted for its autobiographical elements and the way she was willing to show, what seemed like anyway, her true emotions, no matter their complexity.
Her subject matter often reflected her state of mind, and a reader can find examples of her personal battle with depression and suicidal tendencies. Within ‘Daddy’ Plath meditates on her incredibly complicated relationship with her father who died when she was only eight years old. She moves through the poem depicting her father in a variety of ways, the most well-remembered is her description of him as a Nazi officer.
Let’s take a look at another one of Plath’s best confessional poems, ‘Lady Lazarus’. Here are stanzas six and seven:
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
‘Lady Lazarus’ was published in 1965 after Plath’s death. Throughout the text there are references to mythology, suicide, and as the title suggests, rebirth. Plath discusses her attempts to take her own life as moments of resurrection, rather than failures. This piece becomes even more poignant when one considers that Plath did die by suicide two years before this poem was published.
Here are a few more examples of the most important confessional poems of the mid to late 1900s:
- ‘A Country Life’ by Randall Jarrell
- ‘Amends‘ by Adrienne Rich
- ‘For My Lover Returning to His Wife’ by Anne Sexton