Confessional Poetry

In 1959, M.L. Rosenthal reviewed Robert Lowell's book Life Studies (1959) in The Nation. In his review, he wrote about how poets were shedding the mask that prevented them from describing their own life experiences, and thus, the term Confessional Poetry was born. Confessional Poetry was a literary movement born in the late 1950s that honestly and directly spoke about the poet's own life experiences, often remarking on the psychological battles they have faced. 

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Table of contents

    The origins and history of the Confessional Poetry Movement

    Four poets are historically associated with the origins of the Confessional Poetry movement: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and W.D. Snodgrass. Prior to Confessional Poetry, traditional American poems separated the poet and the speaker of the poem, creating a distance between the experiences of the poet and the experiences of the speaker in the poem. The Confessional Poetry Movement's importance to the history of Modern American poetry cannot be underestimated.

    Have you ever wondered what the difference between a narrator and a speaker is? Well, in longer books and novels, the one who tells the story is the narrator, but in poetry, the one who tells the poem is the speaker!

    Confessional Poetry originated in a rapidly changing America. The notion of the "American Dream", which many strived for, was being questioned by counterculture movements. The United States saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, advocating for the equal right and protection of citizens of color, the Arms Race with Russia during the Cold War, and rapid technological innovations such as color TV. These are all important events in American history.

    Confessional Poetry A woman covering her face with her hands and two other hands are on her head StudySmarter Psychological experience, Pixabay

    As a way to counteract mainstream American culture and belief, Confessional Poets fought the notion of a gap between speaker and poet. Confessional Poets wrote in a way that was direct and colloquial that reflected traumatic and psychologically impactful experiences from their own lives. Confessional poets decided to stick to real facts and strayed away from the use of metaphors to describe real experiences or people. However, many Confessional Poets still used literary devices and figurative language in their poetry. Confessional poets use of literary devices and figurative language is more free-flowing than in previous styles of poetry. Privacy, which was a main topic of debate during the Cold War, was not important to the Confessional Poets. Rather they wished to share publicly their experiences in a way that created a new idea of what privacy meant.

    Colloquial— The use of informal or familiar language. An example is saying "gonna" rather than "going to".

    As the popularity of Confessional Poetry began to rapidly grow in the 1960s, the form in which it was delivered also changed. Confessional Poets were now performing their poems during poetry readings and used various styles of performance to convey a sense of intimacy, exposition, and truth sharing.

    Confessional Poetry A Typewriter StudySmarter Typewriter, Pixabay

    By 1970, Confessional Poetry was losing steam as compared to when it originated but rather than completely disappear it simply morphed into other poetry movements including Slam Poetry and Performance Poetry. Modern criticism of Confessional Poetry states that Confessional Poetry was too exclusively white, middle to upper class, and heterosexual/heteronormative. Many claim, however, that the works of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were incredibly impactful when it came to discussing violence towards females.

    Slam Poetry and Performance Poetry are two forms of poetry that originated from Confessional Poetry. Slam poetry is a competitive spoken poetry event where poets must perform in front of judges and an audience and Performance Poetry is poetry that is written with the intent that it will be performed. Both break away from traditional and rigid poetic structures.

    Key characteristics of Confessional Poetry

    Confessional Poetry has a few key characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of poetry. They include intimate subject matters, the use of the first-person point of view, autobiographical experiences, and careful use of craftsmanship.

    Confessional Poetry: Intimate Subject Matter

    Confessional Poets were not unique to write about emotions and feelings, but they were unique in the way they wrote about intimate, highly emotional, and psychological experiences that were considered taboo such as depression, suicide, drug use, alcoholism, and sexuality. Subjects once considered too shameful to speak about publicly, Confessional Poets were now openly discussing them. A very famous example is Sylvia Plath's Confessional Poem 'Daddy' (1965). In the poem, she compares her father to a Nazi and herself to a Jew during the Holocaust. She openly discusses a hatred for her father and speaks of her own suicide attempts.

    "Daddy, I have had to kill you" (Stanza 2)

    "I have always been scared of you" (Stanza 9)

    "At twenty I tried to die" (Stanza 12)

    Rather than use metaphors or euphemistic language, Sylvia Plath directly states her hatred for her father and a suicide attempt at the age of twenty. Both were and sometimes still are very taboo topics, but as most Confessional Poets did she simply wrote what she felt and experienced.

    Confessional Poetry: First Person Point of View

    All Confessional Poetry is written from the First Person Point of View which means that the speaker of the poem is telling the poem from their point of view. First Person Point of View is indicated by the use of "I". By using the First Person Point of View, the poet is closing the gap between the speaker of the poem and the poet itself. It is a way of inviting the reader into the mind of the poet while also inviting the reader to relate and perhaps place themselves into the shoes of the poet/speaker. This allows readers with similar life experiences to feel heard and seen by another and to realize perhaps they are not alone in their struggles.

    In Anne Sexton's intimate poem, 'All My Pretty Ones' (1962) she discusses her relationship with her alcoholic father and the pain and suffering his alcoholism had on her and her mother. In the poem she uses the first person to describe her life events:

    My God, father, each Christmas Day with your blood,

    will I drink down your glass?....

    Whether you are pretty or not, I will outlive you,

    bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you" (Stanza 5).

    Here Anne Sexton uses the first-person point of view, indicated by the use of the word "I", and she speaks directly to her father in a confrontational way.

    Read the full poem 'All My Pretty Ones' by Anne Sexton. Why do you think Anne Sexton's use of the first person makes the poem more impactful? Try to think of how it might relate to a reader who has gone through a similar experience as Sexton.

    Confessional Poetry: Autobiographical Experiences

    As previously mentioned, Confessional Poetry contains the real-life events and experiences of the poet. Confessional Poets did not make up stories, they simply drew stories from their own life and oftentimes focused on the less appealing, sadder aspects of life such as struggles with mental illness and trauma. Confessional Poetry, therefore, is autobiographical and forms the basis of what modern-day autobiographies and memoirs are like today. There are countless examples as all Confessional poems are autobiographical.

    In Robert Lowell's 'Waking in the Blue'(1959), which is considered one of the first Confessional Poems appearing in Life Studies, he openly discusses his experience in a Boston mental institution confessing his own struggles with mental illness. He begins the poem by talking about a B.U. sophomore night attendant he'd watch "catwalking" in the halls, desiring her (Stanza 1). Lowell, during a manic state, while at the mental institution did fall in love with a night attendant and obsessed with her, therefore Lowell draws from his own life experiences throughout the poem.

    Confessional Poetry: Careful Craftsmanship

    While Confessional Poets did avoid describing their real-life events through metaphors, most wrote in very lyrical forms and focused on the use of literary devices. Literary devices such as metaphors, allusion, aphorisms, and imagery are commonly found and only enhance the Confessional Poets' lyrical language. This engages the reader and allows them to stay interested in the main topic of the poem, even if it is considered unsavory. W.D. Snodgrass is considered to have the most lyrical language of the Confessional Poets for his careful attention to detail and craftsmanship. Below is an excerpt from W.D. Snodgrass's poem 'A Locked House' (1959):

    As we drove back, crossing the hill,

    The house still

    Hidden in the trees, I always thought--

    A fool's fear-- that it might have caught

    Fire, someone could have broken in.

    As if things must have been

    Too good here. Still, we always found

    It locked, tight, safe and sound" (Stanza 1).

    In this excerpt alone we get insight into Snodgrass's use of literary devices to create a uniquely composed, very lyrical poem. There is a casual rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD. He also uses sound devices such as alliteration with phrases like "fool's fear" and "safe and sound". Notice also how sentences flow over multiple lines of the stanza. This is referred to as enjambment. Here Snodgrass separates the sentence over different lines usually using a word at the beginning of the line he'd like to emphasize such as "Fire" and "Too good". Overall, Snodgrass's careful attention to lyrical craftsmanship makes his poems flow nicely and sound impactful when read aloud.

    Remember that Confessional Poetry was often read aloud as spoken word. Reread Snodgrass's poem 'A Locked House' aloud and focus on how the way it is written impacts the rhythm and flow in which it is spoken.

    Examples of Confessional Poets and Poetry

    The four most notable and important Confessional Poets include Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

    Confessional Poetry: Robert Lowell

    Confessional Poetry The city of Boston StudySmarter Boston, Pixabay

    Robert Lowell (1917-1977) grew up in Boston and attended Harvard College where he continued to pursue his interests in poetry which began in high school after he met the poet Richard Eberhart. While at Harvard, Lowell also met the poet Robert Frost. In 1959, he published a poetry book titled Life Studies which highlights very personal stories. In Life Studies, Lowell used loose forms and meters which is in contrast to his more traditional forms of poetry from the 1940s. By the 1960s, Lowell's poetry began to be more public and in the 1970s his poetry combined both traditional and more loose forms of poetry.

    Lowell won many awards for his contributions to poetry including a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his second volume of poems, Lord Weary's Castle, and a National Book Award in 1960 for Life Studies. Lowell explored many themes in his poetry, drawing on his own life experiences with death, mental illness, politics, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

    Poetry by Lowell:

    • Lord Weary's Castle (1946)
    • Life Studies (1959)
    • 'For the Union Dead' (1964)
    • 'The Old Glory' (1965)
    • Notebook (1970)

    Confessional Poetry: W.D. Snodgrass

    After serving in the US Navy as a typist during WWI, Snodgrass (1926-2009), originally born in Pennsylvania, attended the University of Iowa where he studied under the Confessional Poet Robert Lowell. With the help of Lowell, Snodgrass was able to publish his autobiographical book Heart's Needle (1959), which was purely Confessional in style and even influenced his teacher Lowell to explore Confessional poetry. Despite denying his status as a Confessional Poet, his nearly 30 books of poetry are considered foundational to the movement.

    Poetry by W.D Snodgrass:

    • Heart's Needle (1959)
    • After Experience: Poems and Translations (1968)
    • 'The Boy Made of Meat' (1983)
    • 'The Death of Cock Robin' (1989)

    Confessional Poetry: Anne Sexton

    Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was born in Massachusetts where she grew up and attended school. In 1954, after a manic episode she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and in 1955 her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, encouraged her to write poetry. Sexton was successful early in her career with some of her poems appearing in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and The Saturday Review. Under the teachings of Robert Lowell and the mentorship of W.D. Snodgrass, Sexton perfected her poetic style. She was close friends with Sylvia Plath, another famous Confessional Poet. Not long after she began her writing career, Sexton was gaining fame and even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for her poetry book Live or Die (1966). Her work focused on themes such as the experiences of women, alcoholism, and mental illness.

    Poetry by Anne Sexton:

    • All My Pretty Ones (1962)
    • Live or Die (1966)
    • Mercy Street (1969)
    • Death Notebooks (1974)

    Confessional Poetry: Sylvia Plath

    Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and attended Smith College. By the age of eight years old Plath had already published her first poem in the Boston Herald. Before becoming a nationally known poet, Plath was already publishing many of her poems in magazines with her first national publication appearing in the Christain Science Monitor. Plath was heavily influenced by other famous poets such as Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats, and Marianne Moore. Plath was clinically depressed and attempted suicide for the first time in 1953. Plath's poetry volume Ariel (1965) made Plath increasingly more popular after her death. Her poetry is a direct reflection of her experiences with depression, trauma, and death. Plath committed suicide in 1963 and was the fourth person to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1982 for her posthumous publication The Collected Poems (1981).

    Poetry by Sylvia Plath:

    • 'Lady Lazarus' (1981)
    • 'Daddy' (1965)
    • 'Ariel' (1965)
    • 'Poppies in October' (1962)

    Confessional Poetry - Key takeaways

    • Confessional Poetry is a type of poetry that originated in the late 1950s and 1960s. Confessional Poetry focuses on the real-life experiences and history of the poet, including emotional and psychological trauma, and bridges the gap between poet and speaker of the poem.
    • The four most notable and important Confessional Poets include Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.
    • The four key characteristics of Confessional Poetry are intimate subject matters, the use of the first-person point of view, autobiographical experiences, and careful use of craftsmanship.
    • Confessional Poetry was meant to be read aloud and performed as spoken word. Although the movement lost popularity in the 1970s it influenced other poetry movements such as Slam Poetry and Performance Poetry.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Confessional Poetry

    Who is known as a Confessional poet? 

    Examples of Confessional Poets include Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. 

    What is the style of Confessional Poetry? 

    Confessional Poetry's style is honest and direct about the poet's own life experiences, often remarking on the psychological battles they have faced.  

    Is 'Lady Lazarus' an example of Confessional Poetry? 

    Yes, 'Lady Lazarus' by Sylvia Plath is a famous example of Confessional Poetry. 

    What are the characteristics of Confessional Poetry? 

    The four key characteristics of Confessional Poetry are intimate subject matters, the use of the first-person point of view, autobiographical experiences, and careful use of craftsmanship. 

    Why is Kamala Das known as a Confessional Poet? 

    Kamala Das is a mid-century Indian poet known for her Confessional Poetry that spoke honestly about the sexual lives of women. 

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