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Confessional Poets

The confessional poets made poetry truly personal. There was no subject they wouldn't broach when they delved into their own psyche. Confessional poets constantly blurred the line between the poet and a poem's speaker. 

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Confessional Poets

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The confessional poets made poetry truly personal. There was no subject they wouldn't broach when they delved into their own psyche. Confessional poets constantly blurred the line between the poet and a poem's speaker.

Confessional poets: origins of the poetry movement

Confessional poetry is a movement that came to prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s in the United States. The confessional poets wrote deeply personal poems, often tackling complex subjects like mental health and sexuality. The poems are described as confessional because they explore the depths of human experience. Rather than focus on the everyday aspects of life, the confessional poets would often explore life's darker moments.

Previously critics would stress a separation between a poet and the poem's speaker. Confessional poetry changed the way readers viewed poetry. Poets would refer to experiences they had and reference real people involved in the poet's life. Some confessional poets discussed their failing marriages, while others spoke of suicide attempts. The openness of confessional poetry was seen as a reaction to the conventional ideals of domesticity held at the time.

Confessional poets often used direct language and intense imagery through metaphor to reflect on their experiences. The language used is often simple and colloquial when depicting traumatic events. Some critics have described the style as a form of lyric poetry, while others have argued that it is an extension of the Postmodernism movement. Some prominent confessional poets include Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton. W.B Snodgrass is also widely regarded as the 'father' of confessional poetry.

Confessional Poets, two masks one blue and one purple containing different emotive words, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The confessional poets were not afraid to explore their emotions.

Confessional poetry characteristics

This section will include an exploration of some of the more common characteristics found in confessional poetry with some examples of the poems that use them.

The 'I'

Confessional poetry is a highly personal style of poetry. There is not the usual distinction between the poet and a poem's speaker. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poems are almost always presented from the first-person point of view. Sometimes poems are written in the second person point of view, but it is from the perspective of the speaker (or poet) directing their speech at another. Using the first person can help the reader experience what the poet or speaker feels.

The taboo

Confessional poets would delve into personal experiences for a poem's subject matter. The poets do not refrain from reflecting on their emotional trauma or feelings during these times. As a result, the subject matter can often be seen as taboo. These could range from a poet meditating on their failing marriage, like Robert Lowell's 'The Old Flame' (1959), or tackling their own mental health like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Other subjects broached by confessional poets include suicide, sexuality and alcoholism.

Confessional Poets, a laptop book and phone chained together, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Confessional poets were unafraid to broach subjects considered taboo by others.

Lyrical language

The language used by confessional poets is often direct and colloquial, but this does not mean they eschew poetic technique or lyricism. Poets often made the rhythm of their poems match normal speech patterns. They would use vivid imagery through metaphor or aphorisms to depict personal experiences. In the poem, 'Ariel' (1965), Sylvia Plath uses an extended metaphor of a horse ride to muse on leaving behind her previous troubled life.

Confessional poets

This section will look at the biographies of some of the more prominent confessional poets.

W. B. Snodgrass

Despite disliking the title, W. B. Snodgrass is considered the 'father' of confessional poetry. Snodgrass was born in Pennsylvania, USA, and studied under fellow confessional poet Robert Lowell. His first collection, Heart's Needle (1959), was a deeply personal account of his detachment from his daughter following a divorce. It was considered one of the first examples of confessional poetry and won Snodgrass the Pulitzer Prize.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell was born on 1st March 1917, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. In the 1940s, Lowell wrote more traditional forms of poetry using rhyme and meter. Towards the end of the 1950s, he began writing more personal poetry. Lowell's collection Life Studies (1959) was another early example of confessional poetry. The collection used less traditional techniques and explored the psychological and familial struggles he faced at the time.

Robert Lowell had taught many of the confessional poets at Boston University, including Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. He was also friends with the poets Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams.

Sylvia Plath

Born on 27th October 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, Sylvia Plath is perhaps the most well-known of the confessional poets. Plath could be considered more famous for her troubled personal life, which is reflected in her poetry. Plath wrote poems about her struggles with mental health and often referenced her suicide attempts. She also wrote about her fractious relationship with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and her father. Plath committed suicide in 1962, at the age of 30.

Confessional poetry examples

This section will look at some of the more popular examples of confessional poetry, looking at their context, form, and structure.

'Daddy' (1965)

Sylvia Plath's poem was written in 1962 and at a tumultuous period in the poet's life. Plath wrote the poem not long after she separated from the poet Ted Hughes and not long before she took her own life. The poem speaks of Plath's difficult relationship with her father, Otto. The poem compares Otto Plath's oppressive nature with that of her husband. The poem consists of 16 quintains and has no consistent meter or rhyme scheme.

A quintain is a poetic stanza formed of five lines.

'Night Sweats' (1964)

Robert Lowell's poem 'Night Sweats' is from his collection For the Union Dead (1964). The poem is a highly personal account of a writer's anxiety and fear of an incapacity to write. Robert Lowell had difficulties with mental health and anxiety which are reflected in this biographical poem. The poem depicts the sometimes crippling nature anxiety can hold in the night.

The poem has a unique form of two sonnets put together to make one 28-line poem. Lines 1-14 are in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet followed by the Petrarchan form in the remaining lines. The poem follows the rules for each form and therefore has two rhyme schemes; the opening quatrain has a rhyme scheme of ABBA and the following two a rhyme scheme ABAB with a rhyming couplet for lines 13-14. The following Petrarchan half has a rhyme scheme of ABAB CAAC DEF FED.

A quatrain is a stanza of four lines that often rhyme.

Usually a Shakespearean sonnet would have three quatrains with an ABAB rhyme scheme. This could be the poet hinting at the speaker's tired nature.

'Her Kind' (1960)

From the collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back' (1960), Anne sexton's poem has a speaker who takes on the persona of various witch-like characters. Each of these women rejects traditional views of womanhood and find themselves ostracized for it. The speaker then goes on to say how these women can find kinship with each other and strive to live outside the patriarchy. The poem is made up of three septets and told in free verse, perhaps to reflect the wild nature of the characters.

Free verse is poetry that does not use traditional poetic techniques such as rhyme or meter.

Contemporary confessional poets

Although confessional poetry came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, the style remains popular in modern poetry. Marie Howe and Sharon Olds are two popular poets who often publish highly personal poems that are considered contemporary confessional poetry.

Olds' poetry often tackles themes such as sexuality and gender discrepancies. Olds' personal poems have won her acclaim internationally, winning both the Pulitzer Prize in the United States and the T.S Eliot prize in the United Kingdom. Marie Howe's collection What the Living Do (1997) is a highly personal account of her brother's death from an HIV-related illness.

Confessional Poets - Key takeaways

  • Confessional poetry is a movement that came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s in America.
  • The confessional poets wrote highly personal poems that dealt with difficult subjects.
  • WB Snodgrass is considered the father of confessional poetry.
  • The characteristics of confessional poetry are; the personal, the taboo and the lyrical language.
  • The purpose of confessional poetry is for readers to understand how the poet may be feeling.

Frequently Asked Questions about Confessional Poets

The most famous confessional poet is Sylvia Plath.

The characteristics of the confessional poet are; The 'I', the taboo and also use of lyrical language.

'Daddy' (1965) by Sylvia Plath is a famous example of confessional poetry.

The main purpose of confessional poetry is to put the reader in the shoes of the poet.

WB Snodgrass is widely regarded as the 'father' of confessional poetry.

More about Confessional Poets

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