Is ‘Confessional Poetry’ still a relevant term

By Momina Mela

Confessional poetry has always faced the difficulty of carving out a definition for itself, particularly due to the auto-biographical elements attached to it and the various psychological interpretations it issues. The act of confessing depicts a disclosure of ‘sinful’ activities or intentions and brings forth the admittance of one’s guilt, thereby attaching an accusatory semblance to the work of confessional poets. The term itself was coined by M.L Rosenthal in reviewing Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, who immediately realized the problem with using this term as he later made a statement in The New Poets against its usage: ‘It was a term both helpful and too limited, and very possibly the conception of a confessional school has by now done a certain amount of damage.’

life studies

The damage is closely linked to the need to classify recurring thematic features which confessional poets usually deal with, such as suicide, mental illness and family conflicts, without considering the wider field of their work. It is true particularly with female American poets that the recurrence of these bold and explicit issues allows for their work to be categorised under ‘confessional poetry’, however the term often becomes redundant through misinterpretation.

The misreading of the term occurs through tension between the magnified persona of the poet and the poet as a distanced observer of the text. Michael Hoffman, in his essay, ‘I Happen to Believe’, points towards the function of the confessional poem:

The poem may not get written without its hurt or its drama, but it’s not the hurt or the drama that make it a poem. These things are, literally and punningly, a ‘’pre-text’’… A ‘’confessional poem’’ is a contradiction in terms: the real action has, by definition, already taken place elsewhere.

He describes the confessional poem as an event, rather than a therapeutic outpour of emotions. Emotion is not absent from the poem and as Hoffman points out by reference to ‘pre-text’, it is in fact used as material for the poem. Although criticized for being solipsistic and self-absorbed, confessional poetry in theory is significantly rooted in the Romantic tradition, where Wordsworth’s notion of, ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ can be applied to the confessional school. The implementation of emotion is observed as having evolved from the melancholic nostalgia of the Romantics, to a broader expression of emotional disorder that deals with more concrete and physical aspects of the poet’s life.

TS Eliot

It is also interesting to take T.S Eliot’s famous essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, written in 1919 where he proposes that the biggest critic of modern poetry is tradition, which attempts ‘judge’ a text in terms of the wider existing literary canon: He points out that ‘every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind.’

The creative and critical turn of mind redirects from prior established traditions, and in the case of confessional poetry the judgement usually occurs due to the intensely inward approach taken by the poets. In regards to the relationship between poetry and emotion, Eliot offers an approach of ‘depersonalisation’:

The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all..

Eliot, unintentionally offers an apt description of confessional poetry, as he is conscious of how the placement of emotion within poetry ‘depersonalizes’ the work of the poet. The act of crafting emotion into poetry itself is a depersonalizing act as the reconstruction of the poet’s private experience for a public readership does to a great extent disconnect the author from the text.

In comparison to female confessional poets, male confessional poetry has been regarded with less ridicule as accusations of being merely ‘therapeutic’. This is often due to the detachment which occurs with the adoption of personas, even though female poets such as Sexton, Plath and even Olds integrate the use of personas in their work as well. Male poets have, throughout history seen women as symbolic subjects or muses within literature, depicted as lovers or mythologized figures which act as extensions of the male persona. Sandra M.Gilbert writes inplath1 regards to the predicament of the male confessional poet in ‘My Name Is Darkness: The Poetry of Self-Definition’:

The male confessional poet-Lowell, Berryman, Yeats-writes in the certainty that he is the inheritor of major traditions, the grandson of history, whose very anxieties, as Harold Bloom has noted, are defined by the ambiguities of the past that has shaped him as it shaped his fathers. The female poet, however, even when she is not consciously confessional like Plath or Sexton, writes in the hope of discovering or defining a self, a certainty, a tradition.

The act of defining a new tradition while breaking off from the notion of representing women as a mere reflection to the male poets has been a significant aspect of the establishing the female confessional school.

Because of the ‘male myths’ surrounding the portrayal of femininity, it becomes necessary for female poets to demythologize these myths in order to form a more concrete depiction of womanhood. This is accompanied by the anxieties and troubles linked to femininity which issues a truer, more relevant response to the adopted female personas projected by men.

all my pretty ones
In an interview in 1970, Sexton commented on the disassociation of personal thoughts from the poetic speaker in reference to one of her later poems, All My Pretty Ones: ‘You don’t solve problems in writing. They’re still there. I’ve heard psychiatrists say, “See, you’ve forgiven your father. There it is in your poem.” But I haven’t forgiven my father. I just wrote that I did’. Sandra Gilbert writes in regards to the tension between voices in the confessional mode:

For as she struggles to define herself, to reconcile male myths about her with her own sense of herself, to find some connection between the name the world has given her and the secret name she has given herself, the woman poet inevitably postulates that perhaps she has not one but two (or more) selves, making her task of self-definition bewilderingly complex.

The presence of multiple voices and personas deflects from the theory that confessional poetry is primarily autobiographical. In the process of defining herself, Sexton is equally conscious of portraying femininity in a new light by culminating the various personas of women, both mythological and real, in order to illustrate a wider framework of femininity.

Confessionalism thus presents itself as a technique of unmasking truths beyond merely the individual self.

In addition to the various implications of Sexton’s poetry and the thematic concerns it carries it becomes necessary to examine, specifically in terms of the violence it depicts and its connection with aspects of the physical female body. Philip McGowan writes in regards to Sexton’s use of language:

Her poetry operates to deconstruct such forms of masculine language from within; the empowered positions within her writing are ultimately those of the female voicings realized through the codes and strategies of Sexton’s concentrated poetic style.

Sharon-Olds247x165Sharon Olds has often been categorised under the term ‘neo-confessionalism’, which indicates a progression from the confessional style of Sexton and Plath, yet assists in maintaining the notion that ‘confessional’ is still an aptly prevalent term. Olds, like many of her predecessors has attempted to shake off this label, particularly due to the literal association of confession as an act of redemption. In an interview for ‘Poets and Writer’s Magazine’, in 1993 Sharon Old’s commented on being distinguished as a confessional poet:

I have an old-fashioned vision of the word confession. I believe that a confession is a telling, publicly or privately, of a wrong that one has done, which one regrets. And the confession is a way of trying to get to the other side and change one’s nature..So I have written two or three confessional poems. I would use the phrase apparently personal poetry for the kind of poetry that I think people are referring to as “confessional.” Apparently personal because how do we really know? We don’t.

Like Sexton, Olds argues about the apparent truth that comes with writing biographically and the fact that the reader is bound to be deceived by the illusion of truth it provides.
Through the lens of female poets, confessional poetry has been subjected to various transformations, and has given way to a repeatedly inept anne sextonmanner of classification that does not do justice to the significantly large amount of work that is produced in its reflection. ‘Confessional poetry’ can be viewed as an amorphous term, one that cannot contain the overwhelming need to articulate a diverse set of experiences, and is likely to change in the face of evolving social circumstances. Today, the ‘I’ in poetry is not an isolated, disturbed or insecure figure; it functions within
and outside of itself. The duty of the poem’s ‘I’ is not merely to tell us a sad story or pity the poet’s presumed brokenness but is a way of bringing language, in all of its chaos and subtlety, closer to the self and inadvertently to the reader.

In the contemporary realm of poetry, the term ‘confessional’ is dwindling; perhaps due to the increasing amount of typically ‘confessional’ poetry being written by men who somehow escape the label. Or perhaps the notion of achieving redemption through writing being classified as a ‘female thing’ is finally making us shudder.