Confessional Poetry and the Most Remarkable Confessional Poets in History

Can you still recall the poems that you wrote back when you were still in your teenage years?

Most poets would probably rather shut their mouths or munch on painted chips instead of sharing their poetry filled with teen angst.

Teenage poetry is usually raw, sloppy, drippy, self-centred, histrionic, and overdone, oh so they say, I think child and teenage poetry is of great importance.

As it is usually written without a filter and confessional poetry, is the same, confessional poets, lay-out their wounds,  warts and all, some confessional potes find it a great healing tool on their, self-healing / personal development journeys.

 However, there are some valuable lessons that you can learn if you try to remember the way that you used to write well before you even dreamed of publishing a poem.

Poetry comes in all forms and styles. The specific type of poetry that is most often linked with the personal emotional journey of the poet is known as confessional poetry. This style, in particular, is a favourite among most editors of literary magazines and journals as it demonstrates reflection and intimacy.

 

A dirty and quick definition of confessional poetry is a type of poetry focusing on the “I.” Poems, which tackle, transgressive subjects or subjects that “polite society” opts to disregard or set aside.

 

 

This style of poetry is unflinching, emotive, fearless, and raw. Confessional poetry or soul poetry is also personal and often makes use of first-person narrator. This is the branch of Postmodernism that rose to popularity during 1950s in the United States.

 

The use of first-person perspective means that most of the poems in the category are a reflection of the personal life of the poet, although this might not be the case all the time.

What is Confessional Poetry?

It was in September 1959 when the term “confessional poetry” became popularly used.

M.L. Rosenthal, a critic, coined this phrase during his review of Life Studies in the Nation by Robert Lowell. The said book marked a dramatic turn in Lowell’s career as it contained poems that unsparingly discussed his experiences of generational struggle, mental illness, and marital strife.

People have a long-standing love for poetry, but according to Rosenthal, Lowell was able to remove that mask that past poets used to wear every time they write about their personal lives.

Life Studies contained poems that felt like they are a series of personal confidences instead of shameful that anyone is honour-bound to not reveal it.

Confessional poetry, for many modern critics, marked the revolution in the style of poetry and the specific subject matter as well as the relationship between the self and speaker of the poem.

A confessional poet often, writes in colloquial and direct speech rhythms with the use of images reflecting intense psychological experiences,  that are usually culled from battles with breakdown or mental illness and childhood. 

Confessional poets had the tendency to use sequences with emphasis on connections between the poems.

 

They were able to base their work on real-life events, pertaining to actual persons with a refusal of a metaphorical transformation of the intimate details to more universal symbols.

During 1950s and 1960s, years that abound with New Criticism dictating that the poem’s speaker and the power were not coincident, the confessional poets insisted that it was completely the opposite.

 The breaches in social and poetic decorum were connected. Deborah Nelson, a scholar, stated that the innovation of Lowell was making himself available not as a universal and abstract poet and instead, more as a specific person in a specific time and place.

 

Confessional poetry was already the trend during the time when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a decade after the first appearance of Life Studies.

When Harper’s magazine asked the novelist Joyce Carol Oates what must be placed inside a time capsule and left for intergalactic posterity on the moon, she recommended the confessional poems or Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, W.D Snodgrass, and Anne Sexton.

Oates cited the name of several American poets of the midcentury who continue being identified confessional in spite of the objections of the poets themselves.

 Though Heart’s Needle by Snodgrass was published in 1959 and deemed far and wide as among the first and first examples of confessional poetry, he didn’t like the term since it suggested that you were either writing religious topics and confessing that kind of thing or that what was written are bedroom memoirs, and Snodgrass stated that he wasn’t writing neither of the two.

Other poets who were also tangentially called confessional poets rejected the label as well, specifically Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop who lamented later on confessional poetry’s intense retrospection and wrote of the times as if they found themselves reduced to “I.”

Spotlight on poetry

The works of confessional poets and why they do it continues to be a subject of cultural and literary debate and criticism.

 Diane Middlebrook insisted that this term can be applied best to those books that were made during 1959 to 1966 instead of poets. Critics who wrote during 1960s through 1980s stated that confessional poetry was only lyric poetry’s extension.

Scholars more recently attempted to position the confessional turn in the historical moment.

 In a time of intense legal debates regarding privacy and Cold War “containment” culture, confessional poets created new zones for private experience and life.

 

They also took advantage of the changing conditions of reception and production with the use of performances, poetry readings, and new types of publicity for circulating their work.

Confessional poetry was not a mere form of presentation as this also serves as a lens that audiences can look into to understand not only the poems but also the poets themselves.

According to Christopher Grobe, the desire of the audience had changed during these years more than the art itself.

They are interested to know more about their poets, politicians, actors, and even news anchors.

Through this, confessional poetry was able to help inaugurate various artistic and social practices whose aimed is to uncover, expose, confess, and share new and more intimate versions of the distinct selves.

The works of confessional poets and why they do it continues to be a subject of cultural and literary debate and criticism.

 Diane Middlebrook insisted that this term can be applied best to those books that were made during 1959 to 1966 instead of poets. Critics who wrote during 1960s through 1980s stated that confessional poetry was only lyric poetry’s extension.

Scholars more recently attempted to position the confessional turn in the historical moment.

 In a time of intense legal debates regarding privacy and Cold War “containment” culture, confessional poets created new zones for private experience and life.

 

The book Life Studies by Lowell was a very personal account of his own life as well as his familial ties that had a remarkable impact on American poetry.

Sexton and Plath were both Lowell’s studies, and they noted that his work had a significant influenced on their own writing.

During the mid 20th century, confessional poetry touched on the subject matter that wasn’t discussed out in the open in American poetry.

Feelings about and private experiences with relationships, trauma, depression, and death were addressed in this form of poetry, typically in an autobiographical way.

 In particular, Sexton took an interest in poetry’s psychological aspect because she started to write upon the recommendation of her therapist.

Confessional poets don’t just record or pour their emotions using pen and paper.

 Construction and craft were of extreme importance in their work. Although some readers consider the way poets treat their poetic self as shocking and groundbreaking, these poets were able to maintain an exemplary level of craftsmanship thanks to their careful use of and attention to parody.

Plath’s Daddy was among the most famous poems of a confessional poet. She addressed the poem to her own father and contained references to the Holocaust with the use of a sing-song rhythm echoing childhood nursery rhymes.

John Berryman is another confessional poet of the generation. The Dream Songs was his major work, composed of 385 poems about the character called Henry and Mr. Bones, his friend. Most of these poems contain elements of the personal traumas and life of Berryman, including the suicide of his father.

The confessional poets during the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a form of poetry that was able to change the American poetry’s landscape forever.

The tradition of confessional poetry served as a major influence on writers of different generations that continue to this day and age. Sharon Olds and Marie Howe are two of the contemporary poets who personally draw on their own experiences every time they write.

The classics of this genre include Life Studies by Robert Lowell, which is the very first book ever called confessional poetry. Two of his poems, Home After Three Months Away and Waking in the Blue are both about problems of mental illness.

The latter’s setting is in a mental hospital, presumed to be McLean Hospital where Lowell was treated for his manic depression. The former occurred after he was his release and went back home.

More about confessional poems

W.D. Snodgrass, who claimed that he was already writing personal poems way before Lowell, his teacher, published the book entitled Heart’s Needle in the same year that Life Studies was released.

Most of the poems in the first collection are addressed to his daughter that was separated from him after his divorce six years earlier. Heart’s Needle is the titular poem that is worth the read despite its length.

Similar to her fellow confessional poets, Anne Sexton also studied under Robert Lowell. Suffering from mental illness, her therapist urged her to write poems. Wanting to Die, her poem from the Live or Die collection is a heartbreaking and intense look inside the mind of a suicidal. You, Dr Martin, is another poem by Sexton that was part of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, her first collection. This is another example of her confessional writing that happens in a mental hospital.

Sylvia Plath is probably the most popular out of all the poets in the group. Her poems are full of rage and tightly controlled. Lady Lazarus and Daddy are two of her most renowned poems that are brilliant examples of confessional poetry that deal with suicide attempts and her father’s death, respectively.

Similar to how modernism was pushed back against the traditional poetry forms from past centuries and decades, writers during the 70s and 80s also reacted to confessional poetry.

These poets deemed the movement as too self-indulgent and sentimental and later on dismissed the free verse style that became popular and once again reinstated the rhyme and meter in New Formalism movement.

But still, there is no way that people can ignore the significant influence of the movement on writing ever since the original coining of the phrase confessional poetry in 1959. To this day, its impact remains felt in contemporary memoirs and poetry.

What is even more interesting is that it has also influenced the vastly famous style spoken word or slam poetry, with some of the most touching slam poetry’s examples coming from writers who share their own experiences on stage and can engage with their audience in a more meaningful way.

Notable Confessional Poets

Now that you know what confessional poetry or soul poetry is about and you already had a glimpse of some of the most popular confessional poets, it is now time to delve deeper into them.

Some of the well-known Poets of confession

Sylvia Plath was an apprentice to classical form with Eliot, Pound, and Yeats as her major influences. She was only 8 years old when she published her first poem. Her single mother raised her alone after the death of her father when she was only 10 years old. Her poem Daddy chronicled how she symbolically killed the image of her father that she created in her mind.

 The speaker of the poem described her attempts of getting back to her father through killing herself and the way she created a model of him as a man in black with Meinkampf look as her way of coping with his death.

Throughout her school years, Plath was considered an overachiever who won various prizes for her poetry way before enrolling in Smith College. It was in college when she won the much-coveted Mademoiselle magazine’s guest editorship.

 She graduated with the highest honours in 1954 from Smith College and snagged the Fulbright scholarship to become a student at Oxford University. She attempted suicide in 1953, and throughout her life, Plath suffered from mental illness, including depressive and manic episodes. Eventually, she succeeded in committing suicide.

In spite of the mental and emotional inconsistency she went through, Plath was a respected and prolific poet throughout her life.

But, Ariel, a 1965 posthumous publication, is the collection that contained her most highly dramatic and skilled poem that also made her popular that practically made her a legend.

Ariel also generated lots of controversies about the circumstances of her death after her crumbled marriage with Ted Hughes, one of the most important poets of Great Britain.

This speculation and controversy have sometimes eclipsed her poetry, but more astute critics were able to recognize the brilliance of Plath’s practically mystical ability and technical skill to stir up reflective responses from her readers as shown in Ariel.

Robert Lowell, often dubbed as the founder of confessional poetry, was part of an upper-class family in Boston that included the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Amy Lowell and the ardent abolitionist and poet James Russell Lowell, his great-granduncle.

Robert enrolled at Harvard University but wasn’t able to graduate, and there was a point when he decided to go to Tennessee camp on the lawn of James Tate, the poet he looked up to.  

Influenced by modernist poets, including Pound, Eliot, and Yeats, Robert learned to appreciate their dedication to the classical form, making him proficient in it.

However, he felt that need to break away from what he called as the willfully difficult, symbol-ridden, and distant poems he was writing.

In his collection prose and poetry that became known as the landmark of confessional poetry, Life Studies, Robert experimented with a brand new style, and he earned great acclaim because of it.

Starting with his poem entitled Beyond the Alps that was written in a classical style that was complete with exact rhymes, the volume traced the familial influences of Lowell from childhood up to adulthood.

Revealing the complacency that only the wealthy can experience, Robert described the tradition of Europe’s grand tour that would be normal for a family just like his. With references to Greek mythology, Catholicism, Rome, and Paris, Robert maintained the classical tradition while giving confessional hints when referring to his family.

In his prose entitled 91 Revere Street, he chronicled the travails and trials of the early upbringing he had with his class-conscious and overbearing mother and his father who cannot seem to decide if he wanted to retire from the navy, combined by the pressure coming from Robert’s mother to make his father retire for the family to begin collecting from his trust fund.

Anne Sexton was a model turned confessional poet who wrote about her life’s intimate aspects after her doctor recommended that she start writing poems as a form of therapy.

 Sexton was a student of Robert Lowell at Boston University and among her classmates was Sylvia Plath. In 1967, Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, but he committed suicide later on through carbon monoxide poisoning. Some of the topics that her poems covered include despair, menstruation, masturbation, adultery, abortion, and suicide.

Plath and Sexton were in one workshop with Lowell at the same time. But, Sexton, unlike Plath, started to write poetry much later in life after years of institutionalization and suicide attempts when her therapist recommended her to try poetry as a therapy for her. She even watched a Public Broadcasting Service program regarding sonnets.

She even wrote a sonnet herself, and the results pleased her that she decided to enrol in a poetry workshop. There, she met the poet Maxine Kumin, her lifelong friend.

Sexton started publishing her work and won prizes for it. Even though there are critics who considered the topics of Sexton’s poems as inappropriate and even offensive, which included abortion and menstruation, others appreciated her risk-taking and directness and her technical proficiency.

One of the perfect examples of her confessional poem All My Pretty Ones was renowned for its willingness of addressing subjects typically regarded as unsuitable for poetry during that time.

 

This title poem showed ambivalence toward a parent’s death.

 

After the death of her mother, the speaker of the poem discovered photos among the things of her deceased father. Instead of cherishing these pictures, she threw them out. She addressed her father as a drunkard, and she found a 5-year diary kept by her mother that chronicled the alcoholic tendency of her father. Ultimately, the speaker was able to reconcile with her father.

Even though William DeWitt Snodgrass or simply W.D. Snodgrass was a student of Robert Lowell, he didn’t really label himself as a confessional poet.

The truth is that he didn’t even like the term due to its religious connotation and since critics link it with writing as a form of therapy. But, Snodgrass is generally considered as among the confessional movement’s founding members, mainly due to Heart’s Needle.

Born in Pennsylvania, Snodgrass worked as a typist during World War II in the US Navy and earned both his BA and MA at the University of Iowa. It was in Iowa where he studied under Lowell who had a great admiration for his poetry and even helped in looking for a publisher for his first poetry collection, Heart’s Needle.

His first book was highly autobiographical, the collection of poems that sensitively chronicled his divorce as well as his loss of his daughter’s custody as a result.

 It made him win the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and is also regarded by some as the start of the confessional style of poetry that would later on influence poets including Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and even his own teachers John Berryman and Lowell.

Snodgrass authored over 30 books of poetry, translations, and criticism while teaching for 40 years at various colleges.

Snodgrass was regarded as among the Confessional mode’s central figures even if he didn’t like the term and didn’t consider his work to belong to this category.

 Similar to other confessional poets, he was also at pains of revealing the violent and repressed feelings usually lurking under the surface of day to day life that seemed placid. This style was then imitated and there were instances when other poets were able to surpass it.

Conclusion

When Life Studies by Robert Lowell was first published in 1959, the word confessional started to be used when referring to poetry that described and drew from the personal experiences of the poets themselves. This usually included some sort of mental health treatment or psychological breakdown as well as familial conflicts that are showcased in a dramatic way.

The rise of confessional poetry was considered as a significant departure from the first half of the 20th century’s high modernism wherein the poets including T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and William Butler strived to impress their readers with their learnedness.

 These poets often used Latin and Greek and even referred works of art and artists that would only be familiar to those readers who have the same educational backgrounds as theirs.

These modernist poets made use of poetry as a form of escape from their personality, according to Eliot, and not necessarily a way of expressing personality, which happens to be the key motive of confessional poets.

Even though the word confessional pertains to the poems’ content instead of the techniques that confessional poets used, the poets themselves argued that they were only as technically and artistically conscious like their modernist predecessors and the only difference is that they are more accessible and direct in their respective subject matters.

The departure from modernism and its detachment spurred some controversies, and confessional poetry was not only extensively accepted as a form of legitimate art during the time of its origin.

Most of the critics and traditional poets regarded confessional poetry as solipsistic to the point of being narcissistic, and the subject matters like taboos and bodily functions are deemed as inappropriate.

However, through the years, confessional poetry became recognized as a form of art that shows the idea of the personal getting political, providing insight into family drama and psychological upheaval and the human heart being in conflict with itself, just as how it was described by the writer William Faulkner.

The technical proficiency that was recognized and seen in the works of the modernist poets were noted in the works of the confessional poets as well, specifically in the tension that is formed through the use of nontraditional subject matter and traditional form.

In particular, there are four poets that are known for their confessional skill and were also regarded as the pioneers of the confessional mode. They are Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W.D. Snodgrass.

Writing confessional poetry is crucial to the personal journey of the poet toward self-improvement. Before you even cared about the techniques in poetry, chances are the act of writing is all that you cared about. Writing a poem every time you feel a strong emotion is usually a great way of understanding and making sense of what you feel. As such, confessional poetry can be cathartic and therapeutic, allowing confessional poets to discover their real feelings in a space that makes them feel safe.