Confessional Poetry

Confessional poetry is a style of poetry that emerged in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s that has been describe as poetry ‘of the personal.’ The content of confessional poems is autobiographical and marked by its exploration of subject matter that was considered taboo at the time. This subject matter included topics like mental illness, sexuality, and suicide.

The school of poetry that became known as ‘Confessional Poetry’ was associated with several poets who redefined American poetry in the generation following World War II, including Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, and W. D. Snodgrass.

Some key texts of the American ‘confessional’ school of poetry include Lowell’s ‘Life Studies,’ Plath’s ‘Ariel,’ Berryman’s ‘The Dream Songs,’ Snodgrass’ ‘Heart’s Needle,’ and Sexton’s ‘To Bedlam and Part Way Back.’ One of the most prominent, consciously ‘confessional’ poets to emerge in the 1980s was Sharon Olds whose focus on taboo sexual subject matter built off of the work of Ginsberg.

In 1959 M. L. Rosenthal first used the term ‘confessional’ in a review of Robert Lowell’s ‘Life Studies’ entitled ‘Poetry as Confession.’ The confessional approach in poetry can be differentiated from other modes of lyric poetry based upon its use of shameful confidences that Rosenthal said went ‘beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment.’ Rosenthal mentions earlier tendencies towards the confessional but notes how there was typically a ‘mask’ that hid the poet’s ‘actual face.’ He stated, ‘Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of ‘Life Studies’ as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.’ In a review of the book in ‘The Kenyon Review,’ John Thompson wrote, ‘For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest: what they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry.’

Nevertheless there were clear moves towards the ‘confessional’ mode before the publication of ‘Life Studies.’ Delmore Schwartz’s confessional long poem ‘Genesis’ was published in 1943, and John Berryman wrote a sonnet sequence in 1947 about an adulterous affair he’d had with a woman named Chris while he was married to his first wife, Eileen (however, since publishing the sonnets would have revealed the affair to his wife, Berryman didn’t actually publish the sequence, titled ‘Berryman’s Sonnets,’ until 1967, after he divorced from his first wife). Snodgrass’ ‘Heart’s Needle,’ in which he writes about the aftermath of his divorce, also proceeded ‘Life Studies.’

However, ‘Life Studies’ was the first book in the confessional mode that captured the reading public’s attention and the first to officially be labeled ‘confessional.’ The poems that were notably ‘confessional’ in the final section alludes to Lowell’s struggles with mental illness and his experiences in a mental hospital. Sylvia Plath remarked upon the influence these types of poems had on her in an interview, stating, ‘I’ve been very excited by what I feel is the new breakthrough that came with, say, Robert Lowell’s ‘Life Studies,’ this intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which I feel has been partly taboo. Robert Lowell’s poems about his experience in a mental hospital, for example, interested me very much.’

Confessional free verse poetry became the popular approach in the second half of the 20th-century American poetry due, in large part, to the popularity of American poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s and 60s. However, this popularity resulted in something of a backlash in the 1970s and 1980s, leading some poets and entire poetry movements to go out of their way to avoid writing in the confessional mode.  For instance, one of the foremost poets of the ‘Deep Image’ school, Robert Bly, was highly critical of what he perceived to be the solipsistic tendencies of Confessional poets. He referenced this aesthetic distaste when he praised the poet Antonio Machado, in the preface to his 1983 translation of Machado’s poetry, ‘Times Alone,’ for ‘his emphasis on the suffering of others rather than his own.’ Other poetry movements that formed, in part, as a reaction to confessional poetry included the Language poets and the New Formalist poets.


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