With the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959, the term “confessional” began to be used to refer to poetry that drew from and described the poet’s own experiences, often including some type of psychological breakdown or mental health treatment as well as familial conflict rendered in a dramatic manner. This was a major departure from the high modernism of the first half of the twentieth century, wherein poets such as William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens sought to impress their learnedness on readers, frequently using Greek and Latin and referring to artists and works of art that would be familiar only to readers with similar educational backgrounds. The modernist poets used poetry as “an escape from personality,” as Eliot said, not as a way to express personality, a primary motive of confessional poets. Although the term “confessional” refers to the content of the poems rather than the techniques used by confessional poets, they themselves argued that they were just as artistically and technically conscious as their modernist predecessors but more direct and accessible in their subject matter.
This departure from the detachment of modernism created controversy, and confessional poetry was not widely accepted as a legitimate art form at the time of its origin. More traditional poets and critics considered it to be solipsistic, even narcissistic, and its subject matter, such as bodily functions and taboos, inappropriate. Over the years, however, confessional poetry has become recognized as a type of art that illustrates the idea of the personal becoming political, offering insight into psychological upheaval and family drama as well as what writer William Faulkner described as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” The technical proficiency recognized in the work of modernist poets has also been noted in that of confessional poets, particularly in the tension that is created through the use of traditional form and nontraditional subject matter. Four poets in particular are known for this skill and for being pioneers in the confessional mode: Robert Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.
Often known as the founder of confessional poetry, Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was the product of an upper-class Boston family that included Amy Lowell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and his great-granduncle James Russell Lowell, a poet and ardent abolitionist. Robert attended but did not graduate from Harvard University, at one point deciding to leave for Tennessee to camp on the lawn of a poet whom he idolized, James Tate.
Under the influence of modernist poets such as Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, Lowell had developed an appreciation for their dedication to classical form and became proficient in it but felt the need to break away from what he described as the “distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult” poems that he was crafting. In Life Studies, his collection of poetry and prose that became known as a landmark of confessional poetry, he experimented with a new style and received great acclaim for it. Beginning with the poem “Beyond the Alps,” written in classical style, complete with exact rhyme (“sponge/lunge,” “snow/go,” and “gongs/belongs”), this volume traces Lowell’s familial influences from childhood to adulthood. Showing the complacency that is a luxury of the wealthy, Lowell describes the tradition of the grand tour of Europe that would be typical for a family such as his, confiding, “ I envy the conspicuous/ waste of your grandparents on their grand tours—/ long-haired Victorian sages accepted the universe, / while breezing on their trust funds through the world.” With references to Paris, Rome, Catholicism, and Greek mythology, Lowell upheld the classical tradition yet gave hints of the confessional in his references to his family. In the prose piece “91 Revere Street,” Lowell chronicles the trials and travails of his early upbringing with an overbearing, class-conscious mother and a father who could not decide whether he wanted to retire from the navy, compounded by the pressure Lowell’s mother put on his father to retire so that the family could start collecting from his trust fund. Rather than being traumatized by their late-night arguments, Lowell describes eagerly anticipating them. Perhaps even then he was considering them as material for future writing.
In later years, when he attended Harvard University, Lowell dedicated a poem to one of his peers, Delmore Schwartz, also attending Harvard at the time. In “To Delmore Schwartz,” he describes the poets’ difficulties with daily domestic duties, including “ keep[ing] the furnace lit!/ Even when we had disconnected it.” Lowell refers to a visit from T. S. Eliot’s brother, Henry Ware, and describes his and Schwartz’s views of themselves as the next great poets, although the specter of madness is lurking underneath for both of them, with “cigarette smoke circling the paranoid.” Lowell quotes Schwartz as saying “’We poets in our youth begin in sadness;/ thereof in the end comes despondency and madness.’” This anticipates the mental illness for which Lowell was treated and to which Schwartz succumbed.
“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” chronicles Lowell’s relationship with his grandfather. At the very beginning of the poem, he demonstrates their closeness with his childhood complaint: “I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa!” His parents with their “watery martini pipe dreams at Sunday dinner” simply cannot compete, since “Nowhere was anywhere after a summer/ at my Grandfather’s farm.” He admires the “works of [his] Grandfather’s hands” and the décor of his house, which “was manly, comfortable,” unlike himself at five and a half in his “formal pearl gray shorts,” feeling like a “ stuffed toucan/ with a bibulous, multicolored beak.” This feeling of ridiculousness and inadequacy is also a subject of confessional poetry. In “Dunbarton,” another poem about his grandfather, Lowell describes their comfort together, with his grandfather finding “his grandchild’s fogbound solitudes/ sweeter than human society” and stopping “ at the Priscilla in Nashua/ for brownies and root beer.” Even raking leaves with his grandfather was an adventure for Lowell, as they “defied the dank weather/ with ’dragon’ bonfires.” The poem ends with an image of physical closeness and nurturing: “In the mornings I cuddled like a paramour/ in my Grandfather’s bed.” In “Grandparents,” he yearns for his deceased grandfather to once again “Have me, hold me, cherish me!,” showing a desperation for love that he did not feel from his parents and that he seems to have known he might never have again.
W. D. Snodgrass
Although he studied under Lowell, W. D. Snodgrass (1926-2009) did not consider himself a confessional poet. In fact, he disliked the term because of its religious connotation and because critics associated it with writing as therapy. However, Snodgrass is widely considered one of the founding members of the confessional movement, primarily because of Heart’s Needle (1959), a collection of poems chronicling his divorce and his loss of custody of his daughter as a result.
In “Papageno,” dedicated to Janice, his wife at the time, Snodgrass describes how he “went to whistle up a wife” but that his mouth was “padlocked for a liar” and that he “ could not speak/ To hush this chattering, blue heart.” He beckons to his future wife, “Come take this rare bird into hand;/ In that deft cage, he might sing true.” Signs of tension appear when the speaker in “Riddle” says, “You have the damnedest friends and seem to think/ You have some right to think.” Still, the couple has “ grown/ Closely together where most people shrink.” It seems that they are too close for comfort, although the speaker suggests, “ if there’s a world between/ Us, it’s our own.” Ironically, physical distance is emphasized in “Song,” with the speaker describing how he and his “woman” are inextricably linked through the “ rich/ soil, friable and humble,/ where all our murders rot,/ where our old deaths crumble.” This image of mortality is reinforced by the speaker’s description of his reach as “far from you, wide and free,/ though I have set my root/ in you and am your tree.” This seems to be a desperate attempt to hold onto that which is slipping away.
The long title poem, “Heart’s Needle,” chronicles a father’s estrangement from his daughter in the aftermath of a divorce, Snodgrass’s own experience. To mark the passage of time, he uses an image of himself and his daughter digging a garden when she is three...
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Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or "I." This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass. Lowell's book Life Studies was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties and had a significant impact on American poetry. Plath and Sexton were both students of Lowell and noted that his work influenced their own writing.
The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.
The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work. While their treatment of the poetic self may have been groundbreaking and shocking to some readers, these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody.
One of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is "Daddy" by Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood:
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
Another confessional poet of this generation was John Berryman. His major work was The Dream Songs, which consists of 385 poems about a character named Henry and his friend Mr. Bones. Many of the poems contain elements of Berryman's own life and traumas, such as his father's suicide. Below is an excerpt from "Dream Song 1":
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry's side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don't see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
The confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day; Marie Howe and Sharon Olds are two contemporary poets whose writing largely draws upon their personal experience.
browse poets from this movement