Guide to Confessional Poetry

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A Brief Guide to Confessional Poetry

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 Sylvia 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.


photo: Arni



Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell was born in 1917 into one of Boston's oldest and most prominent families. He attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. He took graduate courses at Louisiana State University where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. His first and second books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1946, at the age of thirty), were influenced by his conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and explored the dark side of America's Puritan legacy. Under the influence of Allen Tate and the New Critics, he wrote rigorously formal poetry that drew praise for its exceptionally powerful handling of meter and rhyme. Lowell was politically involved—he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War and was imprisoned as a result, and actively protested against the war in Vietnam—and his personal life was full of marital and psychological turmoil. He suffered from severe episodes of manic depression, for which he was repeatedly hospitalized.

Partly in response to his frequent breakdowns, and partly due to the influence of such younger poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg, Lowell in the mid-fifties began to write more directly from personal experience, and loosened his adherence to traditional meter and form. The result was a watershed collection, Life Studies (1959), which forever changed the landscape of modern poetry, much as Eliot's The Waste Land had three decades before. Considered by many to be the most important poet in English of the second half of the twentieth century, Lowell continued to develop his work with sometimes uneven results, all along defining the restless center of American poetry, until his sudden death from a heart attack at age 60. Robert Lowell served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1962 until his death in 1977.

"To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage" - Robert Lowell


"It is the future generation that presses into being by means of


these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours."
--Schopenhauer

"The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.

Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.

My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,

and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,

free-lancing out along the razor's edge. (5)

This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.

Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust. . .

It's the injustice . . . he is so unjust--

whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.

My only thought is how to keep alive. (10)

What makes him tick? Each night now I tie

ten dollars and his car key to my thigh. . . .

Gored by the climacteric of his want,

he stalls above me like an elephant.

“Skunk Hour” - Robert Lowell

For Elizabeth Bishop
Nautilus Island's hermit

heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;

her sheep still graze above the sea.

Her son's a bishop. Her farmer

is first selectman in our village,

she's in her dotage.


Thirsting for

the hierarchic privacy

of Queen Victoria's century,

she buys up all (10)

the eyesores facing her shore,

and lets them fall.

The season's ill--

we've lost our summer millionaire,

who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean

catalogue. His nine-knot yawl

was auctioned off to lobstermen.

A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy

decorator brightens his shop for fall, (20)

his fishnet's filled with orange cork,

orange, his cobbler's bench and awl,

there is no money in his work,

he'd rather marry.

One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,

I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .

My mind's not right. (30)

A car radio bleats,

'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,

nobody's here--


only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire (40)

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.


I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air--

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the

garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare. (49)









Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. When she was very young her father died, her mother was committed to a mental asylum, and she was sent to live with her grandparents in Nova Scotia. She earned a bachelor's degree from Vassar College in 1934.

She was independently wealthy, and from 1935 to 1937 she spent time traveling to France, Spain, North Africa, Ireland, and Italy and then settled in Key West, Florida, for four years. Her poetry is filled with descriptions of her travels and the scenery which surrounded her, as with the Florida poems in her first book of verse, North and South, published in 1946.

She was influenced by the poet Marianne Moore, who was a close friend, mentor, and stabilizing force in her life. Unlike her contemporary and good friend Robert Lowell, who wrote in the "confessional" style, Bishop's poetry avoids explicit accounts of her personal life, and focuses instead with great subtlety on her impressions of the physical world.

Her images are precise and true to life, and they reflect her own sharp wit and moral sense. She lived for many years in Brazil, communicating with friends and colleagues in America only by letter. She wrote slowly and published sparingly (her Collected Poems number barely a hundred), but the technical brilliance and formal variety of her work is astonishing. For years she was considered a "poet's poet," but with the publication of her last book, Geography III, in 1976, Bishop was finally established as a major force in contemporary literature.

Elizabeth Bishop was awarded the Fellowship of The Academy of American Poets in 1964 and served as a Chancellor from 1966 to 1979. She died in Cambridge, Massachussetts, in 1979, and her stature as a major poet continues to grow through the high regard of the poets and critics who have followed her.



“The Armadillo”

For Robert Lowell


This is the time of year

when almost every night

the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.

Climbing the mountain height, (4)


rising toward a saint

still honored in these parts,

the paper chambers flush and fill with light

that comes and goes, like hearts. (8)


Once up against the sky it's hard

to tell them from the stars—

planets, that is—the tinted ones:

Venus going down, or Mars, (12)


or the pale green one. With a wind,

they flare and falter, wobble and toss;

but if it's still they steer between

the kite sticks of the Southern Cross, (16)


receding, dwindling, solemnly

and steadily forsaking us,

or, in the downdraft from a peak,

suddenly turning dangerous. (20)


Last night another big one fell.

It splattered like an egg of fire

against the cliff behind the house.

The flame ran down. We saw the pair (24)


of owls who nest there flying up

and up, their whirling black-and-white

stained bright pink underneath, until

they shrieked up out of sight. (28)


The ancient owls' nest must have burned.

Hastily, all alone,

a glistening armadillo left the scene,

rose-flecked, head down, tail down, (32)


and then a baby rabbit jumped out,

short-eared, to our surprise.

So soft!—a handful of intangible ash

with fixed, ignited eyes. (36)
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!

O falling fire and piercing cry

and panic, and a weak mailed fist

clenched ignorant against the sky! (40)





photo: Rollie McKenna



Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. Her mother, Aurelia Schober, was a master’s student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, Otto Plath, who was her professor. They were married in January of 1932. Otto taught both German and biology, with a focus on apiology, the study of bees.

In 1940, when Sylvia was eight years old, her father died as a result of complications from diabetes. He had been a strict father, and both his authoritarian attitudes and his death drastically defined her relationships and her poems—most notably in her elegaic and infamous poem, "Daddy."

Even in her youth, Plath was ambitiously driven to succeed. She kept a journal from the age of 11 and published her poems in regional magazines and newspapers. Her first national publication was in the Christian Science Monitor in 1950, just after graduating from high school.

In 1950, Plath matriculated at Smith College. She was an exceptional student, and despite a deep depression she went through in 1953 and a subsequent suicide attempt, she managed to graduate summa cum laude in 1955.

After graduation, Plath moved to Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In early 1956, she attended a party and met the English poet, Ted Hughes. Shortly thereafter, Plath and Hughes were married, on June 16, 1956.

Plath returned to Massachusetts in 1957, and began studying with Robert Lowell. Her first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960 in England, and two years later in the United States. She returned to England where she gave birth to the couple's two children, Freida and Nicholas Hughes, in 1960 and 1962, respectively.

In 1962, Ted Hughes left Plath for Assia Gutmann Wevill. That winter, in a deep depression, Plath wrote most of the poems that would comprise her most famous book, Ariel.

In 1963, Plath published a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Then, on February 11, 1963, during one of the worst English winters on record, Plath wrote a note to her downstairs neighbor instructing him to call the doctor, then she committed suicide using her gas oven.

Plath’s poetry is often associated with the Confessional movement, and compared to poets such as her teacher, Robert Lowell, and fellow student Anne Sexton. Often, her work is singled out for the intense coupling of its violent or disturbed imagery and its playful use of alliteration and rhyme.

Although only Colossus was published while she was alive, Plath was a prolific poet, and in addition to Ariel, Hughes published three other volumes of her work posthumously, including The Collected Poems, which was the recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. She was the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize after death.



“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath
You do not do, you do not do

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo. (5)

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 (10)


And a head in the freakish Atlantic

Where it pours bean green over blue

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du. (15)


In the German tongue, in the Polish town

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend (20)

Says there are a dozen or two.

So I never could tell where you

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw. (25)


It stuck in a barb wire snare.

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.

And the language obscene (30)


An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew. (35)

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna

Are not very pure or true.

With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew. (40)

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You-- (45)


Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.

Every woman adores a Fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you. (50)


You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who (60)


Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do. (70)


But they pulled me out of the sack,

And they stuck me together with glue.

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look (75)


And a love of the rack and the screw.

And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.

The black telephone's off at the root,


The voices just can't worm through. (80)

If I've killed one man, I've killed two--

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now. (85)

There's a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through. (90)

12 October 1962


Plath’s father: German by birth and nationalistic, but NOT literally a Nazi. He died when Plath was young as result of an infection that originated in his foot. He is said to have suffered profoundly.

“Ariel” by Sylvia Plath
Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God's lioness,


How one we grow, (5)
Pivot of heels and knees! ---The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to


The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Nigger-eye (10)


Berries cast dark
Hooks ---

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,


Shadows.
Something else (15)

Hauls me through air ---


Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.
White
Godiva, I unpeel --- (20)
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I


Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry

Melts in the wall. (25)


And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies,


Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red (30)

Eye, the cauldron of morning.



Composed on 30th birthday: October 27, 1962

Suicide date: February 11, 1963 (London, England)

Suicide circumstances: gas oven; early morning; children were asleep, sealed in their rooms.

Ariel: Plath owned a horse by this name

“Lady Lazarus”
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it----

A sort of walking miracle, my skin


Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,


My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin (10)


0 my enemy.
Do I terrify?----

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?


The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh


The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.


I am only thirty. (20)
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.


What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.


The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot


The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies (30)

These are my hands


My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.


The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant


To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut (40)

As a seashell.


They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else,


I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.


I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call. (50)

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.


It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day


To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'


That knocks me out.

There is a charge (60)

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge

For the hearing of my heart----
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge


For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.


So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus, (70)


I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.


I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash ---


You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there----

A cake of soap, (80)


A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer


Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash


I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air. (88 lines)





photo © Rollie McKenna



Anne Sexton

Anne Gray Harvey was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928. She attended Garland Junior College for one year and married Alfred Muller Sexton II at age nineteen. She enrolled in a modeling course at the Hart Agency and lived in San Francisco and Baltimore. In 1953 she gave birth to a daughter. In 1954 she was diagnosed with postpartum depression, suffered her first mental breakdown, and was admitted to Westwood Lodge, a neuropsychiatric hospital she would repeatedly return to for help. In 1955, following the birth of her second daughter, Sexton suffered another breakdown and was hospitalized again; her children were sent to live with her husband's parents. That same year, on her birthday, she attempted suicide.

She was encouraged by her doctor to pursue an interest in writing poetry she had developed in high school, and in the fall of 1957 she enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. In her introduction to Anne Sexton's Complete Poems, the poet Maxine Kumin, who was enrolled with Sexton in the 1957 workshop and became her close friend, describes her belief that it was the writing of poetry that gave Sexton something to work towards and develop and thus enabled her to endure life for as long as she did. In 1974 at the age of 46, despite a successful writing career--she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for Live or Die--she lost her battle with mental illness and committed suicide.

Like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, W. D. Snodgrass (who exerted a great influence on her work), and other "confessional" poets, Sexton offers the reader an intimate view of the emotional anguish that characterized her life. She made the experience of being a woman a central issue in her poetry, and though she endured criticism for bringing subjects such as menstruation, abortion, and drug addiction into her work, her skill as a poet transcended the controversy over her subject matter.


“The Truth the Dead Know” by Anne Sexton



For my Mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my Father, born February 1900, died June 1959

Gone, I say and walk from church,

refusing the stiff procession to the grave,

letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.

It is June. I am tired of being brave.


We drive to the Cape. I cultivate (5)

myself where the sun gutters from the sky,

where the sea swings in like an iron gate

and we touch. In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones

from the whitehearted water and when we touch (10)

we enter touch entirely. No one's alone.

Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes

in the stone boats. They are more like stone

than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse (15)

to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.


“All My Pretty Ones” by Anne Sexton


Father, this year’s jinx rides us apart

where you followed our mother to her cold slumber;

a second shock boiling its stone to your heart,

leaving me here to shuffle and disencumber

you from the residence you could not afford:

a gold key, your half of a woolen mill,

twenty suits from Dunne’s, an English Ford,

the love and legal verbiage of another will,

boxes of pictures of people I do not know.

I touch their cardboard faces. They must go. (10)

But the eyes, as thick as wood in this album,

hold me. I stop here, where a small boy

waits in a ruffled dress for someone to come ...

for this soldier who holds his bugle like a toy

or for this velvet lady who cannot smile.

Is this your father’s father, this commodore

in a mailman suit? My father, time meanwhile

has made it unimportant who you are looking for.

I’ll never know what these faces are all about.

I lock them into their book and throw them out. (20)

This is the yellow scrapbook that you began

the year I was born; as crackling now and wrinkly

as tobacco leaves: clippings where Hoover outran

the Democrats, wiggling his dry finger at me

and Prohibition; news where the Hindenburg went

down and recent years where you went flush

on war. This year, solvent but sick, you meant

to marry that pretty widow in a one-month rush.

But before you had that second chance, I cried

on your fat shoulder. Three days later you died. (30)

These are the snapshots of marriage, stopped in places.

Side by side at the rail toward Nassau now;

here, with the winner’s cup at the speedboat races,

here, in tails at the Cotillion, you take a bow,

here, by our kennel of dogs with their pink eyes,

running like show-bred pigs in their chain-link pen;

here, at the horseshow where my sister wins a prize;

and here, standing like a duke among groups of men.

Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator,

my first lost keeper, to love or look at later. (40)


I hold a five-year diary that my mother kept

for three years, telling all she does not say

of your alcoholic tendency. You overslept,

she writes. My God, father, each Christmas Day

with your blood, will I drink down your glass

of wine? The diary of your hurly-burly years

goes to my shelf to wait for my age to pass.

Only in this hoarded span will love persevere.

Whether you are pretty or not, I outlive you,

bend down my strange face to yours and forgive you.




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