Trigger warning: This presentation contains material that might be upsetting.
Confessional poetry or “Confessionalism” is a style of poetry that emerged in the United States during the 1950s. It has been described as poetry “of the personal”, focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously and occasionally still taboo matters such as:
Revelations of childhood and adult traumas
Often set in relation to broader social themes.
The school of “Confessional poetry” is associated with several poets who redefined American poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, but the first confessional poet is considered to be the Roman poet Catullus.
Why is he thought of as being confessional, even though he lived centuries before the expression came into use?
He wrote chiefly in the neoteric style of poetry, which is about personal life rather than classical heroes.
He wasn’t the first neoteric poet, but many of his poems included the kind of raw and even shameful revelations about his personal life––including explicit sexual content–– that became the hallmark of the Confessional poets in the 20th century.
This is Catullus’s Poem 75
Lesbia, I am mad:
my brain is entirely warped
by this project of adoring
and having you
and now it flies into fits
of hatred at the mere thought of your
doing well, and at the same time
it can’t help but seek what
your affection. This it will go on
hunting for, even if it
means my total and utter annihilation.
The American poet and novelist, Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963) is probably the most widely read confessional poet. Much of her writing features deeply personal revelations about herself, and about her relationships, especially with men, and particularly with her father, such as this poem, Colossus
I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.
Mule-bray, pig-grunt and bawdy cackles
Proceed from your great lips.
It’s worse than a barnyard.
Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,
Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.
Thirty years now I have labored
To dredge the silt from your throat.
I am none the wiser.
Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of lysol
I crawl like an ant in mourning
Over the weedy acres of your brow
To mend the immense skull plates and clear
The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.
A blue sky out of the Oresteia
Arches above us. O father, all by yourself
You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum.
I open my lunch on a hill of black cypress.
Your fluted bones and acanthine hair are littered
In their old anarchy to the horizon-line.
It would take more than a lightning-stroke
To create such a ruin.
Nights, I squat in the cornucopia
Of your left ear, out of the wind,
Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.
The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.
My hours are married to shadow.
No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel
On the blank stones of the landing.
BY SYLVIA PLATH
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
My face a featureless, fine
Peel off the napkin
O 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.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
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.
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
That knocks me out.
There is a charge
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.
John Berryman is considered to be the key figure in the Confessional school of poetry.
In Dream Songs his poems involve sordid personal details, and many of the poems revolve around the mysterious characters of Henry and Mr. Bones.
Berryman once said of Henry: “Henry does resemble me, and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax; Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and they stall in my hair — and fuck them, I’m not Henry; Henry doesn’t have any bats.”
In Dream Song number 366 Berryman writes: “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify & comfort.”
Dream Song #4.
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni.—Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
—Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast . . . The slob beside her feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
—Mr. Bones: there is.
(November 9, 1928 – October 4, 1974) was an American poet, known for her highly personal, confessional poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book, Live or Die. Her poetry details her long battle with depression, suicidal tendencies, and various intimate details from her private life, including relationships with her husband and children whom it was later revealed she physically and sexually assaulted. She wrote openly about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction at a time when none of these were considered proper topics for poetry. On a side note she also wrote a collection of revised Grimm’s Tales entitled, Transformations
Anna Who was Mad
Anna who was mad,
I have a knife in my armpit.
When I stand on tiptoe I tap out messages.
Am I some sort of infection?
Did I make you go insane?
Did I make the sounds go sour?
Did I tell you to climb out the window?
Say not I did.
Speak Mary-words into our pillow.
Take me the gangling twelve-year-old
into your sunken lap.
Whisper like a buttercup.
Eat me. Eat me up like cream pudding.
Take me in.
In 2005, the Academy of American Poets named Robert Lowell’s Life Studies one of their Groundbreaking Booksof the 20th century, stating that it had “a profound impact”, particularly over the Confessional Poetry movement that the book helped launch.
The editors of Contemporary Literary Criticism wrote that the book “exerted a profound influence on subsequent American poets, including other first generation confessionalists such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.”
In a 1962 interview, Sylvia Plath herself stated that Life Studies had influenced the poetry she was writing at that time. She noted, “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.”
Writing Confessional Poetry
The confessional poet reveals confidences to readers that readers themselves would not have the courage to reveal.
Confessional poetry Is about letting go, tapping into images and sensations, and allowing your emotions to take over.
This might mean making a confession about something you’ve never divulged before, or writing about how someone makes you feel.
The most poignant poems are written from the heart and are more emotional and less cerebral. Letting go is also about slowing down and pausing while being mindful of what’s stirring inside you.
How to write a confessional poem.
It seems odd to give instructions on writing this type of a poem, but nevertheless, here are some suggestions––and the suggestions could lead to writing about events that are so personal that you might not want remember them yourselves, let alone write about them and then read them publicly.
You do not have to allow anyone (including me) to see or hear your poetry if you do not wish to.
Even if you keep your poetry secret, it will have a profound benefit on your other writing.
1: Begin in silence. Put your pen down. Don’t write anything until the temptation to pick up your pen is unbearable.
2: If it helps, write “I confess” at the top of the page.
3: Don’t try to write poetry. Don’t even try to write prose. Throw grammar out of the window (I realize there are no windows here. It’s metaphorical). Write fragments, snippets, phrases. Just let the ideas drift into your mind freely. The Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky tells us, “Write in full sentences, using proper grammar…” You can write in fragments while the ideas come to you, but eventually you should probably follow Robert Pinsky’s advice.
4: Let yourself dwell on the image that comes with the words.
5: Just write. If the next word won’t come, then let the pen circle the word you’re on. Doodle around the edge of the page if you like. Let the pen make the marks until inspiration hits.
A criticism of Confessional Poetry is that it’s self-indulgent, but that’s okay. Allow yourself to be self-indulgent for this exercise. Perhaps the poem will be a catharsis.
Here are some of what I call my ‘Shame Memories,’ at least the ones I’m not too ashamed to reveal.
No trigger warnings on these. Nothing too uncomfortable.
I’m crushed like a flute that’s been left on the floor and trodden on.
I’m shattered like a gift thrown from a window onto concrete.
I’m guilty. I fired the gun. I threw the punch. I kicked. I betrayed.
I’m rejected like a gift, carefully chosen, and offered with love.
I’m abandoned like a small child left alone in the ocean, and rolled over by a wave.
Did I say that? Did I do that? Did I feel that?
I smolder with accusation, like stolen money.
I’m jeered at like a new hairstyle.
I did it. I said it. I own it.
I kneel beside the broken victim.
I try to staunch the blood pouring from the head and chest.
“Leave him,” they say. “He’s gone. He’s finished. His time is done.”
“No,” I say. “I did this. I’m going to stay with him while he dies.
Nobody should die alone.”
I place my hand on his chest, and I feel a pulse.
Tickling against my finger.
He will survive.
And I will have to fight him again.
For the next class we are going to do Ekphrastic Poetry, which is poetry that references another work of art.