Confessional poetry changed everything regarding what a poem could be written about. In this lesson, we’ll study Sylvia Plath, a pioneer of the form. We’ll also consider W.
D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell.
All About Me
Everywhere you look today, you can find people talking about themselves. When you go online, people post their most personal thoughts and feelings on Facebook or Twitter. On TV, some people are famous for no other reason than the fact that a camera crew documents their lives. And in literature, no personal topic is off limits.
It wasn’t always this way. And it hasn’t been this way for all that long. Prior to the 1950s, private lives were, well, private.
And then along came confessional poetry. This style emerged in the 1950s and 60s and features open exploration of highly personal subject matter. For the first time, American poets were openly tackling personal relationships. Divorce was no longer taboo; death – suicidal thoughts began to be written about at length; and mental illnesses, such as the deep depression that afflicts so many of the poets we’ll discuss here.
One of the pioneers of the form was Sylvia Plath. Plath lived a short, difficult life before committing suicide at age 30. Her life was filled with tragedy, like her father dying when she was eight. She also faced a crippling struggle with depression that may have been a part of bipolar disorder. Her poetry is credited with defining and popularizing confessional poetry. She was one of the first American poets to put her personal miseries on the page.Consider ‘Daddy,’ from her book Ariel.
This is a poem that explores the intense love-hate feelings she had for her late father, including the betrayal she felt with his death. In the poem, she mixes Nazi imagery and child-like language:’I have always been scared of you,With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.And your neat mustacheAnd your Aryan eye, bright blue.Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You– ‘And she confesses an early suicide attempt:’At twenty I tried to dieAnd get back, back, back to you.I thought even the bones would do.But they pulled me out of the sack,And they stuck me together with glue.’It culminates at the end, where she references suicide, her father and her troubled marriage with poet Ted Hughes:’If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–The vampire who said he was youAnd drank my blood for a year,Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.There’s a stake in your fat black heartAnd 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.’Earlier poets certainly wrote about emotional topics. The Romantics, for example, brought feelings into poetry.
But while Shelley and Byron were vastly more emotion-driven than the Enlightenment writers who preceded them, Sylvia Plath took it much, much further.Think of it this way: For most of history, humans never left the ground. Then the Wright brothers invented the airplane and flight was possible. That’s the Romantics, adding emotion. It’s a sea change. But Plath then went to the moon.
Shelley’s work is highly emotional, but it doesn’t make confessions about his darkest personal secrets. Plath’s poetry is brutally, painfully honest about her suffering. Here are a few lines from ‘Lady Lazarus,’ which is also from the Ariel collection:’DyingIs 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.’She’s unquestionably confessing her suicidal feelings, and she clearly states her ambition to try it again.
Other Confessional Poets
Plath was a pioneer of confessional poetry, but there were others who helped popularize the form.
They include Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, W.D. Snodgrass and John Berryman.Let’s look at a fascinating poem by Robert Lowell. Like Plath, he most likely suffered from bipolar disorder, which also afflicted nearly every poet mentioned in this lesson. In ‘To Speak of Woe That is in Marriage,’ he offers a sonnet about his mental illness from his wife’s perspective:’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 street to cruise for prostitutes,free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.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.What makes him tick? Each night now I tieten dollars and his car key to my thigh.
. . .Gored by the climacteric of his want,he stalls above me like an elephant.’Here is Lowell’s marriage and illness on full display. It’s a warts and all approach that invites us into the poet’s darkest moments.
That it’s written as a sonnet from his wife’s perspective is a credit to the art of confessional poetry. This isn’t just a diary entry. It’s carefully composed, highly crafted work. Like Plath and her brilliant use of Nazi imagery and child-like words, Lowell uses the sonnet form; a form associated with love poetry, and subverts expectations by showing us his awareness of his disease’s impact on his wife.Confessional poetry can also tackle trauma.
Here are a few lines from W.D. Snodgrass’s ‘Heart’s Needle,’ about how he felt after divorcing his first wife and being forced to be apart from his beloved daughter:’I walk among the growths,by gangrenous tissue, goiter, cysts,by fistulas and cancers,where the malignancy man loathesis held suspended and persists.And I don’t know the answers.
The window’s turning white.The world moves like a diseased heartpacked with ice and snow.Three months now we have been apartless than a mile. I cannot fightor let you go.’There’s beautiful imagery here and expertly composed lines. They just happen to speak of devastating heartbreak over his personal life. You might ask why would anyone want to read about such dark, personal topics? Consider these lines from Anne Sexton’s ‘Wanting to Die’ which helps us understand what it’s like to be suicidal:’Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.Then the almost unnameable lust returns.Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,the furniture you have placed under the sun.But suicides have a special language.Like carpenters they want to know which tools.They never ask why build.
‘Lines like these offer a startling and illuminating vantage point into human suffering. It’s in works like these that we learn about ourselves in ways that less intimate poems cannot offer.
In summary, confessional poetry emerged in the 1950s and 60s, introducing formerly taboo topics, like suicide, depression and divorce. Sylvia Plath was one of the most highly regarded early writers of the style. Her work, including poems like ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus,’ talks in frank terms about her suicidal thoughts, troubled relationship with her father and other highly personal issues.
Other confessional poets include Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman and W.D. Snodgrass.
Completing this lesson should enable you to:
- Write about the emergence of confessional poetry
- Identify Sylvia Plath and describe her poetry
- List other significant confessional poets and discuss their works