Confessional poetry emerged in the mid-20th century as a deeply personal and introspective form of expression, characterized by poets baring their intimate, often uncomfortable, truths and experiences. The movement is more about content than it is form. Many confessional poems are in free verse, but poets like Elizabeth Bishop wrote confessional poetry in traditional verse forms as well. This movement marked a departure from the more traditional, abstract, and impersonal styles prevalent in poetry until then. Confessional poets delved into their own lives, addressing themes such as mental illness, family, trauma, and personal struggles with remarkable honesty. This raw, unfiltered approach allowed for a new level of emotional intensity and authenticity in poetry.
Major Poets in the Confessional Poetry Movement:
Some of the most notable poets associated with the confessional poetry movement include Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. Sylvia Plath’s collection “Ariel” and Anne Sexton’s work in “Bedlam and Partway Back” are prime examples of confessional poetry, exploring themes of mental illness, identity, and the complexities of relationships. Robert Lowell, in his collection “Life Studies,” openly addressed his personal struggles with mental health and family, pioneering a new era of autobiographical poetry. John Berryman’s “The Dream Songs” similarly delved into the psyche, using a character named Henry to express deeply personal emotions, reflecting his own struggles with alcoholism and depression. These poets not only defined the confessional poetry movement but also influenced subsequent generations of writers.
Poets Influenced by Confessional Poetry:
The confessional poetry movement had a profound impact on subsequent generations of poets. Writers like Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and Louise Glück drew inspiration from the confessional style, infusing their own work with intimate revelations and emotional candor. Sharon Olds, in particular, has explored themes of family, love, and trauma in a manner reminiscent of the confessional poets before her. Anne Carson, known for her innovative and deeply personal approach, often combines elements of classical literature with confessional tones, creating a unique blend of styles. Louise Glück, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, has crafted poetry that delves into themes of childhood, family, and mortality, echoing the confessional tradition. These poets, among many others, continue to carry the torch of confessional poetry, shaping contemporary literature with their brave and unapologetic introspection.
Personal Influence of Confessional Poets:
Confessional poetry was such a dramatic shift in the realm of what is possible to discuss in poetry. It opened the door for the poet to bear the most intimate parts of their soul to the public. It took incredible courage for pioneers like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop to share the most detailed struggles of their lives. Reading poetry now, we almost take the use of the pronoun ‘I’ for granted. We read poems by Warsan Shire and other deeply moving poets that explore generational trauma and femininity without batting an eye. That is what poetry is now, but without the generation before, without those first brave souls we would still be veiling our confessions in abstract terms. However, writing poetry is one of the most human acts imaginable and the confessional poets opened the door to an even wider, richer form of expression.
Examples of Confessional Poetry:
by Robert Lowell
Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
Read the full poem here.
The Double Image
by Anne Sexton
I am thirty this November.
You are still small, in your fourth year.
We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,
flapping in the winter rain,
falling flat and washed. And I remember
mostly the three autumns you did not live here.
They said I’d never get you back again.
I tell you what you’ll never really know:
all the medical hypothesis
that explained my brain will never be as true as these
struck leaves letting go.
I, who chose two times
to kill myself, had said your nickname
the mewling months when you first came;
until a fever rattled
in your throat and I moved like a pantomime
above your head. Ugly angels spoke to me. The blame,
I heard them say, was mine. They tattled
like green witches in my head, letting doom
leak like a broken faucet;
as if doom had flooded my belly and filled your bassinet,
an old debt I must assume.
Read the full poem here.
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.
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
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.
Read the full poem here.