True Confessions: Poems by Jackie Kay, Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath


















This week, students are reading poems by each of these poets:

Jackie Kay (From The Adoption Papers, 1991)













Sharon Olds:







Sylvia Plath:

Lois Cucullu, Exceptional Women, Expert Culture and the Academy

And “Book Of A Lifetime: The Adoption Papers, Jackie Kay” By Patience Agbabi (online)

In her excellent essay “Someone Else’s Misfortune: The Vicarious Pleasures of the Confessional Text,” (which I have placed on Study Space for students) the critic Jo Gill reminds us of James Dickey’s “infamous” remarks about the so-called “confessional” poetry of Anne Sexton. Her poems, Dickey wrote “so obviously come out of deep, painful sections of the author’s life that one’s literary opinions scarcely seem to matter; one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering.” As Gill argues, Dickey’s dismissal of the confessional form exemplifies “the very contradictions which ignite and sustain our interest in the genre: the compelling dialectic between fascination and revulsion, sympathy and horror, guilt and relief; the desire to look coupled with the reluctance to know the truth.”


Author Rachel Cusk

As we saw two weeks ago, Rachel Cusk noted in an interview with the Guardian following the publication of her memoir Aftermath (2012) that “Writing is a discipline: it’s almost all about holding back.  The memoir is a confessional form, but that doesn’t mean that it is itself a confession.  It isn’t a spewing out of emotion.”

So if confessional forms are not confession, what are they?  And what are the “vicarious pleasures” we enjoy while reading them?  For Gill, all such writing is self-reflexive: however much emotion is on offer, it is not “spewed” but carefully such writing is concerned with the processes of its own production – this is writing about writing, poetry about poetry.  And if this is so, why choose the (often suffering) self as a starting point for such literary exercises?  And why, as one of my students asked last week, are contemporary women writers in particular drawn to confessional forms?  Do women have more to confess?  Or is it that the confessional aspect of such texts partly stems from women’s historical exclusion from literary history?  That is, in order for women to be able to write poems about poetry and to have those poems read and heard, must they offer themselves, their life history as a ritual sacrifice? Must they speak as women, of the experiences of (often suffering) women, in order to have their writing read?



8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by floeastoe on February 28, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Selected poems by Sylvia Plath: ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Family Reunion’ and ‘Childless Woman’.
    Sadness permeates all of Plath’s work. She is a legend, a trope of literature, more famous for her suicide than her literature, which is seen by some to voice the anxieties felt by teenage girls and depressives. All of the poems selected happen to contain a first person narrative, allowing the reader into Plath’s mind, and adding to the confessional air of the work. Each poem seems to be about a woman separate from society, deliberately keeping herself away because she is different, and to join it, the narrator “must cast off my identity/ And make the fatal plunge” (‘Family Reunion’). These women seem to change who they are, and not show their true selves, which could be seen to be a representation of female voice in poetry: so many women seem to write what they think people want to read, rather than what they believe” they do not “do it so it feels real” (‘Lady Lazarus’).
    There is a lot of physicality in Plath’s poetry, with references to physical sensations and body parts like “the nose, the eye pits” (‘Lady Lazarus’), an “X-rayed heart” (‘Bluebeard’) and “the womb” (‘Childless Woman’), as well as graphic images of blood “Uttering nothing but blood…dark red!” (‘Childless Woman’) and mutilation “[my] dissected body” (‘Bluebeard’).

    Q: There are a lot of images of death in Plath’s work, but are they so clear and present because of the notoriety that surrounds her. It would interesting to consider Plath’s work from the perspective of someone who does not know her history. If Plath has not died so tragically, would critics find her work less filled with images of death? Would it seem quite as tragic?

    Selected poems by Sharon Olds:  ‘1954’, ‘The Daughter Goes To Camp’, ‘Toth Farry’ and ‘I Could Not Tell’.
    From this selection, it would seem that all of Sharon Olds’ poetry is written in the first person, as with much of Plath’s work. While narrators in Plath’s work seem to be around the same age, Olds’ protagonist are of varying ages: a young teenager voicing her fears in ‘1954’ contrasts with the mother of ‘The Daughter Goes To Camp’, who seems far more mature than the “nice young mother” in ‘I Could Not Tell’. The fears presented in these works are rational: the fear of rape and murder, the fear of harming her child, “her life’s life”, and the fears of a mother wanting to raise her children well in ‘Toth Farry’ and ‘The Daughter Goes To Camp’.
    Olds often seems to be a third party in her work, or having a conversation with her reader referring to “you” in ‘The Daughter Goes To Camp’ and taking on a conversational tone in ‘I Could Not Tell’, as though she is retelling the day’s events to a friend.
    Olds’ work could be seen as confessional poetry, with Arielle Greenberg suggesting that female readers of Plath “move on Sharon Olds” as they leave adolescence in her discussion with Becca Klaver, entitled ‘Mad Girls’ Love Songs: Two Women Poets—a Professor and Graduate Student—Discuss Sylvia Plath, Angst, and the Poetics of Female Adolescence’.
    There is some ambiguity in Sharon Olds’ work – it is not clear whether the events in poems actually happened, or something that she created in her imagination. For example, she may not have “jumped off that bus/ that bus in motion, with my child in my arms” (‘I Could Not Tell’), but the reader has no way of knowing.

     Q: Is there anything to be said for Olds writing nearly all of her poetry using a first person narrator? Does she do it to give women a voice?

    ‘The Adoption Papers’ by Jackie Kay 
    The use of the three fonts, one for each narrator is unusual, and makes the text a little difficult to follow at first. However, it does make the text more memorable to the reader, and make each separate voice stand out, emphasizing their words and opinions. These narratives could have been separated into three different poems, but my joining narratives, Key emphasises how adoption is never the story of one person, many people are involved. The voices of these women are intertwined, connected, as biology and law also inescapably join their lives together.
    The detail that Kay goes into shows the reader that this is confessional literature, that this topic is something that she has lingered over. As “an alien”, an adopted child, she would have wondered what made her biological mother give her up, and what drove her adoptive mother to take in a child. These decisions and emotions are explored carefully, and delicately: “my secret is the hush of heavy curtains drawn”.
    ‘The Adoptive Papers’ is, essentially, about motherhood and the battle between nature and nuture. In this case, nuture comes out top, with the biological mother giving the child the best possible life she could have had, as emphasised by the stanza “she’s my child, I have told her stories/ wept at her losses, laughed at her pleasures,/ she is mine”, showing the importance of possession of a child and how “all this umbilical knot business is nonsense”.

    Q: Interestingly, none of the characters in ‘The Adoptive Papers’ are named, they are identified by their role in the adoption, anything more is made to seem unnecessary. Why do you think this is?


    ‘Exceptional Women, Expert Culture, and the Academy’ by Lois Cucullu
    Cucullu argues for the huge overarching power and influence of Woolf’s work, particularly ‘A Room Of One’s Own’, has had on feminism. She argues that without the elitism of Woolf and her modernist contemporaries, the feminist movement would not have progressed. Despite her lauding Woolf as the “lightning rod and icon of feminist ideology”, Cuculla also acknowledges that Woolf excluded huge swathes of women, dismissing them because of their race, class or sexuality.
    Lois Cuculla uses the phrase “female Shakespeare” regularly, to talk about female authors; further enforcing the idea that there is no woman whose literary legacy is as long-lasting or as powerful as William Shakespeare’s. Once again, a woman’s success of qualified by the achievements of a dead man. It does however emphasise the need for “exceptional women”, who have “the essential attribute of genius” and the power to do certain things that “ordinary” women do not, often due to the wealth, intellect and power bestowed on them by men, whether they are fathers or husbands. For example, Woolf needed to be taken seriously and seen as a “genius” for the arguments she put forward in ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ and ‘Orlando’ to be taken seriously as criticism of society and not disregarded as the complaints of a woman. 
    Cuculla not only identifies the “binary of male versus female”, but of the split this “expert culture” has caused in women, and that the exclusivity of that “expert culture” was damaging to some women at the time, it has led to women having more rights than ever before. 

    Q: Is the phrase “female Shakespeare” necessary? Could Cucullu have found another way to describe female achievements than with a man’s name?


  2. Posted by annaerin on March 1, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Selected poems by Sharon Old; ‘A Week Later’, ‘The Victims’, ‘The Daughter Goes To Camp’, ‘Take The I Out’ and ‘My Father’s Diary’. By Silvia Plath; ‘Cinderella’, ‘Ariel’, ‘Love Letter’ and ‘Cut’. By Jackie Kay ‘The Adoption Papers’.

    Old’s poetry is simply written and in free verse which gives the reader the impression of a conversational informal tone. Plath’s work is more structured and has a loose rhythm and rhyming scheme and therefore has an intentional flow. Kay’s writing is both typically poetic in that it has a structure but also written in free verse. The poems are extremely honest and very intensely written. Mostly about their own childhood, life as a mother and ex-wife, and hardships they have faced through life. There seems to be a trend in confessional poetry of very passionate hatred and bitterness directed at these women’s fathers and also a continuous pattern of being let down by men in their adult lives.. There is a need to express these issues explicitly throughout their work. ‘My Father’s Diary’ is especially sad as it seems to be a daughter’s way of trying to reacquaint herself with her father and remind herself that he is not just a monster who left his family. But as the poem ends it becomes clear that she is still very bitter about what he has done to her. Plath’s poetry is less explicit and includes more hints to the reader rather than a straight forward statement. She is also removed from some of her poetry for example in ‘Cinderella’ which makes this work less personal than Kay and Old’s which is written in the first person. ‘Adoption Papers’ is less accusing and much more of a story from different female perspectives. Although it is confusingly written, it is also extremely effective as it portrays how complicated and consuming an adoption is for everyone involved. One of the most haunting parts is in Chapter four when the nineteen year old pregnant girl is burying the clothes that she had bought for her child. Not only is this description easily visualised, but it also serves as an extremely brutal image of death-in this case the death of the dream of motherhood.
    Q. Overall, every piece is appealing to a female reader as it is refreshing to find such honest and explicitly written work that deals with real circumstances and raw emotion. Do you think this poetry would affect a male reader in the same way? Or is it dealing with issues that are mostly too alien for a man to relate to?

    ‘Exceptional Women, Expert Culture and the Academy’- CUCULLU
    Cucullu’s essay deals with the rise of feminism and in particular to the women she considers are to thank for this movement developing and leading to the rights that women have today. A special homage is paid to Woolf who is said to be one of the leaders of the ‘exceptional women’ who wrote in order to raise awareness in society and give women a voice which had been hushed before. However Cucullu does also mention that Woolf dismisses any input which would have been offered by a woman of a different race or class.
    Q. Could it be argued that even though Woolf and people like her succeeded in the improvement of women’s lives and rights, she was in fact only fighting for educated women rather than ALL women? And because of this disregard for a group, is she not as bad as the men she is addressing?


  3. Posted by Fliss on March 3, 2013 at 11:53 am

    “The Adoption Papers”. Jackie Kay.

    This sequence of poems intertwines the dialogue of three parties, daughter, adoptive mother and birth mother. The three voices combine to make up the story behind the adoption and provide insight into each one’s thoughts and feelings, particularly in relation to one another. Dialogue goes back and forth, in some ways as interruptions of the other, but largely as further insights: each voice melds together and sheds light onto the story. The sequence as a whole is largely ambiguous and voices often leave much unsaid so that the reader must guess at interpretation, imagine answers and create faces for the phantom voices, just as the daughter must for her birth mother. By the end of the sequence, at the ‘meeting dream’, the real and imagined, having caused friction throughout the sequence, must come to head: ‘she is too many imaginings to be flesh and blood,/There is nothing left to say’.


    To what extent is the sequence a call and response? Does any real communication occur between the separated parties? Are they connected through the polyphonic style of writing because they cannot physically connect?

    Does this poem aim to provide an example of, conversely, ‘water thicker than blood’?

    What is the significance of the image of ‘the well’?

    “Book of a Lifetime: The Adoption Papers, Jackie Kay”. Patience Agbabi.

    In this short review of Jackie Kay’s poetic sequence ‘The Adoption Papers’, Agbabi addresses the ‘polyphonic’ nature of the poems, briefly touching on the stylistic device of the use of multiple voices. Within the weaving of voices Agbabi identifies ‘the ghost of the writer, who’s not simply found her own voice but her own voices’. In effect, the voices bring together something much deeper than one understanding of self, rather, the voices work together as each parts of the writer’s whole. Writing in this way, for Agbabi, dissolves the ever present theory that ‘“finding your own voice” suggested one voice, one medium’. In one way or another, each voice is all the voices, the author is all the voices.


    Is the ‘ghost of the writer’ intentional or do we find it inherent in all autobiographical / confessional works? Is it a necessary trope of the confessional genre?

    “Someone else’s misfortune: The vicarious pleasures of the confessional text”. Joanna Gill.

    Joanna Gill explores both the role of the writer and of the reader in this essay. Gill draws attention to the ongoing and prevalent issues surrounding confessional writing, how a reader might come to such a text without the fear of voyeurism and anxiety of taboo that seems to inflict readers of the genre. Today, confessional writing has been critically, and damningly, termed ‘emotional pornography’, an out pouring of personal suffering that the writer should not have written and the reader should not have read. For Gill, however, confessional texts should be viewed instead in every sense as literary texts, skillfully crafted ‘with the reader’s pleasure – and thus continued reading – in mind.’ (p.82). Far from being taboo, the confessional text is required to be read to work. Writer and reader together form the ‘confessional process’ (p.68). Ultimately, for Gill, ‘confession[…]is a shared rather than private act’, a ‘dialogue’ (p.90).


    Is it right to use personal suffering as a means to seduce readers ‘into a sympathetic collusion’ (p.87)?

    Why does the reader experience such conflict, of ‘fascination and revulsion’ when reading confessional texts?

    Is the value of confessional writing only therapeutic in nature? Can, and should, the genre be read merely as fiction in the sense that the writer is in no way really connected to them?

    Sharon Old’s Poetry: ‘The Unborn’, ‘True Love’, ‘Take the I Out’ and ‘Toth Farry’.

    Old’s use of imagery and metaphor is used to build up the poem’s story: it creates layers of meaning. What the pane of glass in ‘True Love’ could represent is not clear and open to interpretation. In most cases though, the title of the poem offers direction for the reader’s interpretation. ‘The Unborn’ is, before the first line is read, pregnant with expectation, underlined with things that have not yet been called into being. Old employs classic poetic devices such as anaphora within in her work but does not appear to conform to any strict rhythm or rhyme scheme, stanzas varying from the short and simplistic form, as in ‘The Unborn’, to the long and complex imagery of ‘Take the I Out’.


    Is the draw to poetry largely to do with its ambiguity? Could ‘matter of fact’ poetry be as enjoyable to read? Is it possible, or does poetry as a whole disallow it?

    Sylvia Plath’s poetry: ‘Insomniac’, ‘Poppies in July’, ‘Barren Woman’ and ‘Child’.

    Plath’s poetry’s use of imagery is largely cryptic. Her writing often leaves more questions than answers and often suggests an internal working through of ideas or concerns. Her poetry is beautifully descriptive, ‘Insomniac’ perfectly captures the endless night of the sleepless subject, the running through of the day, the painful break of the morning heralding the new day. ‘Poppies in July’ offers an example of Plath’s subversion of natural beauty, in this case of a flower, tainted with violence and unpleasant imagery, such as the poppies’ ‘Little bloodied skirts’.


    Is it right to take into account the writer’s experience when interpreting a text? Could it not in some way jar the imagination by focusing solely on what the writer intended? Can a personal response, or even simply a literary response, be sufficient?


  4. Posted by Alice Gomm on March 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    Sharon Olds: ‘1954’, ‘A Week Later’, ‘Crab’, ‘First Thanksgiving’, ‘May 1968’


    Many of these poems focus on family and the impact of personal events such as divorce, pregnancy, death, and children leaving home. Olds may be using these aspects of family life to highlight that domestic, family life is important and dramatic, and not trivial because of its emotional impact. In ‘Crab’, Olds uses violent imagery such as ‘she is like a fish-hawk, wild, tearing the meat’ to describe her mother. This imagery prevents Olds’ memories of her mother in these poems from seeming mawkish and allows the reader to connect with Olds’ feelings towards her mother. Similar techniques using unusual imagery are utilised in the other poems. ‘1954’ differs from the other poems by Olds I read as it does not reflect on family relationships but on Olds’ reaction to a murder she has read about. Olds’ fear of the murder allows this poem to be read as confessional, but her admission of her assumptions about what evil is: ‘His face was dull and ordinary,/it took away what I’d thought I could count on/about evil’ emphasises the confessional aspect of the poem. Olds admits that her assumptions are wrong, and this admission allows the reader to empathise.


    What does the image of the ‘huge, thrown, tilted jack/on fire’ in ‘A Week Later’ represent?
    What does Olds mean in the line ‘death to the person, death to the home planet’ in ‘1954’?
    Why does Olds use bird imagery, such as ‘warbler’, ‘eggshell’ and ‘sing’ when describing her mother in ‘A Week Later’? Is the bird imagery related to the image of ‘the little/painted plane, in the mural, flying’ when she goes to sign the divorce papers?

    Sylvia Plath: ‘The Applicant’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Cut’, ‘Daddy’


    Plath’s poetry deals with problems of identity through semi-fictional characters which are used to represent her. In ‘The Applicant’, for example, Plath reflects on her difficulty in performing the role of a traditional stay-at-home mother by representing a wife as a machine, or an object for sale. The poem has an ironic tone which suggests that Plath finds the role of a stay-at-home mother limiting. Plath describes a wife as ‘A living doll’ and its function is to ‘do whatever you tell it’. The line ‘It works, there is nothing wrong with it’ may imply exactly the opposite; Plath may feel insecure because of her difficulty in fulfilling the role of wife and mother. In ‘Lady Lazarus’, Plath uses a different semi-fictional character, she writes about her suicide attempt through the use of Lady Lazarus who rises from the dead. Plath also focuses on theatricality, for example in ‘Lady Lazarus’ dying is ‘the theatrical’. The theme of theatricality may highlight the voyeuristic nature of tragedy and perhaps of reading Plath’s work. The suggestion that humanity has an unhealthy appetite for tragedy may also be observed in the lines ‘The peanut-crunching crowd/Shoves in to see/Them unwrap me hand and foot-/The big strip tease.’ One may, however, argue that the following lines ‘Gentlemen, ladies/These are my hands/My knees’ invite the reader to look. Perhaps these lines suggest that Plath wants people to look but is disgusted when they do. Like Olds, Plath uses violent and shocking imagery in her poetry which may demonstrate the influence of Plath on contemporary poets. The violent imagery subverts society’s expectations of women through the anger it represents. Violence is also not associated with women by society which contributes to the shock value of the imagery.


    How does our knowledge of Plath’s mental illness and suicide affect the way we read her work?
    Is anything lost by reading her work form an autobiographical perspective?
    Why does Plath use images of the Holocaust in poems such as ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’?

    The Adoption Papers – Jackie Kay


    Kay challenges assumptions some people make about adoption, particularly the idea that an adopted child can never be the same as having your ‘own’ child. The adoptive mother contradicts the idea that her adoptive daughter is not her own, saying: ‘of course it is, what else is it?’The adoptive mother also challenges the idea that an adopted child can never be like the mother because they have different DNA. The adoptive mother recognises similarities between her and her daughter and may suggest that environment is more important than biology when she says: ‘I heard my voice under hers/and now some of her mannerisms crack me up’. The poems examine the prejudice the daughter encounters growing up in a community where the majority of people are white. The daughter is the target of racism from the pupils and teachers at school and the poems highlight the negative emotional impact of racism, after her teacher is racist towards her she says her ‘skin is hot as burning coal’.


    Why does Kay use multiple viewpoints within each poem?
    The style of these poems is very different to the violent and shocking imagery in Plath and Olds’ poetry. Is this a different strand of confessional poetry? Are there other female poets who use a similar form and style to Kay?

    Lois Cucullu – Exceptional Women, Expert Culture and the Academy


    Cucullu argues that the development of the ‘modern expert’ in the 20th century allowed feminist discourse to be accepted ‘in the academy’ (46). However, the notion of the ‘expert’ may also be seen as elitist and so feminist discourse became ‘complicit with structures of domination active over the last century’. According to Cucullu, ‘educated white feminists’ such as Virginia Woolf overlooked ‘the conditions of their own privilege’ and so ignored differences like ‘class and race, ethnicity, and sexuality’ (47). These ‘educated white feminists’ were focused on the oppression of women in ‘the bourgeois household’ but ignored its ‘historical and social specificity’ (47). Seeing marriage and family from a privileged position means that some feminists ignore circumstances where marriage and family are not evidence of oppression, such as for former slaves in the 19th century or for same-sex couples more recently. Cucullu ends the essay questioning how feminism will adapt to changing society in the 21st century.

    Is elitism still a problem in feminist discourse?


  5. Posted by Nabilah on March 3, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Lois Cucullu, Exceptional Women, Expert Culture and the Academy

    This essay is a very interesting and informative look at the conflict within the academic feminist movement about its past, present and future, which began in the 1990s. Cucullu discusses the debate ‘over extraordinary versus ordinary women, intellectual engagement versus political reform, “steer[ing] the van” as opposed to “guard[ing] the rear”. On the one hand, Cucullu argues that female literary modernists established a new paradigm ‘of feminist reformation around the arts that has had far-reaching consequences for academic feminism as a mode and practice of knowing.’ Using Virginia Woolf as an example, Cucullu states that the former’s work ‘served not simply as a rallying cry for female inclusion in the twenties and thirties. They also came to serve feminism’s subsequent revival and, more particularly, it’s ascent in the academy and the professions.’ On the other hand, Cucullu also argues that even though modern feminist writers ‘helped empower feminist discourses in the academy and, at the same time, made them complicit with structures of domination’. There is a distinction between “literary” feminism and the feminist movement.

    Sylvia Plath poetry

    Sylvia Plath’s poetry has many common themes – some of them being death, mortality, depression and dissatisfaction with life the way it is. She is autobiographical in many of her poems and her novel ‘The Bell Jar’. For example in her poem ‘Daddy’, Plath uses Holocaust imagery as a metaphor to describe her relationship with her father, his death when she was just ten years old and the torment she faced after it. She describes her father as a Nazi and herself as a Jew. Plath compares her mental suffering after her father’s death to the physical suffering of the Jews in Dachau, Auschwitz and Belsen.

    Furthermore, ‘Insomniac’ deals with Plath’s manic depression and her consequential inability to sleep. She displays a desire for something greater than life as it is: ‘The night sky is only a sort of carbon paper / Blueblack’. She finds night time monotonous and boring. The second stanza of the poem somewhat relates to ‘Daddy’ as Plath reflects on her unhappiness with her childhood, she does not have fond memories of it and thinks of her parents as unloving. The third stanza of ‘Insomniac’ is also significant as it discusses medication, in particular sleeping pills. Plath’s first suicide attempt was an overdose of sleeping pills. Plath speaks fondly of sleeping pills in the poem: ‘Those sugary planets whose influence won for him / A life baptized in no-life for a while’, they made her forget about life and depression.


    Do you think Sylvia Plath’s use of metaphor is effective in her poetry?

    Would Plath’s poetry be judged differently if we did not know that she had manic depression or if it was written by a woman without depression? How does knowing about her mental illness affect our views on her work?

    Jackie Kay, The Adoption Papers

    Like many of Sylvia Plath’s poems, Jackie Kay’s ‘The Adoption Papers’ is autobiographical. It tells the tale of Kay’s adoption by white, Scottish parents after her birth mother had to give her up. The collection of poems is told from the point of view of three characters: the daughter, the adoptive mother and the birth mother, and was written while Kay was trying to track down her birth mother. One poem that is particularly striking is ‘Chapter 4: ‘Baby Lazarus” which accurately discusses the grief of the birth mother having to give up her child in order for the latter to lead a better life and the anxiety of the adoptive mother as she waits to receive her child. We feel sympathy for the birth mother and nervous for the adoptive mother and feel relief when we find out that she will be to adopt a child.


    Is it significant that Jackie Kay called her poem ‘Baby Lazarus’ – which appears to allude to Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’, or is this merely a coincidence?

    Sharon Olds Poetry

    Many common themes seem to run throughout Sharon Olds poetry, some of them being motherhood, life and death. Olds, like Plath and Kay is an autobiographical poet. ‘The End’ discusses abortion and the physical and emotional strain that a woman and her partner can have while deciding to abort a baby. ‘The End’ reflects on coincidence, as when a couple are discussing whether to abort their unborn child, a car crash happens outside which reminds the couple of mortality: ‘Cops pulled the bodies out / Bloody as births from the small, smoking / aperture of the door’. Suddenly it seems that the woman miscarries her unborn child but it is unclear whether it was due to the stress of considering an abortion or the shocking reminder of how fragile life is, after seeing the accident: ‘Blood / began to pour / down my legs into my slippers’.


    What is the significance of the woman miscarrying in ‘The End’?


  6. Posted by Caroline on March 3, 2013 at 6:03 pm

    Jackie Kay: ‘The Adoption Papers’

    Kay provides three voices within the narrative, allowing for the expression of her lost identity. As an autobiographical piece, Kay suggests her inability to understand her self in the depiction of her story from three different standing points. The repetition of the ‘blood’ imagery enables her to discuss her identity through blood relations, as well as the idea that through her birth-mother’s pregnancy, the egg that was fertilised, being her, was unable to continue the normal procedure that unfertilised eggs proceed into: menstruation. The honest narrative enables Kay to free her story from her mind, therefore enacting a self-emancipation.

    Q. Are confessional poems seen to be feminine?

    Sylvia Plath: Selected Poems ‘Cut’, ‘Aftermath’, ‘Daddy’, and ‘Heavy Women’

    Plath, like Kay, focuses on blood and generally tragedy as a subject for her poems. The poem Daddy is depicted in a childlike form to express pain as being enacted on herself, suggesting that she is innocent and that she is being corrupted. The poem ‘Cut’ reveals a self-destructive tendency, that is expressed in metaphoric imagery, which seems to want to make the reader uncomfortable in the description of the blood, although it also is beautifully described.

    Q. Confessional poems focus on the uncomfortable subject, bringing the inner truths to light. Can this form be considered as a form of therapy?

    Sharon OIds: Selected Poems ‘A Week Later’, ‘One Year’, ‘The Victims’ and ‘I Could Not Tell’

    Olds writes, in ‘A Week Later’, ‘I don’t think I could ever write about it’, suggesting that to write of something is to accept it as truth, to try and understand it and remove it from the dark corners of the mind. The ability to understand one tragedy for Olds in this poem is to link it to another, the lover’s departure is linked to the mother’s death. She discusses the ability to leave behind a body after the person has died in ‘One Year’; ‘The Victims discusses her deep hatred for her father; ‘I Could Not Tell’ expresses the inability to understand pain, and the way the brain can stop you from feeling and the way you can talk yourself out of understanding.

    Q. Olds appears to rid of the pain by turning the tragedy into an art form. How does imagery serve to transform an aspect, and remove the discomfort of the honest expression?

    Lois Cucullu: ‘Exceptional Women, Expert Culture and the Academy’

    This essay discusses women’s professional ascension and the way in which women have been accepted as academics. The focus on Woolf as an advocate for the cause argues against the idea that there is no female Shakespeare, therefore women did not need civil rights. Woolf assisted in raising women’s credentials, therefore allowed their inclusion with the academy. However, this inclusion has become ordinary, therefore the ability to write has become less exquisite and more just something that is. The need for capital inhibits the non-dominant the ability to provide resistant knowledge.

    Q. The perception of feminism is often considered ‘man-hating’ and is ridiculed for this. How has feminism become less politicised and more trivialised?


  7. Jackie Kay, ‘The Adoption Papers’
    In her collection of poetry ‘The Adoption Papers,’ Jackie Kay presents the reader with multiple narratives told by the voices of a daughter, a birth mother and an adoptive mother. Kay embarks on themes of motherhood, identity and race as the reader witnesses the waiting involved in the process of adoption, experiences the birth mother’s guilt and follows the complexities of the daughter who struggles to assert her identity in a predominantly white and racist area. Whilst there is a shifting perspective, the poems remain in first person narrative and invite the reader into the consciousness of each speaker. This intimate form is also reinforced by the speaker’s casual conversational tone in ‘Chapter 3: The Waiting Lists’ as the adoptive mother confides in the reader like a companion: ‘(though we kept quiet about being communists’).Without distinguishable font types, these personal accounts would be difficult to follow as the reader is presented with three nameless narrators. This anonymity stresses the daughter’s lack of identity as she has no awareness of her cultural origins and feelings of displacement as she has no other ethnic person to relate to, identifying herself with a poster of Angela Davies, and questions ‘Do you really look like this? As if I’m somebody else. I wonder if she does that,’ in ‘Chapter 8: Generations.’ Naming however is not necessary for the birth mother who is absent throughout her daughter’s childhood along with the adoptive mother who represents how motherhood is not only a label for those who have given birth but more importantly, given to those who nurture a child.
    1. If these poems are written from Jackie Kay’s own personal experiences, what speaker do you think she is and why? How does she capture the thoughts and emotions of the other speakers?

    Sharon Olds, Selection of Poems (‘The Borders,’ ‘The Primitive,’ ‘The Victims,’ ‘The End’)
    Sharon Olds addresses a number of diverse issues in her poetry that any reader may have encountered in their own life. Olds explores the complexities that occur in many different relationships concerning marriage, separation, sex, pregnancy and family life, articulating the voices of children and adults to express an endurance of pain and suffering. In her poem ‘The Victims,’ Olds demonstrates how children are affected by their parent’s divorce, influenced by their mother who breeds hatred and anger. The change from past to present tense indicates how the speaker has matured and noticed this one-sided account, his/hers feelings towards the father changes along with the readers. A negative portrayal of maternal relationships is also explored in ‘The Borders’ as the speaker refuses to be like her mother whilst, the speaker in the poem ‘The End’ has a miscarriage after conveniently deciding to have an abortion with her partner and witnessing a car accident outside their home. Although she uses emotive language in these poems, Olds is very matter-of-fact and maintains a cold tone in approaching sensitive subjects that shock the reader, her honesty creating a powerful effect. A less shocking but still daring poem ‘The Primitive,’ lowers this tone as the sensual language evokes positivity in pleasure in a relationship that is casual and non-conformist.
    1.When you consider the common themes explored in confessional poetry (E.g. pregnancy, motherhood, family), would you agree that this literary form is largely written by women and appealing to a female audience? Is confessional poetry therefore, a feminine form of expression? (What about the subject of gay men in ‘Severe Gale 8’ that Patience Agbabi turns her attentions towards in her review?)

    Sylvia Plath, Selection of Poems (‘Daddy,’ ‘Insomniac,’ ‘Childless Woman,’ ‘Facelift’)
    Like Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath draws upon delicate issues concerning miscarriages, childhood and parental relationships as shown for example, in ‘Childless Woman,’ narrating the pain of a woman who feels useless as she struggles to conceive. The hopeless tone motivates the narrator towards death, capturing Plath’s own difficulties with pregnancy as well as her depression and suicidal thoughts. Similarly, her poem ‘Insomnia’ personifies the torment of not being able to sleep, the obsessions with colour portraying compulsive traits that could characterise Plath’s own madness. The use of pills suggests that Plath is trying to escape troubling memories of childhood and possibly attempting to commit suicide. A negative portrayal of childhood is also expressed in ‘Daddy’ with Plath’s direct, harsh and explicit language demonstrating how she wants to erase memories of her father. The reader however, must try to distinguish whether many of these poems are confessions of Plath’s own life or imaginary characters and scenarios. In ‘Facelift’ Plath takes a different approach towards her poetry and deals with a woman’s desire to undergo surgery to regain her youth, possibly commenting on the pressures of society rather than herself. These distinctions make some of the poems ambiguous as they are open to a number of different interpretations. The use of complex language also adds to this as Plath’s rich and detailed descriptions, and careful choice of words convey a deeper meaning. Overall, the intensity of Plath’s poetry mirrors her own stressful and traumatic life as well as capturing the pain of other people who have suffered similar experiences.
    1.Does articulating madness create more interesting poetry? What is it about madness that is appealing to readers?

    Lois Cucullu, ‘Exceptional Women, Expert Culture, and the Academy’
    Lois Cucullu uses Woolf as a model for writing women in the academy and refers to Woolf’s own model of Shakespeare’s sister to present a transformation in the feminist movement along with its integration with modernism. These transformations however, formed a class hierarchy in the feminist movement as many traditional and ‘elite’ feminists were overshadowed by a ‘new generation’ of intellects established by Woolf. Woolf’s invention of ‘exceptional women’ inspired female intellects to establish themselves not only in literary academia but a number of different professions. The double position she occupied with ‘Judith Shakespeare’ as a feminist adopting a new style of modernist writing was seen as a threat to original feminist thought. Whilst Wiegman encourages this new wave of feminist writing, ‘elites’ such as Gubar and Nussbaum believe that theories from Judith Butler and other women similar to Woolf challenge the feminist institution with their ‘subversions’ and become accepted as the norm. Likewise, Gallagher demonstrates how Woolf’s writing dominated feminist scholarship, dismissing the work of Margaret Tyler as her writing lacked the new style Woolf evoked and failed to take risks. Cucullu explores how Woolf motivated a split in the feminist academy, using her own status to breed a new dominating generation of female intellects as she ‘actively erected exclusionary barriers.’
    1. Is Lois Cucullu criticising the transformations Woolf caused in feminist writing or encouraging future female writers to take a double occupation in their work?


  8. Posted by Nina Gill on March 4, 2013 at 8:15 am

    ‘The Adoption Papers’, Jackie Kay

    Jackie Kay uses three voices simultaneously: the daughter, the adoptive mother and the birth mother. Although the distinction between the fonts can be hard to follow at times, the combination of the three narratives is appreciated by the reader as it allows them to follow the same story but through different eyes, (something which is rarely found in literature). The thoughts of each narrative are shared and the reader is left with a greater understanding than a single narrative would be able to provide. Perhaps Kay uses this technique to portray the complexity of the emotions and thoughts that come into play in the process of adoption.

    She brings to light the question of what it means to be a family. Kay allows the birth mother to admit her feelings of not being able to deny that she is a mother: ‘I cannot pretend she’s never been’ and shows that she is unable to let go of her daughter emotionally and mentally: ‘I see her shuttered eyes in my dreams’. However, when using the voice of the adoptive mother Kay states things as though they were fact (rather than simply indicating emotion), strengthening its validity in our eyes: ‘She’s my child, I have told her stories / wept at her losses, laughed at her pleasures, / she is mine’ and most significantly: ‘all this umbilical knot business is nonsense’. Furthermore, the adoptive parents, mostly the mother, (but also the father), are shown to play the role of good parents; the protection, the morals, the honesty, the respect for the situation and the love for their daughter, instantly tell the reader that the adoptive mother is the mothering one and is therefore the most important type of ‘mother’ in the young girl’s life.

    The importance of biology is not completely dismissed, as the confusion and the interest aroused in the baby, then child, and then young adult is shown from beginning to end. Although her curiosity is shown to remain instinctual and strong, her faith is shown to never waver as she repeatedly refers to her adoptive mother as ‘mum’, leaving some intrigue alive, but essentially having ‘nothing left to say’ to the birth mother.

    Q: Do you think that the Jackie Kay refers to the three narratives as ‘Daughter’, ‘Adoptive Mother and ‘Birth Mother’, because she feels the situation is representative of many other adoption cases? By not using names, is she able to generalise this situation to wider society? If so, why do you think she does this?
    Q: Looking at her-real life situation, could it be that confessional poetry (being slightly autobiographical) is used as an affirmation to herself and the world of her situation, helping her to deal with how she processes it? Can this be said for a lot of other confessional pieces too?

    ‘Exceptional Women, Expert Culture, and the Academy’, Lois Cucullu

    Lois Cucullu discusses the changes that have occurred within Feminism and comments on the role that feminism has in academy and vice versa. She declares that Virginia Woolf, ‘an exceptional woman’, and females of her kind, who have undertook ‘difficult and complex paths’ ‘for liberation’ have drastically contributed in the development of the feminist movement. She uses the term ‘female Shakespeare repeatedly to remind us that in spite of how exceptional these women are, they have not amounted to the status that Shakespeare has. However, she does argue that Woolf deserves to be credited for the ‘genius’ that she is. Cucullu explains that despite the many changes made, there is still a long way to go and academia has played a contradictory role, supporting it, but not entirely.

    Q: Does Cucullu suggest a necessary step forward for the Feminist movement? If so, what is it? If not, what might she suggest this step should be?

    Poems by Sharon Olds: ‘The Promise’, ‘The Wedding Vow’, ‘Sex without Love’ and ‘The Victims’

    Sharon Olds’ poetry is often based upon her personal experiences in relationships and is enriched with sexual and violent references, revolving around love and death. This suggests that Sharon Olds is a confessional poet, in the modernist era, dealing with these topics. She is rather direct in the darkness of her tone across many poems. She mostly uses a female voice and speaks in the first person, naturally personalising the tone and the events. Also, there are many religious references which stem from her upbringing.

    In ‘The Promise’, the couple repeat a promise to kill each other if either one becomes incapacitated. This is done in a way where death is romanticised and the killing is described as a murder, not euthanasia as a last resort. All the while, most strikingly, this promise claims to be out of love. The cutting of the other one’s wrists is also indicative of a suicide. She refers to the moments of their love-making when they are so physically close: ‘eye to eye, nipple to nipple / sex to sex’ as the explanation of why she would never break this promise. Their sexual feelings linger throughout even when they are not in the bedroom: ‘and wherever we are, we are also in our / bed, fitted, naked, closely / along each other’, telling us that their relationship could be heavily founded upon sexual feelings. Finally, the last lines, ‘[…]if the ropes/ binding your soul are your own wrists, I will cut them’, reveal the darkness as it glorifies death as an escape for the ‘binding’ ‘soul’, making it a seemingly romanticised act. Fear is also an element which resonates throughout the poem. Likewise, ‘The Wedding Vow’ is filled with fear as she talks about her doubt as an insect which ‘then was brushed / away’. A sense of complexity and hesitation are dominant in the one moment which she has supposedly been ‘practising’ for and waiting for her whole life. ‘Sex without Love’ details Olds confusion and disbelief and also intrigue, for the couples who merely partake in the physical aspect without feeling love. She describes them as those who ‘love the / priest instead of the God’ and as ‘dancers’ and ‘ice-skaters’ who presumably rehearse this as nothing but a physical show. Essentially, it is questioning morals and sex and love are universally important.

    Q: Isn’t writing in the first person leaving the poet susceptible to an invasion of their personal lives? After all, even when it is not written bluntly, poems are inseparable from the poet and it often involves their deepest thoughts and emotions. Would you find it scary, as a poet, to open up your thoughts and feelings in a way which novels don’t tend to do and share them with the world?

    Poems by Sylvia Plath: ‘Childless Woman’, ‘Heavy Woman’, ‘Kindness’ and ‘I am Vertical’

    Sylvia Plath’s poems mostly exhibit a dark undertow which is reflected by her suicide. The resonant tones of despair and the many references to death do suggest that Sylvia Plath is a confessional poet, in the modernist era, dealing with these types of feelings and thoughts. As a marker of the confessional poet, Plath does not reveal the darkness of her thoughts all at once – instead, she controls it and weaves it in to the lines of the poetry so that they provide the tone for the speaker of the poem, without simply detailing emotions or uncontrollably pouring out her feelings.

    All four poems revolve around or at least mention motherhood. In ‘Heavy Woman’, Plath presents the lack of individuality amongst the ‘archetype’ of mothers. These heavy, pregnant women seem to be idealistic and prove unreal. In ‘Childless woman’ she expands upon the pain and sadness that infertility brings her, it is ‘ungodly’, (against nature) for her ‘womb’ to lack the ability to bear a child. Here, Due to this inability, the darkness of her sadness is used through words in the same semantic field to connate ‘death’: ‘blood’, ‘dark red’, ‘funeral’ and ‘corpses’. Interestingly, as we have seen before, (in ‘Childless women’), the female writer uses the trope of the mirror to reflect the self-perception of the voice in the poem. The mirror is used to capture her fears of mortality and her inevitable death which she sees before her. ‘Kindness’ also uses the mirror trope, though, this time, rather than being used to reflect the way the speaker perceives themselves, it is used alongside the trope of the window to present the idea of an illusion. The personality trait, kindness, has been personified, significantly as a woman too. The ‘smoke’, the ‘window’ and the ‘mirror’ and the way that kindness ‘glides’ about the house, tell us that she is not real. Furthermore, this seemingly fake feminine entity, kindness, is described as naïve when she believes that ‘sugar’ can ‘sweetly’ solve all problems. ‘I am Vertical’ expresses the narrator’s desire to be something other than what she is. Nonetheless, it is appreciated for what it is. The tone of frustration and desperation is strong, as she begins the poem with frankly stating ‘I am vertical / but I would rather be horizontal’. As many women writers are seen to do, Plath uses nature: ‘flowers’, ‘trees’ and the ‘sky’. Here, nature is used as a parallel against herself, it shows what she is not and what she longs to be a part of. Perhaps, this notion ties in with the infertility presented in ‘Childless Women’, as it also seemingly goes against nature. She refers to her mortality in the first stanza and lying down, which will bring her closer to nature, but the darkness of this poem is powerfully held in one line: ‘And I shall be useful when I lie down’. This line finalises her isolation from nature, because the only way in which she can fulfil her longing to be at one with nature, is not while she is living; it is only though death.

    Q: Do you think that writing, (whether poetry, memoirs or novels), are a type of self-talk? So, the deeper that Plath dwelled into her life through her writing, she became more obsessed and introverted, causing the reality of the situations she wrote about to worsen? Could this be possible? When we partake in self-talk, mentally bringing to mind certain words and phrases, we are intentionally changing our way of thinking. Can writing, particularly in a confessional style, be of the same use? In the same way as when we talk negatively to ourselves, when we write negatively, are we affecting the way we think rather than reflecting the way we think? Or, in other words, did her writing about death lead to her suicide? Or was it the other way round?


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