Confessional Poetry: Blog by Phoebe Deans

Confessional poetry is often referred to as the poetry of the personal or ‘I’ due to it being typically autobiographical. Forming in the nineteen-fifties, post-industrial society, Charles Molesworth in his essay “With Your Own Face On”: The Origins and Consequences of Confessional Poetry, suggests confessional poetry is a ‘degraded branch of Romanticism’, placing the sensitivity of the poet as its central concern. In this week’s reading we examine both the confessional genre and the female poet, looking particularly at the work of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds.
According to Caroline Hall, Female confessional poets manipulated poetry ‘as an exit from a labyrinth of mundane difficulty, psychological pain and emotional extremes’. In this week’s reading, none of the three poets conform to the social, patriarchal or oppressive practices prevalent at this time of writing. Sharon Olds poems regarded female psychological health and emotional balance. As identified by Laura Ward, Olds’ poems expand on the confessional genre as ‘she branches out with poetry that encompasses an array of emotions […] including the more sombre confessional topics. She moves the style [of writing] forward through her topics and outlook’.

As identified by Donna Ford in ‘Confessional Poetry: To What Extend Does the Work of the “Confessional Poet” Engage with “What Has Been Repressed, Hidden or Falsified?”’, confessional poets often explore previously taboo or shocking subjects in their writing. Such subjects include suicide, mental breakdowns, incest and marriage issues. For example, Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ expresses an anger towards patriarchy of the early nineteen-sixties, and its oppression of the female artist, using the analogy of a concentration camp.

If defining the poetry by the term ‘confessional’, meaning a commitment to recording as directly as possible one’s private pain or suffering, then Sexton is arguably the most ‘confessional’ poet due to her disregard of artifice and artistic transcendence. She used her poetry as psychiatric method in order to achieve a form of personal catharsis, attempting to avoid further metal disorders.

The three female confessional poets helped pioneer a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been since been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. While reading this blog and the collection of poems assigned, I argue that Plath is in fact the most confessional in terms of the ‘repressed, hidden or falsified’. Plath’s work not only criticises patriarchal society, but also the myth of the perfect woman in the 1950s.

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  2. Posted by Eliza on January 11, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    Anne Sexton in poem ‘In Celebration of My Uterus’ quotes philosopher Soren Kierkegaard when she explains that her uterus is not ‘sick unto dying’. This is significant as Kierkegaard’s philosophy warned against loss of self, specifically in spiritual terms, something which he argued would lead to ‘despair’ and an individual’s sense of self being hard to locate – becoming a ‘relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation.’ I think Phoebe’s point about Sexton’s attempt at artistic transcendence is an important one as transcendence is a very loaded word from a spiritual perspective, implying moving above ordinary plains of understanding, perhaps even into a God-like position. In Molesworth’s essay, he argues that ‘either the [confessional] poet must become God or resign consciousness altogether’, something which I think comes through in the work of the confessional poets. They don’t appear to be engaged in the project of confession simply for confession’s sake; in order to transcend, you must be above it all, in a God-like position of observation. Is it actually possible to observe your own self in these terms?

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  3. Posted by Salma AlTabari on January 11, 2016 at 7:06 pm

    I slightly disagree with Donna Ford’s point on Sexton’s “truth crimes”. I don’t think that they should have been justified or disregarded because of the fact that Sexton discussed taboo topics that no one had previously presented in poetry. While her poems created a significant contribution to the world of poetry, it is rather odd that they are still labelled “confessional”. Couldn’t she have easily written poetry about taboo topics without labelling them “confessional”? On some level, it is ironic that exaggerated poetry contributed in establishing a genre of poetry concerned with telling truths – confessions.

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  4. Posted by Lukas on January 11, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    I think that from a feminist point of view, “Confessional” poetry is a very true form of female writing. As several of the extracts in Eagleton’s ‘Feminist Literary Theory” argues, a female text, and arguably a feminist text as well, has to be written from lived female experiences. Confessional Poetry gives both readers and writers access to a genre of fiction that pretty much solely bases itself on expressing lived experiences. I think that Anne Sexton’s Poems does this in the most feminist way, by talking about menstruation, uteruses and having an abortion, which are all experiences men will not get to have.

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  5. One theme through some of these pieces of confessional poetry is that they are confessing on topics which are taboo for women – abortion and failed motherhood. It’s interesting that even though these poems take on a different voice, and use artistic license in their confessions including inventing family members, it’s still a female voice that they assume to acknowledge failure on a female issue. I wonder if they want to speak on issues they have the potential to relate to, so as the poetry would be taken more seriously, or because they want to tell these stories more because they are more taboo than universal issues.

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  6. Posted by Christie on January 12, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    In some senses, confessional poetry might be seen as an ironic genre of writing for a female author to adopt. Carol Ohmann, in the Feminist Literary Anthology, outlines how women writers in the past had to worry about their writing being perceived as a reflection (or ‘confession’) of their own identity, as it often was by critics and readers of their work. This worry meant that even in fictional work, women writers were careful not to write immoral or controversial literature in fear that their own persona would be publicly shamed by critics as immoral and distorted.
    However, Phoebe’s consideration of ‘transcendence’ seems relevant here, as women writers are seemingly transcending this fear of judgement, by ironically conforming to it as they openly ‘confess’ controversial aspects of their lives. Female confessional writing seems to take what was once an inaccurate and oppressive aspect of women’s writing, and turn it into a liberating and therapeutic form of writing.

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  7. Posted by Wafaa on January 13, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    The idea of Confessional poetry, contemporary to its time was the only platform for women to express themselves as humans who experience all sorts of pain and psychological suffering. Molesworth gives a very detailed critical analysis on these female poet’s techniques who relate such taboo experiences that needed to be acknowledged in a public space to reach other women. I find them to be an inspiration that should encourage us all to face the issues for all genders to express and deal with problems in a healthy manner, instead of it being called confessional it should be considered normal, as we all experience difficulty which society should raise more awareness of in general.

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  8. Posted by Eva on January 14, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    Molesworth argues that confessional poetry places the sensitivity of the poet at the centre of concern. By ‘confessional’ he means ‘a commitment to recording as directly as possible the shape of private pain and intimate sickness, without regard to artifice or aesthetic transcendence’. However, when a writer elaborates, and when Anne Sexton writes about a brother that never existed, does that make the poem less ‘confessional’? Confessional poetry should engage with the repressed, the hidden and the falsified, says Ford. When poets elaborate on taboo stories, they are still engaging with the repressed and the hidden. They may not be confessing their own, full truth, but it is likely they are confessing someone’s truth and making their truth less taboo.

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