Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Confessional poetry

Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or “I.” This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W.D. Snodgrass. Lowell’s book Life Studies was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties, and had a significant impact on American poetry. Plath and Sexton were both students of Lowell and noted that his work influenced their own writing.
            The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.
            The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work. While their treatment of the poetic self may have been groundbreaking and shocking to some readers, these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody.
            One of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood:
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
            Another confessional poet of this generation was John Berryman. His major work was The Dream Songs, which consists of 385 poems about a character named Henry and his friend Mr. Bones. Many of the poems contain elements of Berryman’s own life and traumas, such as his father’s suicide. Below is an excerpt from “Dream Song 1”:
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
            The confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day; Marie Howe and Sharon Olds are two contemporary poets whose writing largely draws upon their personal experience.
Confessional poetry
            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 taboo matter such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide, often set in relation to broader social themes.[1] It is sometimes also classified as Postmodernism.[2]
            The school of "Confessional Poetry" was associated with several poets who redefined American poetry in the '50s and '60s, including Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, and W. D. Snodgrass.[3][4]
·         2 Further developments
·         3 Reaction
·         4 See also
·         5 Notes
·         6 References

Life Studies and the emergence of Confessionalism
            In 1959 M. L. Rosenthal first used the term "confessional" in a review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies entitled "Poetry as Confession",[5] Rosenthal differentiated the confessional approach from other modes of lyric poetry by way of its use of confidences that (Rosenthal said) went “beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment”.[6] Rosenthal notes that in earlier tendencies towards the confessional there was typically a "mask" that hid the poet's "actual face", and states that “Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal”.[7] In a review of the book in The Kenyon Review, John Thompson wrote, "For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest: what they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry."[8]
            There were however clear moves towards the "confessional" mode before the publication of Life Studies. Delmore Schwartz's confessional long poem Genesis had been published in 1943; and John Berryman had written a sonnet sequence in 1947 about an adulterous affair he'd had with a woman named Chris while he was married to his first wife, Eileen (however, since publishing the sonnets would have revealed the affair to his wife, Berryman didn't actually publish the sequence, titled Berryman's Sonnets, until 1967, after he divorced from his first wife).[9][10] Snodgrass' Heart's Needle, in which he writes about the aftermath of his divorce, also preceded Life Studies.
            Life Studies was nonetheless the first book in the confessional mode that captured the reading public's attention and the first to officially be labeled "confessional." Most notably "confessional" were the poems in the final section of Life Studies in which Lowell alludes to his struggles with mental illness and his experiences in a mental hospital. Plath remarked upon the influence of these types of poems from Life Studies in an interview in which she stated, "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."[11] A. Alvarez however considered that some poems in Life Studies seemed “more compulsively concerned with the processes of psychoanalysis than with those of poetry”;[12] while conversely Michael Hofmann saw the verbal merit of Lowell's work only diminished by emphasis on “what I would call the C-word, 'Confessionalism'”.[13]
Further developments
Other key texts of the American "confessional" school of poetry include Plath's Ariel, Berryman's The Dream Songs, and Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back.
Another significant, if transitional figure was Adrienne Rich;[14] while one of the most prominent, consciously "confessional" poets to emerge in the 1980s was Sharon Olds whose focus on taboo sexual subject matter built off of the work of Ginsberg.
In the 1970s and 1980s, some writers rebelled against Confessionalism in American poetry, arguing that it was too self-indulgent. For instance, one of the foremost poets of the Deep Image school, Robert Bly, was highly critical of what he perceived to be the solipsistic tendencies of Confessional poets. He referenced this aesthetic distaste when he praised the poet Antonio Machado for "his emphasis on the suffering of others rather than his own".[15] However, many others writers during this period, like Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, and Franz Wright, were strongly influenced by the precedent set by Confessional poetry with its themes of taboo autobiographical experience, of the psyche and the self, and revelations of childhood and adult traumas.
The poetic movement of New Formalism, a return to rhyme and meter, would also spring from a backlash against free verse that had become popular in Confessional poetry. Another poetry movement that formed, in part, as a reaction to confessional poetry included the Language poets.
Confessional Poetry
            Though her work in many ways confounds the designation, Sylvia Plath can be better appreciated when one understands the genre of confessional poetry, in which she is often grouped.
            Confessional poetry is a genre of poetry first identified in the decades immediately following the Second World War. It was initiated with the publication of Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959); other poets whose work typifies this style include Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, and Anne Sexton. With its origins in the British romantic poets of the 19th century, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, confessional poetry of the modern era focused on inward expressions of conflict and emotion through the use extremely personal details from the poet's life. Critics sometimes include the Beat poets, particularly Allen Ginsberg, in this movement.
Confessional poetry was a reaction to the depersonalized, academic poetry of writers like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. These paragons of modernism believed poetry was a thing apart from its creator, and that there was no room for the self in poetry. The confessional poets did not adhere to this perspective, instead writing from a deeply personal perspective and filling their work with intimate and controversial details from their private lives.
Robert Lowell, the veritable founding father of the movement, was a professor at Boston University, where he taught poetry workshops that Sexton and Plath attended. Life Studies dealt with many of Lowell's family dysfunctions, alcoholism, and sexual guilt, thereby breaking with previous poetic tradition and veering more toward the freer forms of William Carlos Williams. M.L. Rosenthal first used the term "confessional poetry" when writing a review about Lowell's work.
Anne Sexton wrote poetry that dealt with her personal life, including her experiences with psychotherapy, sex, depression, and rage. One of her most significant works, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), dealt with such excruciating topics as molestation by a father.
Sylvia Plath is commonly seen as a confessional poet, although some critics dispute her placement within this movement, arguing that her work is more universal than commonly assumed. Nevertheless, Ariel, published posthumously in 1965, deals with the very personal issues of suicide, sex, her children, and, most dramatically, her complicated relationship with her deceased father. Poems like "Daddy," "Ariel," and "Lady Lazarus" are stunning in their originality, wit, and brutality.
            The confessional poets have garnered a lot of critical interest, but there is a tendency to conflate their art and lives too fully - the usage of a personal pronoun in their work is not an unequivocal invitation to assume that the subject of the poem is always the poet. Critic Mary A. Murphy writes about the poets that "their poems are not open wounds on the page. Their work is a crafted response to their overwhelming emotional impulses. They use the sharply defined sensory prompts and the everyday language of the common person learned from the imagist school. The profound intimacy of the poetry demands such an accessibility." While the tales of personal tragedies might be the most fascinating aspect of their work for many readers, the confessional poets were also masters of their craft. Plath is well understood as a reflection of both sides of the debate.
Major Themes
Death is an ever-present reality in Plath's poetry, and manifests in several different ways.
            One common theme is the void left by her father's death. In "Full Fathom Five," she speaks of his death and burial, mourning that she is forever exiled. In "The Colossus," she tries in vain to put him back together again and make him speak. In "Daddy," she goes further in claiming that she wants to kill him herself, finally exorcising his vicious hold over her mind and her work.
            Death is also dealt with in terms of suicide, which eerily corresponds to her own suicide attempts and eventual death by suicide. In "Lady Lazarus," she claims that she has mastered the art of dying after trying to kill herself multiple times. She sneers that everyone is used to crowding in and watching her self-destruct. Suicide, though, is presented as a desirable alternative in many of these works. The poems suggest it would release her from the difficulties of life, and bring her transcendence wherein her mind could free itself from its corporeal cage. This desire is exhilaratingly expressed in "Ariel," and bleakly and resignedly expressed in "Edge." Death is an immensely vivid aspect of Plath's work, both in metaphorical and literal representations.
            Plath felt like a victim to the men in her life, including her father, her husband, and the great male-dominated literary world. Her poetry can often be understood as response to these feelings of victimization, and many of the poems with a male figure can be interpreted as referring to any or all of these male forces in her life.
            In regards to her father, she realized she could never escape his terrible hold over her; she expressed her sense of victimhood in "The Colossus" and "Daddy," using powerful metaphors and comparisons to limn a man who figured heavily in her psyche.
            Her husband also victimized her through the power he exerted as a man, both by assuming he should have the literary career and through his infidelity. Plath felt relegated to a subordinate, "feminine" position which stripped from her any autonomy or power. Her poems from the "Colossus" era express her frustration over the strictures under which she operated. For instance, "A Life" evokes a menacing and bleak future for Plath. However, in her later poems, she seems finally able to transcend her status as victim by fully embracing her creative gifts ("Ariel"), metaphorically killing her father ("Daddy"), and committing suicide ("Lady Lazarus", "Edge").
            Plath lived and worked in 1950s/1960s England and America, societies characterized by very strict gender norms. Women were expected to remain safely ensconced in the house, with motherhood as their ultimate joy and goal. Women who ventured into the arts found it difficult to attain much attention for their work, and were often subject to marginalization and disdain. Plath explored and challenged this reductionist tendency through her work, offering poems of intense vitality and stunning language. She depicted the bleakness of the domestic scene, the disappointment of pregnancy, the despair over her husband's infidelity, her tortured relationship with her father, and her attempts to find her own creative voice amidst the crushing weight of patriarchy. She shied away from using genteel language and avoided writing only of traditionally "female" topics. Most impressively, the work remains poetic and artistic - rather than political - because of her willing to admit ambivalence over all these expectations, admitting that both perspectives can prove a trap.
            Images and allusions to nature permeate Plath's poetry. She often evokes the sea and the fields to great effect. The sea is usually associated with her father; it is powerful, unpredictable, mesmerizing, and dangerous. In "Full Fathom Five," her father is depicted as a sea god. An image of the sea is also used in "Contusion," there suggesting a terrible sense of loss and loneliness.
            She also pulled from her personal life, writing of horse-riding on the English fields, in "Sheep in Fog" and "Ariel." In these cases, she uses the activity to suggest an otherworldly, mystical arena in which creative thought or unfettered emotion can be expressed.
            Nature is also manifested in the bright red tulips which jolt the listless Plath from her post-operation stupor, insisting that she return to the world of the living. Here, nature is a provoker, an instigator - it does not want her to give up. Nature is a ubiquitous theme in Plath's work; it is a potent force that is sometimes unpredictable, but usually works to encourage her creative output.
The self
            Plath has often been grouped into the confessional movement of poetry. One of the reasons for this classification is that she wrote extensively of her own life, her own thoughts, her own worries. Any great artist both creates his or her art and is created by it, and Plath was always endeavoring to know herself better through her writing. She tried to come to terms with her personal demons, and tried to work through her problematic relationships. For instance, she tried to understand her ambivalence about motherhood, and tried to vent her rage at her failed marriage.
            However, her exploration of herself can also be understood as an exploration of the idea of the self, as it stands opposed to society as a whole and to other people, whom she did not particularly like. Joyce Carol Oates wrote that even Plath's children seemed to be merely the objects of her perception, rather than subjective extensions of herself. The specifics of Plath's work were drawn from her life, but endeavored to transcend those to ask more universal questions. Most infamously, Plath imagined her self as a Jew, another wounded and persecuted victim. She also tried to engage with the idea of self in terms of the mind and body dialectic. "Edge" and "Sheep in Fog" explore her desire to leave the earthly life, but express some ambivalence about what is to come after. "Ariel" suggests it is glory and oneness with nature, but the other two poems do not seem to know what will happen to the mind/soul once the body is eradicated. This conflict - between the self and the world outside - can be used to understand almost all of Plath's poems.
The Body
Many of Plath's poems deal with the body, in terms of motherhood, wounds, operations, and death.
            In "Metaphors," she describes how her body does not feel like it is her own; she is simply a "means" towards delivering a child. In "Tulips" and "A Life," the body has undergone an operation. With the surgery comes an excising of emotion, attachment, connection, and responsibility. The physical cut has resulted in an emotional severing, which is a relief to the depressed woman. "Cut" depicts the thrill Plath feels on almost cutting her own thumb off. It is suggested that she feels more alive as she contemplates her nearly-decapitated thumb, and watches the blood pool on the floor. "Contusion" takes things further - she has received a bruise for some reason, but unlike in "Cut," where she eventually seems to grow uneasy with the wound, she seems to welcome the physical pain, since the bruise suggests an imminent end to her suffering. Suicide, the most profound and dramatic thing one can do to one's own body, is also central to many of her poems.
            Overall, it is clear that Plath was constantly discerning the relationship between mind and body, and was fascinated with the implications of bodily pain.
            Motherhood is a major theme in Plath's work. She was profoundly ambivalent about this prescribed role for women, writing in "Metaphors" about how she felt insignificant as a pregnant woman, a mere "means" to an end. She lamented how grotesque she looked, and expressed her resignation over a perceived lack of options. However, in "Child," she delights in her child's perception of and engagement with the world. Of course, "Child" ends with the suggestions that she knows her child will someday see the harsh reality of life. Plath did not want her children to be contaminated by her own despair. This fear may also have manifested itself in her last poem, "Edge," in which some critics have discerned a desire to kill her children and take them with her far from the terrors of life. Other poems in her oeuvre express the same tension. Overall, Plath clearly loved her children, but was not completely content in either pregnancy or motherhood.

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