When the critic, M.L. Rosenthal, used the phrase, “confessional poetry”, while reviewing Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959, he was quick to realize the problem with his coinage: “It was a term both helpful and too limited, and... has by now done a certain amount of damage.” Indeed, confessional writing has long been derided as self-indulgent and narcissistic by naysayers. T.S. Eliot was not one of them; yet, when he said that the “business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all”, he inadvertently seemed to have made a case for confessionalism’s critics. His argument has been used to bolster the claim that the deliberate ‘rebuilding’ of the poet’s own emotional experience for the benefit of readers disconnects a writer from his writing.
And yet, the genre of confessionalism has a rich history: apart from Lowell, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are among those writers most often cited as being ‘confessional’. They wrote without shame or apology; they tackled taboo subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, suicide and trauma originating from the family. In 2021, when people’s online lives afford them the opportunity to regularly reveal unvarnished details about themselves, it might be hard to imagine confessionalism as a serious literary movement. And yet, confessional poetry marked a new era in poetic style and subject matter as well as the relationship of the poet with herself. The English novelist, Lavinia Greenlaw, said that “[to] work explicitly with the self requires extraordinary judgement, detachment and control”. Sexton’s poem, “Wanting to Die,” is a heartbreaking, yet incisive look inside the mind of a person who has contemplated taking her own life. Plath, whose poetry is both sharply restrained and shaking with rage, wrote “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy”. One dealt with suicide, the other with the death of her father; both are stellar examples of confessional writing.
Male confessional poetry has, of course, been met with far less derision than similar writing by women. It is not hard to see why; men — poets, critics and readers — have historically viewed women as little more than literary symbols or muses. As such, it became necessary for female poets to bring multiple voices into the confessional genre and create a more complex depiction of womanhood. Sexton used her poetry not only to define herself; when she wrote, “Am I still lost?/ Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself,/ counting this row and that row of moccasins/ waiting on the silent shelf,” she was also creating a wider framework of femininity. Confessionalism, in this way, revealed truths far beyond just the individual self.
As such, would not disdain for confessional literature amount to ignoring the nuances of self-representation? Confessional writing can force a writer to reckon with himself; it can be a source of entertainment; it can even make women’s inner lives more visible. Most important, it amounts to an exploration of the self — a crucial exercise at a time of great isolation and loneliness. This March — the month of ‘true confessions’, and a year since the coronavirus-induced lockdown began — it is, perhaps, the responsibility of the reader to pay attention to what Lowell called “[t]he raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience... dished up for midnight listeners”.