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What is Confessional Poetry?

Updated on January 8, 2019

What makes a poem confessional?

A Brief Guide to Confessional Poetry, Academy of American Poets states the following about 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." (Organic Form: From A Poet's Glossary)

This article will explore confessional poetry, and we will do this by using the core boundaries and rules of confessional poetry against three notable poetic works from three eccentric artists: Etheridge Knight, Kendrick Lamar, and Roxane Gay.

The intention is to gain a richer understanding of the art of confession, through the stories of modern-day people of color in the United States. By widening the subject matter, an essential dialogue about contemporary art will take place and reveal new truths and solutions to our twenty-first-century issues.

The using the following characteristics of confessional poetry to help frame the examination:

• the use of the pronoun 'I'

• the topic of poetry primarily focus on high emotional events, the trauma of an individual

• the prevalent use of free-verse

The use of the pronoun 'I'

When a novelist uses the point of view of first-person to tell their story, it can be a bit of a risk. But if done correctly, amazing titles that speak for themselves flourish upon the scene and bewilders the world: The Bluest Eye, Kindred; Now I know why the Caged Bird Sing, and Giovanni's Room.

With the narrator's voice at the forefront of perspective, the audience inherits the critical task of being both driver and passenger of the story. And because the audience is positioned in the forefront of the narrative's mind, with everything coming filtered through their eyes.

A stale first-person point of view makes for monotonous stories. Especially if the said tale were saturated with unvaried sentences that begin with "I." Thus, just as prose can become spoiled with an oversaturation of first-person singular pronoun, confessional poetry similarly becomes redundant with too much introspection and lamenting 'I' statement.

And thus, if the poet fails to bring out the narrators voice, their confession will be deemed unauthentic and flat.


Subjective Emotional Events and Trauma

During its birth in the 1950s and maturing in 1960, confessional poetry was in the midst of social change as many movements were shifting the values of American society.

Criticisms of confessional poetry had been harsh as the poetry community would often become exacerbated by what they perceived as the self-absorbed nature of the first-person point-of-view and their abysmal topics.

Such as sex, gay, suicide, divorce, lesbianism, adultery, mental illness, guilt, drug abuse, depression, alcoholism, or anything else that was considered shameful or embarrassing; thus should not be discussed in public. The moral code of the 50s dictates if it did not fit into the assimilation of the wholesome, decent America image, it was deemed after a while too self-indulgent, narcissistic, and untraditional.

Free-verse

It is not always the case that free-verse is a necessary element of confessional poetry, but it should be noted the antithesis movement of New Formalism, which acted as a call to action; was a rally to return to the regular rhythm and rhyme of poetry that confessional poetry destroyed.

And by the mid-twenty-first century, publishers were once again printing more traditional formatted stanzas and lines alongside free verse; broadening the genre of poetry.

This case study will be taking these three characteristics the use of first-person point-of-view, the emotional impact of the topic, and the manipulation of style to examine one piece of work from each artist.

Roxane Gay : I Always Forget My Grocery List

We will start with Roxane Gay's prose poem, 'I Always Forget My Grocery List' published in 2010, in volume 2 of Viynal Poetry and online poetry & prose publication. From the point of view of a young girl who goes of on tryst while shopping at the grocery store.

Let's review the beginning lines:

"I wrote a letter to a woman who was mourning the death of the child of her sworn enemy."

Roxane Gay established the point-of-view and tone right away in the opening lines.

"In the letter I asked her a question about joy. I could not have known that the woman to whom I wrote that letter was in mourning.

She wrote back. Her letter contained only six words: I do not believe in joy."

The narrator invites the reader to her event. The current temperament which reads as melancholic, and although limited to just one perspective of the situation, Roxane choosing this perspective offers immediate insight into the tone of the story.

"My boyfriend uses the word gay as an adjective. When he does this, I calmly explain why his language choice is unfortunate, why it is wrong. He pretends to understand. Ten minutes later, he’ll say something like, “I love Michael Jackson even though that’s gay.” When we go to bed and he falls asleep before me, I start kicking him. It’s transference. I’m really kicking myself. Sometimes, he wakes up sore and bruised. He asks, “What happened?” I tell him he should see a doctor."

The bitter love is apparent within the narrative. In the following lines, the style and tone of the prose changes. The poetic format after this collapses completely and dissolves into a block narrative. However, it is in this narration that the reader is taken on a whirling dive into a visceral scene.

"I often go to the grocery store in the middle of the night when the aisles are crowded with pallets stacked with shrink-wrapped cereal and frozen dinners because the shelves and freezers are being restocked. I find dirty college students wandering the cookie/cracker aisle in t-shirts and flannel pajama pants, so they don’t have to procrastinate in their overcrowded apartments and tiny dorm rooms and can instead spend money they don’t have on the food they don’t need but definitely want because they’re half drunk or high. I wear short skirts and low cut shirts and high-heeled boots. I paint my face with a little too much make up. I like to dance in the aisles. I look crazy. I can’t control it." (VINYL POETRY)

Roxane Gay, this generation’s beloved cultural critic, and memoir writer give voice to the depth of intersecting identities such as feminism, queer, body prejudice, and survivor of sexual trauma.

The transition of knowledge from private event public is not always a smooth shift. Taboo topics were by its nature conversations not to be talked about.

The free-verse proses that Roxane utilize in this poem speak towards her autobiography writing. As the format and structure of the poem lack the traditional stanza and ordered lines of print poetry and yet her content stands. Her confession is read loud and clear.

Etheridge Knight : A Poem for Myself

Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) a black man who first started writing poetry while serving time in United States Federal Penitentiary. Although already knowledgeable in rhetoric and story-telling before entering prison, Etheridge perfected the African-American tradition of Toast-Telling while incarcerated.

Spending 8 years as an inmate in an all men's unit was a traumatic experience that Knight overcame with the help of poetry. He spent most of his time perfecting his delivery.

The poem selected for examination is titled 'A Poem For Myself.'

"I was born in Mississippi;
I walked barefooted thru the mud.
Born black in Mississippi,
Walked barefooted thru the mud."

We get the narrator's racial politics in his tone right away. But, the importance of it, is second to Knight's choice of colloquial diction and improper grammar. Knight invites the reader into the identity of the narrator through his use of slang. Knight goes on to write,

"But, when I reached the age of twelve
I left that place for good.
My daddy chopped cotton
And he drank his liquor straight.
Said my daddy chopped cotton
And he drank his liquor straight."

Knight in this poem utilizes repetition to move the tale along and perhaps to also assist with memorization. The narrative-style oral components of Toasts leans heavily on the framework of poetry to aid in structure, rhythm, and rhyme. Knight is not the first or last to use repetition to help tell a story.

"When I left that Sunday morning
He was leaning on the barnyard gate.
Left my mama standing
With the sun shining in her eyes.
Left her standing in the yard
With the sun shining in her eyes.

And I headed North
As straight as the Wild Goose Flies,"

What makes Knight a talented confessional poet is not only his ability to manipulate and twist language but also his subtle comment on the complex identity of being an African American man during the turbulent times.

"I been to Detroit & Chicago
Been to New York city too.
I been to Detroit & Chicago
Been to New York city too.
Said I done strolled all those funky avenues
I'm still the same old black boy with the same old blues."

"Going back to Mississippi
This time to stay for good
Going back to Mississippi
This time to stay for good-
Gonna be free in Mississippi
Or dead in the Mississippi mud. "

(A poem for Myself / Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy)

From "The New Black Aesthetic as a Counteroetics: The Poetry of Etheridge Knight." Diss. Stanford University, 1977. Ó 1977 Patricia Alveda Liggins Hill writes:

"On one level, Knight sings of his own rural background and nostalgia for his birthplace. Apparently, at first, he is anxious to leave his home and travel to the North.

Nonetheless, after going to such northern urban centers as Detroit, Chicago, and New York, he realizes that his social and economic conditions have not changed--he’s "still the same old black boy with the same old blues." Discovering that his quest for freedom will not be resolved in the North, he now wishes to return to his southern homeland

"This time to stay for good." Now, the poet desperately looks towards the South for the answer to his personal dilemma, and he resolves that he will either find freedom in his birthplace or die "in the Mississippi mud."

On another level, functioning as a Black blues singer, Knight reveals the collective yearning of Blacks as a whole—to reestablish their collective blood ties by returning to their southern roots. " (Patricia Hill, On A Poem To Myself)

This structure of the poem is not free-verse as with Roxane Gay’s piece and, instead leans more towards the traditional route of printed poetry, but Knight does not use poetic devices to decorate the poem. Besides the rhyme, classic lines and stanza format of the poem, Knight's use only his conventional language to tell a story.

Combined with the traditional structure, 'A Poem to Myself' serves as a juxtaposition of old and new, formal vs. informal, colloquial and poetic.

Kendrick Lamar : Good kid, m.A.A.d City

The best example of rap artist Kendrick Lamar’s, work that best illustrates his power of utilizing confessional poetry is his first major label debut released in 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Despite his third album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) having two poems which act as intro and outros to his tracks in the discography.

The existential lament over the narrators' sins, in good kid, m.A.A.d city embodies a pure struggle of confessional poetry which is why it was chosen for the last case study of modern-day confessional poetry.

Conceptually, in the album, Kendrick is the story-teller the narrator. He, as a 17-year-old, is the one who confesses, laments and adulates in a nonlinear fashion, on the harsh life of his gang-run home of Compton, California.

Kendrick's lyricism is synonymous with confessional poetry as seen in the first verses of the songs as he starts in a conversational tone to reveal the narrator's stressors: family and social life, alcoholism, and the peer pressure.

"Pour up, drank, head shot, drank
Sit down, drank, stand up, drank
Pass out, drank, wake up, drank
Faded, drank, faded, drank

Now I done grew up round some people living their life in bottles
Granddaddy had the golden flask back stroke every day in Chicago
Some people like the way it feels
Some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular that was my problem

Swimming Pools is one of the tracks that stood out in mainstream popularity, and its praise thrust Kendrick into the public's eye. Kendrick's skill as a confessional poet is seen in the first verses of the songs as he starts in a conversational tone to reveal the narrator's stressors: family and social life, alcoholism, and the peer pressure.

I was in the darkroom loud tunes, looking to make a vow soon
That I'mma get fucked up, fillin' up my cup I see the crowd move
Changing by the minute and the record on repeat
Took a sip, then another sip, then somebody said to me

With an arsenal of the first-person point of view, natural rhythm and rhyme, and controversial topic in the song, Kendrick succumb to the art of peer pressure and soon finds himself overly intoxicated, floating, and talking with his sub-conscience.

I got a swimming pool full of liquor, and they dive in it

Pool full of liquor I'mma dive in it"

(Lyrics from, Swimming Pools, Drank)

Sources

“Organic Form: From A Poet's Glossary.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 20 June 2016, www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-confessional-poetry.Media,

“VINYL POETRY.” Thomas Patrick Levy Levy. I Always Forget My Grocery List by Roxane Gay // VINYL POETRY, vinylpoetryandprose.com/volume-2/page-43/.

"A poem for Myself (Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy)’": Etheridge Knight’s Craft in the Black Oral Tradition." From Mississippi Quarterly (1982-1983)

Hill, Patricia. “On "A Poem for Myself".” On "A Poem for Myself", Copyright 1999-2014 by the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/knight/myself.htm.

"Kendrick Lamar - Swimming Pools (Drank) (single) Lyrics." SongLyrics. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2018 <http://www.songlyrics.com/kendrick-lamar/swimming-pools-drank-single-lyrics/>.


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