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What is Confessional Poetry?

Updated on March 9, 2018

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 unorthodox artists: Etheridge Knight, Kendrick Lemar, and Roxane Gay.

The reason behind this is to gain a richer understanding of the art of confession. By widening the subject matter, an essential dialogue about contemporary art could take place and reveal new truths and solutions to our twenty-first-century issues.

I will be 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, a trauma of an individual
  • the prevalent use of free-verse

The use of the pronoun 'I'

When a writer uses the point of view, first-person to tell their story, it can be a bit of a risk. But if done correctly:

  • The Hunger Games
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians
  • Twilight
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Handmaid's Tale
  • The Martian
  • The Bell Jar
  • Wonder

These are a few first-person written titles that are popular. With the narrator's voice at the forefront of perspective, those characters had the critical task of taking the reader with them through the story.

Because the audience is positioned in the forefront of the narrative's mind, everything comes filtered through their eyes. A stale first-person point of view would make for monotonous stories, especially if the said tale were saturated with unvaried sentences that begin with "I."

Confessional Poetry becomes redundant with too much introspection and telling and not showing could also make for a lousy narrator.

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

Subjective Emotional Events and Trauma

In the past criticisms of confessional poetry had been brutal as the poety community would often become exacerbated by what they perceived as the self-absorbed nature of the first-person point-of-view and the abysmal topics. During its birth in the 1950 and maturing in 1960, confessional poetry was in the mist of social change as many movements were shifting the values of American society.

Such unforgiving intimate issues: sex, gay, suicide, divorce, lesbianism, adultery, mental illness, guilt, drug abuse, depression, alcoholism, or anything else that was considered shameful or embarrassing; could not be discussed in public. 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 we would like to note the antithesis movement of New Formalism, which acted as a call to action; 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 publishing more traditional print poetry alongside free verse; broadening the genre of poetry.

We 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."

Her first-person invites us into her actions and current temperament which reads as melancholic. Although limited to just one perspective of the situation, this perspective it is immediate insight into 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 the narrator feels is apparent with the narrative. In the following lines, the style and tone of the Ms. Gay's prose changes. Her poetic format dissolves into a block narrative. However, it is in this narration that the reader is taken on a whirling dive into a visceral scene. The narrative in the poem indulges the reader on her response to the of the byproduct of loveless love and it is poignancy.

"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 generations beloved cultural critic and memoir writer gives voice to the depth of intersecting identities such as feminism, queer, body prejudice, and survivor of sexual trauma. The transfer of knowledge from private event public is not always a smooth shift. Taboo topics were by its nature conversations not to be talked about, even if said topics rested close to home.

The format and structure of the poem do lack the traditional stanza and ordered lines of print poetry. Instead, the free-verse prose form that Roxane utilize in this poem speaks towards her autobiography writing.

Etheridge Knight : A Poem for Myself

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

Spending 8 years as an inmate in an all men's prison was a traumatic experience that Knight overcame with the help of poetry. Knight already possessed a talent for Toasting perfected his delivery.

The poem selected for examination is called '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 and 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

While difficult to choose, we believe the best example of Kendrick Lamar's work that best illustrates his power of utilizing confessional poetry is his first major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012). Despite his third album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) having two poems.

They act as intro and outros to his tracks in the discography; and furthermore, despite the more linear structure to the storytelling seen in, To Pimp a Butterfly.

More than literary, “good kid, m.A.A.d city” qualifies as deeply theological. At times, “Good Kid” even seems to sing a contemporary “Confessions". (Katie Grimes, writer for Women in Theology)

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 we choose it for our final examination of modern confessional poetry.

Zachary Thomas Settle in his 2014 article, “Dying of Thirst”: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Good Kid M.A.A.D. City’ as Theology of Confession" sums up a great comparison between Augustine and Kendrick.

"Good Kid M.A.A.D. City tells the story of an existential struggle. Lamar’s prayers of confession and toil are far from ironic, and they are quite properly placed intermittently throughout the album, right in between the violence and toil of daily life. Along these lines, there is a similarity, a certain kinship, with Augustine’s Confessions. Both pieces craft a narrative—stemming from a particular set of experiences in a particular time and place—that touches on confession, sin, grace, friendship, and regret."

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

"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 dark room 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

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)

In the song, Kendrick succumbs to the art of peer pressure and soon finds himself drunk, floating, and talking with his sub-conscience. We are taken into a traumatic event at the conclusion of the song as a shootout between Kendrick, his friends, and a rival gang is played back.

With his arsenal of the first-person point of view, natural rhythm and rhyme, and controversial topic of excessive drinking Kendrick Lemar put the audience right next to him in the confessional booth. The difference between the confessional style of Kendrick Lamar versus any other contemporary rap artist today is his humbling authenticity. Poetry as a performs such as spoken word and rap are generally more liked but seldom looked upon as poetry.

"I am a sinner, who's probably gonna sin again
Lord forgive me, Lord forgive me
Things I don't understand
Sometimes I need to be alone"

(Lyrics from, ***** Don't Kill My Vibe)

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/>.

"Dying of Thirst": Kendrick Lamar's 'Good Kid M.A.A.D. City' as Theology of Confession.” Christ and Pop Culture, 26 Sept. 2014, christandpopculture.com/dying-thirst-kendrick-lamars-good-kid-m-d-city-theology-confession/.

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