Confessional Poetry Then and Now: Seven Poets
The term "confessional poetry" was first coined in the late 1950s to describe an intensely subjective poetic style introduced by W. D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and others.
Confessional poets purposely reveal intimate aspects of their private lives in their poems. They often write in the first person using straightforward and sometimes explicit language. Common themes of the genre, such as sex, troubled marriages, and mental illness, were considered taboo in the early days. Even now, some critics find confessional poetry to be self indulgent and embarrassing. Others appreciate the craftsmanship displayed in these poems and the poems' ability to connect emotionally with readers.
There was a major backlash against confessional poetry in the 1970s and 1980s, prompting some poets to avoid that type of writing altogether. Nevertheless, Snodgrass, Plath, Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton, and others in the first wave of confessional poets have strongly influenced countless writers that came after them up to the present. This influence is seen in the work of Charles Bukowski, Sharon Olds, and Marie Howe.
The following are short biographies of seven poets in the confessional tradition, starting with W. D. Snodgrass, who generally is thought to be the originator of the genre as we know it today.
W. D. Snodgrass
William De Witt Snodgrass (1926 – 2009), whom friends called "De" (pronounced Dee), was born in Bear Falls, Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees fromt the University of Iowa, and authored more than 20 books. But many consider his first book, Heart's Needle (1959), to be the first volume of confessional poetry—a term Snodgrass did not like.
During his life, Snodgrass was married four times. When his marriage to his first wife ended in divorce in 1953, his feelings about being separated from his daughter were explored in the poems of Heart's Needle. Initially unimpressed, poet Robert Lowell, Snodgrass' mentor, came to admire this intimate style and to apply this approach to own writing.
Althought Heart's Needle won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1960, Snodgrass took a lot of criticism for publishing such personal poems. In subsequent years, he stayed away from personal themes. Among his later works is The Fuhrer Bunker, a cycle of poems published serially from 1977 to 1995. These poems are monologues depicting Adolph Hitler and others during the last days of the Third Reich.
The following are a few verses from the poem "Heart's Needle":
No one can tell you why
the season will not wait;
the night I told you I
must leave, you wept a fearful rate
to stay up late.
Now that it's turning Fan,
we go to take our walk
flowers, to steal one off its stalk,
to try to talk.
We huff like windy giants
scattering with our breath
Spring is the cold wind's aftermath.
The poet saith.
Robert "Cal" Traill Spence Lowell IV (1917 – 1977) is considered by some to be the most influential poet of the 20th century. Lowell was born into a wealthy Boston family, and his descendants included a Civil War hero on his father's side and a signer of the U. S. Constitution on his mother's side.
A volatile and rebellious youth, Lowell decided to become a poet in high school. He attended Harvard University for two years before transferring to Kenyon College in Ohio to get his degree in Classics. In 1943 while attending Louisiana State University for his master's degree, he spent several months in jail for being a conscientious objector to serving in World War II. Lowell was married three times. He was hospitalized many times for bipolar disorder.
From 1950 to 1953, Lowell was one of three instructors at the well-regarded Iowa Writers' Workshop. Among his students were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Plath would later say that she was greatly influenced by Lowell's book Life Studies (1959), which she saw as a breakthrough in raising taboo subject matter in poetry.
Before Life Studies, Lowell's work could be described as formal and tightly patterned. In contrast, Life Studies combines metered verse, free verse, and informal language. In Life Studies, Lowell talks about his upbringing, family interrelationships, and his own mental illness. Literary critic M.L. Rosenthal was the first to use the term "confessional poetry" to describe the poems in this book.
Lowell's later poetry would continue to incorporate a relaxed style, as well as experimentation with free verse and formalism. But none of his work would be as overtly confessional as Life Studies until his final collection Day by Day (1977), published just prior to his death from a sudden heart attack.
Here's an excerpt from Life Studies' "Waking in the Blue":
The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the "mentally ill.")
The life and times of Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) are the stuff of legend. Fifty years after her death, new discoveries are still being made, and the speculations about her marriage and thoughts of what could have been abound.
Born in Boston, Plath showed an early aptitude for poetry, with a poem of hers appearing in a local newspaper at age 8. Also at that age, Plath's father, who was a professor and an expert on bumblebees, died due to complications of untreated diabetes. In addition to poetry, Plath wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, a story about a young woman in college whose experiences closely match Plath's real-life circumstances.
Plath went to Smith College on a scholarship and while there achieved academic success. But in her third year when a guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine did not turn out as she had hoped, she began to descend into depression. Plath's first documented suicide attempt occurred during this time.
Plath recovered and still managed to graduate virtually on schedule from Smith. She subsequently received a Fulbright Scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, where she met and fell in love with poet Ted Hughes. After a four-month romance, Plath married Hughes and had two children. It was during her marriage that Plath took the poetry workshops with Robert Lowell.
Through it all, Plath continued to struggle with depression. Her final, and successful, suicide attempt occurred at age 30 in the face of the lukewarm reception from the critics to The Bell Jar and her husband's open infidelity with Assia Wevill. (Hughes would eventually marry Wevill, who ironically committed suicide six years later, some say due in part to Hughes' abuse.)
The poems with which Plath is most associated were written in the six months before her death. These poems were published posthumously in the collection Ariel (1965). The following is an excerpt from the poem "Daddy" from Ariel, which some scholars consider to be a reflection of Plath's feelings toward her father and his death when she was a child:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
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
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ann Sexton (1928-1974) was born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts. Sexton, who suffered from bipolar disorder, took up poetry at the suggestion of her therapist. Like Plath, Sexton studied under Robert Lowell, and like Lowell, Sexton was deeply affected by W. D. Snodgrass's Heart's Needle collection.
In her poetry, Sexton explored the themes of depression and isolation, as well as abortion, menstruation, and female sexuality. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book Live or Die.
Sexton attempted suicide many times during the course of her life and finally succeeded at age 46. After Sexton's death, shocking alleged details about her life surfaced in a controversial 1991 biography written by Diane Middlebrook that made use of Sexton's recorded therapy sessions, and in a 1994 autobiography written by Sexton's daughter.
The following is an excerpt from the poem "The Abortion":
Somebody who should have been born
the grass as bristly and stout as chives,
and me wondering when the ground would break,
and me wondering how anything fragile survives;
up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man,
not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all…
he took the fullness that love began.
Returning north, even the sky grew thin
like a high window looking nowhere.
The road was as flat as a sheet of tin.
Somebody who should have been born
Henry Charles Bukowski (Heinrich Karl Bukowski; 1920 —1994) was born in Germany but grew up in California. Among Bukowski's poetic themes are sex, violence, destitution, the lives of ordinary people, the writing life, alcohol abuse, and the drudgery of work. According to one literary critic from the The New Yorker magazine, Bukowski "combines the confessional poet's promise of intimacy with the larger-than-life aplomb of a pulp-fiction hero."
Bukowski suggested in his autobiographical novel Ham on Rye and during interviews that his father was physically and mentally abusive to hm. Bukowski himself was said to be shy and withdrawn growing up, and that he began drinking, and eventually abusing, alcohol in his teens. He attended Los Angeles City College for two years before quitting school and moving to New York City to be a writer. Two of his short stories were published during his 20s.
However, Bukowski was disillusioned with his scant literary success. He stopped writing for nearly a decade and instead drank heavily, traveled around the country more or less as a drifter, and worked a wide range of jobs, including in a factory and as a postal carrier. After a bout with a near fatal bleeding ulcer, Bukowski continued to drink but he settled down with a steady job in Los Angeles and eventually began writing poetry in earnest.
A prolific writer, Bukowski published more than 45 books during his lifetime. Previously unpublished poems, as well as selected works, have been published after his death. The following is an excerpt from the poem "Fingernails, Nostrils, Shoelaces":
the gas line is leaking, the bird is gone from the cage, the skyline is dotted with vultures;
Benny finally got off the stuff and Betty now has a job
as a waitress; and
the chimney sweep was quite delicate as he
giggled up through the
I walked miles through the city and recognized
nothing as a giant claw ate at my
stomach while the inside of my head felt
airy as if I was about to go
it's not so much that nothing means
anything but more that it keeps meaning
there's no release, just gurus and self-
appointed gods and hucksters.
the more people say, the less there is
Sharon Olds (1942), born in San Fransicso, has a PhD in English from Columbia University in New York City. Beginning with her very first volume of poetry, Olds has used candid language and explicit imagery, exploring the question of whether there is anything that shouldn't be talked about in poetry.
During her career, her topics have included personal depictions of family, including children and grandparents, the death of a father to cancer, and her sex life. In 2013, Olds received the Pulitzer Prize for her 2012 book, Stag's Leap. These poems chronicle the events surrounding her divorce in 1997, according to the Poetry Foundation website. The following is an excerpt from the poem "The Flurry," which appears in Stag's Leap.
When we talk about when to tell the kids,
we are so together, so concentrated.
I mutter, “I feel like a killer.” “I’m
the killer”—taking my wrist—he says,
holding it. He is sitting on the couch,
the old indigo chintz around him,
rich as a night sea with jellies,
I am sitting on the floor. I look up at him,
as if within some chamber of matedness,
some dust I carry around me.
Marie Howe was born in 1950 in Rochester, NY. She worked as a newspaper reporter and teacher before receiving her MFA from Columbia University. According to the Marie Howe website, her poetry collection What the Living Do (1998) is informed by the 1989 death of her brother from AIDS.
The following is an excerpt from the poem "Practicing," which appears in What the Living Do:
I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade,
a song for what we did on the floor in the basement
of somebody’s parents’ house, a hymn for what we didn’t say but thought:
That feels good or I like that, when we learned how to open each other’s mouths
how to move our tongues to make somebody moan. We called it practicing, and
one was the boy, and we paired off—maybe six or eight girls—and turned out
the lights and kissed and kissed until we were stoned on kisses, and lifted our
nightgowns or let the straps drop, and, Now you be the boy ….