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Confessional Poetry Then and Now: Seven Poets

Updated on August 28, 2013
The Whisper: Andre Wallace, 1984; Bronze outside Central Milton Keynes Library. Photo by Malcolm Campbell
The Whisper: Andre Wallace, 1984; Bronze outside Central Milton Keynes Library. Photo by Malcolm Campbell | Source

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
among municipal
flowers, to steal one off its stalk,
to try to talk.

We huff like windy giants
scattering with our breath
gray-headed dandelions;
Spring is the cold wind's aftermath.
The poet saith.

Robert Lowell

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.
Azure day
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.")

Sylvia Plath

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.
Ach, du.

Ann Sexton

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
is gone.

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
is gone.

Charles Bukowski

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
soot.
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
mad.
it's not so much that nothing means
anything but more that it keeps meaning
nothing,
there's no release, just gurus and self-
appointed gods and hucksters.
the more people say, the less there is
to say.

Sharon Olds

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

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 ….

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    • profile image

      Galen Pearl 4 years ago

      This is like a crash course in poetry! I learned so much. Thank you.

    • profile image

      Martha Jane Orlando 4 years ago

      Excellent article! It's so interesting to see the different takes and times on types of poetry. While some might perceive this style to be self-indulgent, the bottom line is: We must write what is within us, appreciated or not.

      I so admire all the time and care you took to produce this, Adriene. Kudos and blessings!

    • profile image

      Daisy Inthewind 4 years ago

      Man, I had a great comment all written out then I hadn't signed in so it wen t poof!!!

      What I said was; It has been a long time since I was around, and it was a blessing to read this after such an absence. I truly have know education on poetry until now, I don't know the different styles, I do now at least a bit thanks to your wonderful presentation. I like this style, I love the revealing of the soul, makes us all a little closer I believe. You have done a wonderful job thank you.

    • adjoycepoet profile image
      Author

      Adriene (A. D.) Joyce 4 years ago from New Jersey

      @Galen I'm glad you found this information to be helpful!

      @Martha Confessional poetry has had a bad rap in some circles but I wanted to get across the idea that many great poets continue to write in that style to the point were poetry is a major outlet for emotional content.

      @Daisy Sorry to hear about your first comment! But I'm glad you tried again. I agree that confessional type poetry helps us see the similarities we share as humans.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      Hello Adriene it's so Colin from lake erie time ontario canada 4:54pm and I live here by the lake with my two cats.

      I 'never' compose confessional poetry myself as I am a story teller by nature and when I use the first person pronoun in my writing it's not about me.

      I always say to any writer/poet just to write from your heart and the mind will always follow - and to just be yourself and try not to follow stuffy old traditions - to branch out and try something new.

      I certainly look up to someone like you though - you have such excellent credentials in your bio and I could tell this world class hub presentation is a true labor of love from someone as special as you.

      Sending you warm wishes and good energy from Colin, Little Miss Tiffy and Mister Gabriel.

      How has your winter been so far? Up here it's been a mix of rain and snow - mild and cold, and it's always colder with a wind chill by the lake too

    • snakeslane profile image

      snakeslane 4 years ago from Canada

      Hello adjoycepoet, I followed Epigramman here, and very glad I did, to enjoy this wonderful page on the confessional poets with examples of their work. Very nicely done, will be back to watch the videos. Welcome to Hub Pages! Regards, snakeslane

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 4 years ago

      Hi my fellow Canadian and most awesome poet, Snakeslane.

    • adjoycepoet profile image
      Author

      Adriene (A. D.) Joyce 4 years ago from New Jersey

      @epigramman Nice to meet you! I guess I shouldn't complain to you about the cold but it has been bitterly cold here in NJ and we've had plenty of snow this year! I'm happy to be here at HubPages and to share a piece of history and a tradition that is still going strong.

      @snakeslane Thanks for the warm welcome! The videos are great. It's amazing to hear the poets discuss confessional poetry from their point of view and/or to read their poems.

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Welcome to Hubpages. This is excellent and so well put together. I am a big fan of the confessional poets. I learned a lot reading your hub.

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      Didn't know it was called confessional poetry. I guess that is what I write from time to time. It is a good way to get our your feelings, especially painful ones. This is a very well done article with interesting bios. Voted up!

    • LauraD093 profile image

      Laura Tykarski 4 years ago from Pittsburgh PA

      What a wonderful hub and welcome to Hubpages. I love confessional poetry and you listed several reasons why. Plath and Sexton have been favorites since high school and the newer confessional poets draw me like a bee to honey.looking forward yo reading more of your work.

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      This hub is well put together and gives newcomers to (and veterans of) modern confessional poetry a perfect introduction. I like the way you've given an example of each poet's work, a taster so that we might research further. That's important.

      As someone who studies and writes poetry I confess to being a secret 'confessional' admirer but never indulge myself.

      The true confessional poet feeds on pain, deep seated and raw, and I often think they're the tortured rock and rollers of poetry with egos either rampant or in dark shadow. To read Anne Sexton's Furies is to look into the heart of a flaming yet flawed soul!

      Votes and sharing for this well written article.

    • adjoycepoet profile image
      Author

      Adriene (A. D.) Joyce 4 years ago from New Jersey

      @tammyswallow. Thank you so much for reading. There is something very appealing about artists who are not afraid to show their humanity.

      @truthfornow Thanks for the up vote! I think the gift of confessional poetry is the realization that others share our experiences and feelings.

      @LauraD093 It can be a little tricky not to sound whiny when writing in this style, but these poets show how beautiful and well crafted confessional poetry can be. Thanks so much for your comments.

      @chef-de-jour Your comments are much appreciated. It's impossible to cover everything in a single hub and there are many other poets who fit the mold. So I really do hope that this article will inspire readers to look into the subject some more.

    • WordMan21 profile image

      Michelle Hall 3 years ago from Maryland

      Lessons Learned, this was a fantastic piece on Confessional Poetry. Learned that the poetry I was writing, this is the definition by which they were. Thank you for this information and great read.

    • Brittany Kussman profile image

      Brittany Kussman 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I love confessional poetry and especially liked your parts on Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. They are two of my favorite poets and I think you touched on some great points in their lives and careers as writers. Great job!

    • deathwalk60 profile image

      Larry Sells 2 years ago from Decorah, IA

      I love this type of poetry. I also write confessional poetry.

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