After the train wreck of broken-prose confessionalism, there seems to be a general heightened emphasis upon technique, an understanding that, for the best poets, technique is coextensive with feeling, and that many of the elements associated with traditional technique must be mastered if poetry is to remain a serious art.
…“confessional” or “post-confessional”? Are those pejorative terms? Has there ever been an African-American poet who has been called “confessional” or even half- confessional? What about some of Etheridge Knight’s poems that seem covered in guts? (I realize the terms “confessional” or “post-confessional” are muddied and mean different things to different people, but they still get bandied about, so must be reckoned with.) I wonder if these terms get applied more to women than men.
Poets put their business out in the street.
In 1959, M. L. Rosenthal wrote a review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies entitled “Poetry as Confession.” Rosenthal’s review popularized the usage of the term “confessional,” a label that eventually attached to Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and W.D. Snodgrass. These poets came to be known as the confessional poets; additional mid-twentieth century poets also spoken of as confessional poets include Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Allen Ginsberg, and many more. As Deborah Nelson remarks in her essay, “Confessional Poetry,” a “confessional movement” never existed as an organized school of poetry. Nelson notes: “no confessional poet imagined himself or herself to be part of a movement. The poets never congregated as the confessional poets; they almost universally disliked the term as it applied to their work.” However, the confessional mode became a defining influence on the development of American lyric narrative poetry from the early 1960’s into the second decade of the twenty-first century.
From the time of its coinage to present day, the term “confessional,” as applied to poetry, has proven problematic. Rosenthal’s initial formulation of the confessional mode of writing posits confessional poetry as a kind of “soul’s therapy.” Life Studies, as confessionalism’s inaugural book, provides an unflinching look at the poet’s family history, his psychological problems as an adult, his feelings of contempt for his father, and his thoughts on the dissolution of his first marriage. Like the hermit heiress in “Skunk Hour,” Lowell’s poems are not “thirsting for/ the hierarchic privacy/ of Queen Victoria’s century.” Instead, the private must be made public. This breakdown of privacy opens up the poems to admissions as shameful as when the speaker describes watching teenagers making out in parked cars and declares: “My mind is not right.” The confession of voyeurism in “Skunk Hour” invites the voyeurism of the reader; confession elicits complicity that, in turn, causes the reader to question the truth of the story being told. Whether Lowell is the speaker of this poem or not, the source of this poem’s inspiration clearly follows from shame and guilt.
In much high Modernist, and in most romantic poetry, the sources of inspiration for a poem (the psychic wound, the secret trauma, whatever guilt or shame or bliss drove a poet to write) remained at least partially hidden; in Life Studies, the source became the poem and nothing remained hermetic or impersonal. As Rosenthal puts it: “Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor bound not to reveal.” This reading downplays the sophistication of Lowell’s work, homogenizes the several narrative voices in Life Studies, and offers far too credulous an assessment of the poems themselves. The critic equates the disclosure of personal, sometimes unflattering, details with truth. The authority of the speaker endures unquestioned. Rosenthal’s description of the confessional mode burdens the revelatory function of Lowell’s poems with blurred notions of shame and authenticity.
Confessional poetry since Rosenthal’s appraisal of Life Studies, although variously defined, remains contingent upon the linkages between personal revelation, private guilt, and public authenticity. Adam Kirsch explains that the generally accepted narrative about the confessional movement runs as follows:
Before Life Studies, the standard account has it, poets of Lowell’s generation were strapped in a corset of critical orthodoxy; after its revelations of mental illness and family trauma, they could breathe freely. Confessional poetry, as it came to be known, learned from Lowell that Modernist allusions and ambiguities are less important than simple, searing honesty.
Life Studies, as Kirsch also notes, followed Delmore Schwartz’s Genesis and John Berryman’s “Sonnets to Chris,” both written in the 1940s. Lowell, therefore, did not pioneer a direct autobiographical approach that opposed the reigning orthodoxies of New Criticism and Modernism. Nevertheless, as Deborah Nelson claims, the enduring influence of Lowell’s book has overturned those reigning orthodoxies, making an autobiographical, or “confessional,” reading of T.S. Eliot’s or Ezra Pound’s poetry a commonplace for “post-confessional” readers.
Forthright personal revelation distinguishes confessional poetry from Modernism. Deborah Nelson explains:
Eliot’s famous declaration of the impersonality of the poet, along with William Carlos Williams’s dictum, “no idea but in things,” put the psyche of the poet firmly out of view, irrelevant to the poetic project. This theory of impersonality was taken up and elaborated not only by the generation of poets that followed them, but also by the most important critics of the day, the so-called New Critics.
Lowell and his “confessional” contemporaries eschewed the aesthetic theories and practices of their predecessors. Although all of the confessional poets, particularly Berryman and Plath, continued to deploy the Modernist techniques of collage, allusion, and disjointed narrative, they privileged the personal and autobiographical; the impersonal stance could no longer hold. Moreover, writing in the immediate shadow of the Modernists’ achievements produced anxiety in the poets who followed them. Pound, Eliot, Williams, H.D., and Gertrude Stein had produced poetry on a grand historical, mythical, and cultural scale. The confessional poets redirected the historical, mythical, and cultural imperatives manifest in the most ambitious works of Modernist poetry. For example, Pound’s impulse toward the epic in The Cantos was reconfigured in Berryman’s The Dream Songs. Of Pound’s influence, Berryman said: “It is no good looking for models. We want anti-models.”
The Dream Songs, despite their fragmentary and dissociative kinship with The Cantos, cohere in an evocation of grief. Berryman’s father committed suicide when he was twelve. Even though the character of Henry, who narrates The Dream Songs, obscures the autobiographical sense of the poems, William Meredith reported that Berryman claimed the poems chronicled his reactions to the death of his father. Lewis Hyde, in his essay “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking,” makes a convincing case that The Dream Songs also function as a record of the war between the poet’s alcoholism and his creative energies. Hyde asserts that in this cycle of poems, Berryman dramatizes his struggle with addiction:
…The Dream Songs can be explicated in terms of the disease of alcoholism. We can hear the booze talking. Its moods are anxiety, guilt and fear. Its tone is a moan that doesn’t revolve. Its themes are unjust pain, resentment, and a desperate desire to run the world. It has a con-man’s style and the con-game’s plot. It depends for its survival on an arrogance of will, ascendant and dissociated from the whole. These poems are not a contribution to culture. They are artifacts of a dying civilization, like one of those loaves of bread turned to lava at Pompeii.
Berryman stands as an outlier among the confessional poets because his creative work sublimates his spiritual pain and his alcoholism. Nonetheless, strands of confessional detail writhe to the surface of his poems despite their idiosyncratic diction and jarred syntax. The most blatant example of these details occurs in the 76th Dream Song: “—If life is a handkerchief sandwich,/ in a modesty of death I join my father/ who dared so long agone leave me.” These lines acknowledge the pain and loss that much of Berryman’s other poems attempt to deny. It was, perhaps, this lifelong suffering that resulted in the poet’s suicide in 1972 when he threw himself off a bridge in Minneapolis.
Just as Berryman’s personal demons dictated the form and content of his poetry, individual anguishes and woes determined the course of the work done by Lowell, Plath, Snodgrass, and Sexton. Sexton and Plath also committed suicide. Lowell and Snodgrass married and divorced multiple women. With the exception of Snodgrass, all of these poets dealt with, and wrote about, mental illness. All of these poets were white, and middle- or upper-class, but the subject matter of their poems transgressed the norms of white, middle-class, heterosexual society. As Deborah Nelson recounts: “Sexton, Lowell, Plath, Berryman, and Snodgrass made poems about marital failure and infidelity, (hetero) sexual transgression, abortion, rage, mental illness, and drug and alcohol abuse.” The rawness of their poetry and their bravery in addressing subjects that were taboo during the 1950s and 1960s distinguished these poets from their contemporaries and linked them together.
Anne Sexton’s body of work exemplifies the bravery and the rawness of the confessional poets. The impact of her work on subsequent generations of poets also embodies the lasting influence of the confessional mode. Sexton wrote poems about intimate, and, in her day, unmentionable topics such as menstruation, abortion, and aggressive female sexual desire. Her best poems were complex and distinctive, but accessible. She also wrote persona poems and poems, such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “Rapunzel,” that re-envisioned classic fairytales. Sexton described herself as “an actress in my own autobiographical plays.”
In a Paris Review interview, she related the reasons for her late start as a poet:
Until I was twenty-eight I had a kind of buried self who didn’t know she could do anything but make white sauce and diaper babies. I didn’t know I had any creative depths. I was a victim of the American Dream, the bourgeois, middle-class dream. All I wanted was a little piece of life, to be married, to have children. I thought the nightmares, the visions, the demons would go away if there was enough love to put them down. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me. But one can’t build little white picket fences to keep nightmares out. The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.
Sexton’s psychiatrist encouraged her to write poetry and she used it, in lieu of a white picket fence, to keep the nightmares out. Her acceptance of poetry implied a rejection of the types of middle-class conformity that had created her air-conditioned hell.
Sexton’s poetry typifies the confessional reaction both to Modernist poetry and to the society in which she wrote. As Edward Hirsch points out, the confessional poets, reacting to New Criticism and to Modernism, brought “a messy humanity, a harsh luminosity, a well of tenderness back into poetry.” Hirsch continues: “To do so they had to walk out from under the living shadows, the Jamesian greatcoats, the smothering grandiloquence. They are like Yeats at the turn of the century. Everyone got down off their stilts. They found more enterprise in walking naked.” “Walking naked,” radical self-exposure, became the cornerstone of Sexton’s poetry. Even when Sexton wrote dramatic monologues, or persona poems, she did so in order to explore deeply the contours of her self-hood. For Sexton, poetry “milks the unconscious.” The symbols and images in a poem derive from the intimate details of the writer’s life and might contain a therapeutic energy helpful to both the poet and the reader. Oftentimes for Sexton, these symbols, images, details, and energies entail a social critique of gender roles, as in the poem, “Housewife,” which begins “Some women marry houses./ It’s another kind of skin; it has a heart,/ a mouth, a liver, and bowel movements.” These lines of poetry, drawn closely from Sexton’s personal experience as a housewife, provide an excoriating criticism of a domesticity that results in control over a woman’s body. Marriage becomes a means for incarnating subordination; this system of containment is ultimately excremental.
Making broad, but pointed, social critiques through the use of personal experiences characterized the best aspects of confessional poetry. Sexton’s poem, “Young,” offers another example:
A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling over me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.
Here Sexton condenses a memory in exquisite detail and obliquely questions, not only God, but the whole world of her childhood. Without bludgeoning the reader, Sexton exposes a portrait of a troubled home. The father and mother sleep in separate rooms. The father’s window stays half shut. The girl, lonely and inquisitive, lies on the lawn outside of the home. The speaker in the poem is in control of her “brand new body.” Lying on the lawn, looking up at the sky, she ponders the minute ordering of experience: “wise stars” beyond reach, the cricket song and the white boards of the house covering the difficult truths of family life. Childhood, for the speaker, happened “a thousand doors ago.” The work of the poet demands each of those doors be opened.
The figure of the girl in this poem represents the speaker in all confessional poetry; her outsider status interrogates the type of conformity that leads some women to “marry houses.”
Poems like Sexton’s “Young” and “Housewife” epitomize the strategies used by the confessional poets. These strategies involved uncovering what was hidden, talking about the taboo, and translating the personal, and sometimes minor, experiences of a lifetime into a poetry that was as universal and durable as the poetry of the Modernists. Confessional poetry opened up the form and the content of poetry. As Robert Lowell put it:
Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill, perhaps there’s never been such skill. Yet the writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It’s become too much something specialized that can’t handle much experience. It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life.
Lowell’s assessment of his contemporaries seems even more apropos of the poetry written in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The confessional poets gave poets of subsequent generations permission to write about anything; no subject was off limits. Simultaneously, the feeling of belatedness related to writing in the shadow of the Modernists could be mitigated. The flood of poems written in the confessional mode in the second half of the twentieth century, however, created new problems for poets. To understand the problems posed by writing in the confessional mode today, confessional poetry must be placed within its historical context.
Confessional poetry comes to prominence along with the Beat Generation and the New York School at the height of the Cold War. The civil rights movement, the counter-culture, the feminist movement, and the gay rights movement signaled fundamental changes in American society. In these movements, speaking personally became a crucial form of intervention in the public sphere and an overt political act. Individual, rather than communal, belief propelled these movements forward. The confession of personal experience became a vehicle for social and political agency. As Deborah Nelson explains:
Confession, with or without the motivation of Penance or psychic pain relief, also represents one of the most varied forms of artistic experimentation in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is impossible to imagine this period without considering the popularity of the memoir and the autobiographical novel, the exhibitionism of performance art, the subjective viewpoint of the New Journalism, and the self-portraiture in photography and the fine arts generally, to say nothing of the personal revelations of talk shows, tabloids, and, in the twenty-first century, personal blogs and social media.
In the world of reality television, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, the boundaries of the personal and the private have blurred. The forms of confession practiced in contemporary social media are staged and superficial, contingent upon spectacle, less concerned with discovering truths than they are with generating celebrity. Shocking confessions may abound in social media today, but little retains the power to shock or to foment meaningful political change.
Formal control and understanding of the tradition has always been weak among mediocre poets, but the slackening of these in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a kind of one-upmanship among poets vying to tell the most traumatic secret. Sensationalism and identity politics dominated the worst poetry published during this time period. Movements, such as L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry, developed, or strengthened, in reaction to the perceived inadequacy of poetry written in the confessional mode. At the same time, the proliferation of MFA programs and Creative Writing departments produced a glut of what Robert Lowell would have called “terribly proficient” craftsmen. Furthermore, many of these terribly proficient craftsmen in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century began to distrust narrative. As Carolyn Forché famously observed: “Our age lacks the structure of a story. Or perhaps it would be closer to say that narrative implies progress and completion. The history of our time does not allow for any of the bromides of progress, nor for the promise of successful closure.” The best poets of this time period disregard this pronouncement and continue to write lyric narrative poetry of surpassing power.
Tony Hoagland further unpacks the problem with narrative that poets such as Joe Weil, Ruth Stone, Sharon Olds, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Denise Duhamel circumvent in their poetry. In his essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Hoagland specifies:
What aspect of narrative is so to be guarded against? A number of familiar explanations present themselves. To start with, it seems likely that narrative poetry in America has been tainted by its over-use in thousands of confessional poems. Not confessionalism itself, but the inadvertent sentimentality and narcissism of many such poems have imparted the odor of indulgence to narrative. Our vision of narrative possibilities has been narrowed by so many first person autobiographical stories, then drowned in a flood of pathos poems. Psychology itself, probably the most widely-shared narrative of the last several generations of American culture, has lost its charisma as a system, if not its currency. Secondly, many persons think that ours is simply not a narrative age; that contemporary experience is too multitracked, too visual, too manifold and simultaneous to be confined to the linearity of narrative, no matter how well done.
Great poets have always risked sentimentality to expose true sentiment. If the current age lacks a structure and is “too multitracked, too visual, too manifold,” then perhaps the first person narrative still retains the power to provide a momentary stay against confusion. Hoagland’s assessment implies that poetry reflects experience, but, as Rainer Maria Rilke has eloquently argued, poems are experiences in and of themselves; they are not merely reflections. No matter how many first person autobiographical stories are published a single great poem cannot be “drowned in a flood of pathos poems.”
Another problem confronting contemporary lyric narrative poets and their confessional forbearers is the autobiographical “I.” Poets such as Olds, Duhamel, Gillan, Weil, and Stone write poetry that is predominantly inspired by direct lived experience and is rarely, if ever, transmuted into myth in the manner of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems. Yusef Komunyakaa’s explanation of the autobiographical “I” applies to the narrative voice used in the work of these poets. Komunyakaa elaborates:
For me, the speaker is often a universal “I” whose feelings have been shaped by experience and/or imagination, an emphatic witness. Since the human being is an act of becoming, the “I” is cultivated, shaped, and nurtured—from first breath to last. The “I” possesses will: “I am” is an action, and so is the act of writing poetry a sustenance. Like any of the other arts, poetry isn’t a career or a job. Neither is the poet the mere keeper of an emotional logbook, nor a reporter, curator, or documentarist. Although he or she may keep a journal, jotting down the daily mishaps, observations, and blessings, cataloguing glimpses into the past and present, straining to see the future, the poem is still “a made thing.”
Komunyakaa’s explication of the autobiographical “I” underscores the poet’s faith in the capacity of poetry to express fundamental human desires and predicaments. Writing in the confessional mode does not serve the same ends as the documentarian, the journalist, or the historian. The poet is not merely a curator, but rather a creator of experience. The autobiographical “I,” in Komunyakaa’s formulation, shapes the poet as much as the poet shapes this persona created by the poem’s “I.” This conception of the autobiographical “I” debunks the claims of egocentric narcissism with which much contemporary lyric narrative poetry has been charged by critics such as Christian Wiman.
At the beginning of his tenure as editor of Poetry magazine, Wiman put forth an editorial statement in which he imagined ruthless future readers who “will look at all these poems into which we’ve poured the wounded truths of our hearts, all the fraught splendor and terror of these lives we suffered and sang … and giggle.” Wiman rejects what he perceives to be an epidemic technical laziness in contemporary poetry, a phenomenon he terms “the train wreck of broken-prose confessionalism.” The complaint about formal facility in lyric narrative poetry appears frequently in criticism of poetry written in the confessional mode. Joan Aleshire echoes Wiman when she claims:
In the confessional poem, as I’d like to define it, the poet, overwhelmed or intoxicated by the facts of his or her life, lets the facts take over. To say that a poem is confessional is to signal a breakdown in judgment and craft. Confession shares with the lyric a degree of self-revelation but carries implications that the lyric resists. The Oxford English Dictionary defines confession as the declaration or disclosure of something that one has allowed to remain secret as being prejudicial, humiliating, or inconvenient to oneself; the disclosure of private feeling; a plea of guilty, an admission of what one has been charged with; a formal confession made in order to receive absolution. I see the confessional poem as a plea for special treatment, a poem where the poet’s stance is one of particularity apart from common experience. Confession in art, as in life, can be self- serving—an attempt to shift the burden of knowledge from speaker-transgressor to listener.
Aleshire’s definition accounts for the negative charge associated with confessional poetry. No poet wants their poems to be viewed as a means for shifting guilt onto a reader. To equate confessional poetry with a breakdown in craft and judgment further stigmatizes the mode. Most damning of all, however, is the view of a confessional poem as “a plea for special treatment.” A poem which exists merely as a linguistic maneuver meant to situate a poet apart from common experience is no poem at all. Aleshire’s definition, although nuanced and accurate when looking at the work of unexceptional poets, falls short when applied to extraordinary poets writing confessional poetry.
Extraordinary poets such as Joe Weil, Denise Duhamel, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Ruth Stone, and Sharon Olds all write confessional poetry. None of these poets would claim to be a confessional poet, just as none of the confessional poets, with the exception of Anne Sexton, accepted the label. All of these poets possess great technical proficiency and a profound understanding of the literary tradition in which they write. More importantly, the confessions in the poems written by these poets do not separate the poet from common experience. Shameful admissions in these poets’ works are not “pleas for special treatment.” Rather, by admitting the fragilities, triumphs, and failures of a lifetime, these poets hold forth the promise of reconciliation and communion. During the sacrament of reconciliation in Roman Catholicism the penitent confesses the sins that have caused a separation from the Body of Christ (the church). Sin separates the sinner from grace. Confession restores the sinner to a state of grace. The impulse and function of confessional poetry at its best follows a similar trajectory from solitude to communion, from disjuncture to unity, from disgrace through a recognition of human fallibility to wholeness and a full participation in the shared struggles of communal life.
Such a view of the confessional mode positions the purpose of poetry as one of avowal and renewal. Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “Daddy, We Called You” clearly shows these motions of avowal and renewal. The poem confesses:
One night, riding home from a date,
my middle class, American boyfriend
kissed me at the light; I looked up
and met your eyes as you stood at the corner
near Royal Machine. It was nearly midnight.
January. Cold and Windy. You were waiting
for the bus, the streetlight illuminating
your face. I pretended I did not see you,
let my boyfriend pull away, leaving you
on the empty corner waiting for the bus
to take you home. You never mentioned it,
never said that you knew
how often I lied about what you did for a living
or that I was ashamed to have my boyfriend see you,
find out about your second shift work, your broken English.
The denial of the father in this poem is a denial of self. By confessing the sin of shame for her father, the poet avows her love for him. There is a directness to Gillan’s poem that admits no posturing. By affirming her love of her father, by admitting the difference that he represented and of which she was ashamed, the poet reconnects the tissue that her denial severed. The autobiographical “I” in this poem is a universal “I,” channeling the experience of anyone who has denied their roots and disregarded their heritage, if only for a moment. Of the universality present in Gillan’s work, Joe Weil has commented: “All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work.” As with all the best confessional poems, Gillan’s work bridges the particular with the universal.
Ruth Stone similarly bridged the particular with the universal. Stone’s poems obsessively confront grief and loss in a similar fashion to Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s. Unlike Gillan, who writes in sprawling and direct aria-like lines, many of Stone’s poems compress experience in short lyric snatches. Like John Berryman, who dealt with the death of his father in his work, Stone confronts the specter of her husband’s suicide again and again. The poem, “The Professor Cries” provides a representative example of Stone’s confessional poetry. The poem reads:
This is the end of March.
The tax collector
wants me to cut my wrists.
The roach inspector
drives up in a truck.
The snow sits like dough
turning sour. Every hour
love’s bones grow lighter.
This is what comes
of having no pity.
Time used me.
Death used me.
I live in Johnson City.
This short poem, which is the first poem in Ruth Stone’s In the Next Galaxy, simultaneously evokes the universal and the particular. In the poem, the list of troubles compounds from the inertia of the first line, through the impositions the tax collector and the roach inspector, to the musical fulcrum of the lines: “The snow sits like dough/ turning sour. Every hour/ love’s bones grow lighter.” The list accelerates past “what comes/ of having no pity”: being used by time and death. The poem ends with the arresting line: “I live in Johnson City.” This last line brings the poem to a halt, restores the inertia of the first line, and seems to offer either an explanation for what has come before it in the poem or a defiant statement of enduring that begs the question, “Why Johnson City?”
If you have never sat in the Red Robin Diner on Main Street in Johnson City, New York, or gotten your hair cut at Bill’s Barber Shop on Floral Avenue, the final line does not contain as much weight. Johnson City is a depressed town with a population of around 15, 000 predominantly working class people. The town is known as “The Home of the Square Deal,” a form of welfare capitalism sponsored by the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory, which provided workers with cheap homes, parks, parades, and other social programs, in order to ensure a reliable workforce in the early twentieth century. Today, Johnson City’s population has declined, the city has been on the verge of bankruptcy for years, and the local government is notoriously corrupt. The streets are shabby and pothole pocked. In the summer, you often see babies in diapers playing unattended in patches of dirt that used to be green lawns. Pedestrians often spit on the sidewalk in Johnson City. Litter is everywhere. To live in Johnson City is to live in the rundown husk of a town.
The feeling of debasement and sadness that sinks gradually, in tandem with the structure of Stone’s poem, gains resonance with a knowledge of the abandoned public swimming pools and closed factories that punctuate the streets of the town. Living in Johnson City, surrounded by so much ruin, might make “love’s bones grow lighter.” However, the very unremarkable qualities, of urban decay and suburban neglect that make Johnson City typical of many American places, enable the poem to transcend the details of locality that lend the poem added resonance. The Johnson City in Ruth Stone’s poem is and is not the Johnson City where Stone lived while she taught at Binghamton University. Stone’s Johnson City is a universal Johnson City, where the crushing details of living in a small town cannot crush the affirmation at the poem’s end. Ultimately, Stone’s poem is about enduring. The speaker in the poem lives in Johnson City, despite how time and death have used her. She endures and the music of this endurance sings at the poem’s center. Although “the snow sits like dough/ turning sour,” the music of that turning breaks into strong song.
“Place” cradles the confessional details in this poem. The poet admits to living in a backwater. In so doing, she confesses her allegiance to the humble and the ordinary. Her husband’s suicide ghosts through the lines in the image of slit wrists, in the recollection of how love’s bones have grown lighter, and in the ascendancy of time and death. The lines “This is what comes,/ of having no pity” confess a brokenness that has caused callouses to form. Although Ruth Stone was an atheist, “The Professor Cries” enacts what Joe Weil would call a “Eucharistic reality.” Weil explains:
To put it simply: I seek in my poetics the moment when the divine is seen in the other, and the divine is not Jerusalem, the expected place, but Bethlehem, the lowly place, the place unsought, but stumbled upon, the “slip of the pen”–that is a moment of Eucharistic reality–grace.
Confessional poems manifest a Eucharistic sense of the world (that this body, the word, is both broken and blessed, and therefore meant for communion). In this respect, both Ruth Stone’s and Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poems are confessional. Simply put, confession restores grace.
Joe Weil’s poetry bears out this definition of the confessional. In Weil’s best poems, personal stories are braided into a dense web of literary, mythical, and historical allusions. Weil is more of a trickster in his poems than either Stone or Gillan. There is a playfulness and humor in his poems that turns brokenness into a blessing. His poem, “Fists” provides a good example of Weil’s commitment to poetry as unifying praise. The poem reads as follows:
It was the sense that your fists were worlds
and mine were not that caused me to worship you;
all those thick rope veins, and the deep inlaid grime of your life,
the permanent filth of your labors.
I wanted your history.
My own smoothness appalled me.
I wanted that hardness
I’d pry your fingers loose,
using both my hands,
find stones, a robin’s egg uncrushed
in the thick meat of your palms.
Between thumb and forefinger,
your flesh smelled of creosote and lye,
three packs of Chesterfield Kings.
You told me stories about heroes,
David with his sling,
Samson with his jaw bone of an ass,
Christ with his word forgive.
Tonight, I read about Cuchulain
contending with the sea,
how he killed his son in battle,
a son he’d never known,
and, mad with his grief,
fought the waves
for three nights and as many days,
until, at last, he came ashore,
and fell asleep holding his dead child’s hands.
When he woke, it was morning, and the hands of his son
had become two black swans.
They flew west where all suffering ends.
I read this story
and I remember you.
Hold me clenched until I am those birds.
until your fists can open.
The poem begins with a profession of admiration for the poet’s father, whose fists were worlds inlaid with the grime of a life. The second stanza shifts to the confessional mode when the poet admits: “I wanted your history./ My own smoothness appalled me./ I wanted that hardness/ of fists.” The act of confession initiates the memory of prying loose a robin’s egg held in the father’s hands. This memory restores a unity between father and son. The image of the father’s powerful creosote and lye caked hand cradling the delicate egg is one of reunification and safety.
Once this unity has been established, Weil’s poem invokes the communal force of storytelling. The poet remembers his father telling the stories of David with his sling, Samson with his jawbone, and, most notably, Christ with his word forgive. The progression of these stories is significant. David the poet-warrior-king, precedes the Nazarite hero who slew Philistines, who in turn precede Jesus offering mercy and forgiveness. Forgiveness and reconciliation are at the heart of this poem and praise. The difficulties between father and son mend and pivot on the word forgive. After Christ, the poem moves, in its final stanza to Cuchulain, the Irish mythological hero from the Ulster Cycle. Cuchulain kills his son in battle, but his son’s hands turn into black swans and fly west where all suffering ends. Grief leads Cuchulain to battle the waves of the sea, and this battle ends in transformation. Similarly, the grief and nostalgia that tinge the opening of Weil’s poem are transformed into praise. The final image complicates the narrative as Weil apostrophizes: “Hold me clenched until I am those birds./ Sleep now,/ until your fists can open.” Weil ends the poem with a further confession, that he is not those birds who have flown beyond all suffering. Rather, he is a man like any other man, fragile as a robin’s egg. The strength of his dead father carries him still. The delicate injunction “sleep now,” conveys the poet’s belief in love, forgiveness, and the promise of wholeness.
The Eucharistic reality that inhabits Weil’s poetry, and invests it with the potential to restore grace applies equally to poems whose subject matter is decidedly more secular. Sharon Olds’ “Poem of Thanks” reflects on a failed marriage in a similar fashion. The poem reads:
Years later, long single,
I want to turn to his departed back,
and say, What gifts we had of each other!
What pleasure – confiding, open-eyed,
fainting with what we were allowed to stay up
late doing. And you couldn’t say,
could you, that the touch you had from me
was other than the touch of one
who could love for life – whether we were suited
or not – for life, like a sentence. And now that I
consider, the touch that I had from you
became not the touch of the long view, but like the
tolerant willingness of one
who is passing through. Colleague of sand
by moonlight – and by beach noonlight, once,
and of straw, salt bale in a barn, and mulch
inside a garden, between the rows – once-
partner of up against the wall in that tiny
bathroom with the lock that fluttered like a chrome
butterfly beside us, hip-height, the familiar
of our innocence, which was the ignorance
of what would be asked, what was required,
thank you for every hour. And I
accept your thanks, as if it were
a gift of yours, to give them – let’s part
equals, as we were in every bed, pure
equals of the earth.
The confession in this poem is not that the marriage failed, but that in the failed marriage there was sweetness that remained unremarked. The remembrance of an equalizing sexual pleasure affords the grounds for the confession that even in failure lingers room for thanks. To be “pure equals of the earth” and “colleagues of sand by moonlight” affirms a Eucharistic sense of the holiness that courses through ruin.
“Poem of Thanks” inverts the confessional poem practiced throughout Olds’ body of work. Olds’ poems often detail sex and domestic strife in the candid manner of Anne Sexton’s poems. In an interview published in The Rumpus Denise Duhamel discussed Olds, the confessional mode, and the legacy of the Confessional Poets. Duhamel said:
If you are my friend and say to me, “Please don’t write about this,” I won’t. I don’t think I could have agreed to that twenty years ago and would have been only able to say, “I’ll try my best not to!” I remember going to a poetry panel in the mid-1990s, and someone asked if Sharon Olds might be part of a cultural nexus that included talk shows like those hosted by Phil Donahue and Oprah. The audience just sort of giggled and the panel didn’t address the question, but I do think there is something to that notion. Not that Olds herself watched such shows—I have no idea if she did or not. But the question asked by the audience member suggested that there was something in the zeitgeist that allowed for and accommodated disclosure.
My students rarely wrote about personal topics when I first started teaching, but now they are more forthcoming with seemingly personal details. There is less embarrassment around certain issues. We have come far from the days of the first confessional poets. In 1959, M.L. Rosenthal actually referred to Lowell’s Life Studies “as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.” I can’t imagine any reviewer writing that about a book of poems today, although I suppose TMI has made it into our lexicon for a reason. Reality TV takes this notion even further. Viewers follow “real” people, not only when they are in crisis or giving birth, but also as they do the most mundane things.
The zeitgeist of the age unmistakably allows for and accommodates disclosure. Lowell and his contemporaries held such influence because the zeitgeist of their age ran counter to disclosure; their disclosures gained in urgency because they expressed subjects and experience that were largely absent from the public discourse. Today, everything is discussed, but the discussion creates a cacophony, a clutter of exposés and admissions, a clamoring for attention that becomes more and more distracted. Scandal and outrage break through the clutter momentarily and vanish into dissonance just as quickly as they emerge. The disclosures that occur on a talk show, in tabloids, in the news, and in social media, occupy a different space than those that occur in a poem. The act of reading, even an accessible and direct poem, requires a sustained concentration missing from the viewers of a reality television show or the subscribers to a Twitter feed.
Denise Duhamel’s poetry consists primarily of revelations that would make her a hit on a reality television show. The disclosure of intimate personal details that would be sensationalized on the internet or in a television show lend her poems tremendous emotional power. Duhamel’s poem “You Don’t Get to Tell Me What to Do Ever Again” furnishes what M.L. Rosenthal would have called “a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.” A television producer might call these confidences ratings gold, but in the poem, the aggregate weight of these confidences leads from confession through a recognition of human fallibility to wholeness and a full participation in the shared struggles of communal life. The poem begins:
There was a time all my husband wanted was sex.
I was premenstrual, too tired,
in a bitch of a mood, then premenopausal,
or maybe even bored.
He would lie beside me jerking off
while I pretended to sleep.
This beginning works within the established conventions of confessional poetry; the confessions here are less shocking in 2013 than Anne Sexton’s menstruation poems were in the 1960s. The opening lines establish another conventional subject in confessional poetry, an unhappy marriage. After these lines Duhamel alludes to the film American Beauty. Duhamel takes the poem’s title from a line in the film and dedicates it to the film’s main character, Lester Burnham. The poet nuances the poem by placing its confessional aspects in dialogue with a popular film that critiques American materialism and suburban conformity.
The poem continues to describe the usual details found in poems about marital problems: miscommunication, suspicion, and the eventual dissolution of the marriage. The second half of the poem reads:
The year before he left
we avoided being awake in bed
at the same time and, when we were,
we lay on our backs hoping the other would take over.
One night I turned on my side, facing the wall,
remembering the way we used to kiss, the eager way
all lovers kiss at first, then the way the kisses fizzle
and shorten to a peck.
I took a deep breath, tried
to formulate something loving or seductive to say,
but instead snapped, Will you please stop that!
and my husband’s secret was out. He left the bed
for the bathroom and the recliner
and eventually for another woman in another state,
which leads me to today. Now that it’s too late,
all I want is sex. I am the one jerking off
as the hands of my imagined and real lovers,
dead or gone, reach down from the ceiling
sprinkling me with rose petals, red American Beauty mouths
that whisper there’s no way to domesticate you, darling,
and I pretend I can do whatever I want.
In Duhamel’s poem, the series of personal confidences build to the true confession: it is too late. Fundamentally, this poem seeks to confront mortality. The speaker can pretend to do what she wants, but she cannot undo the damage of haste and time. She cannot, despite her assertions of independence and strength, stave off regret and loss. By admitting the knowledge of powerlessness in the face of loss Duhamel manifests a Eucharistic sense of the world; broken and blessed, this sense leads to communion.
Poetry is earned communion. Confession is the most potent means for achieving such communion. Communion consists of the stories that we tell each other. All utterance falls short. The vast blank expanse of the page offers a space to move through the unsayable. Annie Dillard said: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place. Assume you write for an audience consisting of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” The best poetry says what is necessary and nothing more; its only reason for being is to help us survive. Critics and academics construct schools of poetry and modes of writing. Poetry is not, and never has been, monolithic, but the division of poetry into competing factions is a fabrication and a lie. There is good poetry and bad poetry, poetry that will endure and poetry that will sink into oblivion.
The best lyric narrative poets writing today say what is most urgent. They put their business in the street. They are unashamed to praise. They are unashamed to confess their faults and mourn their losses. As Anne Sexton said, “there are little deaths in life, too—in your own life—and at that point, sometimes you are in touch with strange things, otherworldly things.” Writers such as Weil, Olds, Stone, Gillan, and Duhamel transform the little deaths and losses of a lifetime into poetry. They are not afraid to confess and they should not be afraid to be labelled confessional. In true poetry, as Robert Lowell said, “there must be some breakthrough back to life.” This breakthrough back to life depends on the understanding that every life is a train wreck, but amidst the wreckage one can find a form of salvation by recognizing and honoring the shared difficulties that bind us together as human beings. Even if life is difficult and we are burdened with the knowledge that we will one day die, what a miracle that poetry exists and that poets struggle to articulate the fearful symmetries of what remains unsaid.
1 Wiman, Christian. “A Piece of Prose” in Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Print. P. 70.
2 McDaniel, Jeffrey. “Post-Confessional Poetry?” Harriet: A Poetry Blog, 17 June 2007. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 4 April 2014.
3 Bouman, Tom. Personal Interview. 4 July 2012.
4 Nelson, Deborah. “Confessional Poetry” in American Poetry Since 1945. Ed. Jennifer Ashton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print. P. 32.
5 Rosenthal, M. L. “Poetry as Confession” in Our Life in Poetry: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Persea Books, 1991. Print. P. 109.
6 Lowell, Robert. “Skunk Hour” in Selected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006. Print. P. 133.
8 Rosenthal, M. L. “Poetry as Confession” in Our Life in Poetry: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Persea Books, 1991. Print. P. 109.
9 Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print. P. 1-2.
10 Nelson, Deborah. “Confessional Poetry” in American Poetry Since 1945. Ed. Jennifer Ashton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print. P. 32.
11 Ibid. P. 32-33.
12 Berryman, John. Selected Poems. New York: The Library of America, 2004. Print. P. xxi.
13 Hyde, Lewis. Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking. Dallas, Texas: The Dallas Institute Publications, 1975. Print. P. 11.
14 Ibid. P. 17.
15 Berryman, John. Selected Poems. New York: The Library of America, 2004. Print. P. 123.
16 Nelson, Deborah. “Confessional Poetry” in American Poetry Since 1945. Ed. Jennifer Ashton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print. P. 34.
18 Sexton, Anne. Interview in Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Viking, 1989. Print. P. 255.
19 Ibid. P. 256.
20 Hirsch, Edward. “One Life, One Writing: The Middle Generation” in Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co.: Middle-Generation Poets in Context. Ed. 21 Suzanne Ferguson. Knoxville, TN: The University of Knoxville Press, 2003. Print. P. 6.
23 Sexton, Anne. Interview in Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Viking, 1989. Print. P. 257.
24 Sexton, Anne. Selected Poems of Anne Sexton. New York: Mariner Books, 2000. Print. P. 64.
25 Ibid. P. 46.
26 Lowell, Robert. Interview in Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Viking, 1989. Print. P. 111-112.
27 Nelson, Deborah. “Confessional Poetry” in American Poetry Since 1945. Ed. Jennifer Ashton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print. P. 33.
29 Forché, Carolyn. Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Print. P. 43.
30 Hoagland, Tony. “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Poetry. 21 March 2006. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 5 April 2014.
31 Komunyakaa, Yusef. “The Autobiographical “I”: An Archive of Metaphor, Imagery, and Innuendo” in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography. Ed. Kate Sontag and David Graham. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2001. Print. P. 145-146.
32 Share, Don. “To Our Readers” in Poetry. 1 October 2013. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 5 April 2014.
33 Aleshire, Joan. “Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric” in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography. Ed. Kate Sontag and David 34 Graham. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2001. Print. P. 16.
Mazziotti Gillan, Maria. What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2010. Print. P. 212.
35 Weil, Joe. “Not Done With Her Changes: A Review of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s The Silence in an Empty House.” 3 April 2014. The The Poetry Blog. Web. 6 April 2014.
36 Stone, Ruth. In the Next Galaxy. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2002. Print. P. 3.
37 Weil, Joe. “On Shema Mitzvah in My Poetry.” 29 May 2013. The The Poetry Blog. Web. 7 April 2014.
38 Weil, Joe. The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems. New York: New York Quarterly Books, 2013. Print. P. 111-112.
39 Olds, Sharon. Stag’s Leap. New York: Borzoi Books, 2012. Print. P. 82.
40 Wade, Julie Marie. “The Rumpus Interview with Denise Duhamel.” 9 May 2013. The Rumpus. Web. 7 April 2014.
41 Duhamel, Denise. Blowout. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. Print. P. 69.
42 Ibid. P. 69-70.
43 Sexton, Anne. Interview in Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Viking, 1989. Print. P. 276.
Ashton, Jennifer. Ed. American Poetry Since 1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013
Berryman, John. Selected Poems. New York: The Library of America, 2004.
Bouman, Tom. Personal Interview. 4 July 2012.
Duhamel, Denise. Blowout. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.
Ferguson, Suzanne. Ed. Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co.: Middle-Generation Poets in Context. Knoxville, TN: The University of Knoxville Press, 2003.
Forché, Carolyn. Ed. Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.
Hoagland, Tony. “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” Poetry. 21 March 2006. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 5 April 2014.
Hyde, Lewis. Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking. Dallas, Texas: The Dallas Institute Publications, 1975.
Kirsch, Adam. The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
Lowell, Robert. Selected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006.
Mazziotti Gillan, Maria. What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2010.
McDaniel, Jeffrey. “Post-Confessional Poetry?” Harriet: A Poetry Blog, 17 June 2007. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 4 April 2014.
Nelson, Deborah. “Confessional Poetry” in American Poetry Since 1945. Ed. Jennifer Ashton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Olds, Sharon. Stag’s Leap. New York: Borzoi Books, 2012.
Plimpton, George. Ed. Poets at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. New York: Viking, 1989.
Rosenthal, M. L. Our Life in Poetry: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Persea Books, 1991.
Sexton, Anne. Selected Poems of Anne Sexton. New York: Mariner Books, 2000.
Share, Don. “To Our Readers” in Poetry. 1 October 2013. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 5 April 2014.
Sontag, Kate and David Graham. Eds. After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2001.
Stone, Ruth. In the Next Galaxy. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2002.
Wade, Julie Marie. “The Rumpus Interview with Denise Duhamel.” 9 May 2013. The Rumpus. Web. 7 April 2014.
Weil, Joe. The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems. New York: New York Quarterly Books, 2013.
Weil, Joe. “Not Done With Her Changes: A Review of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s The Silence in an Empty House.” 3 April 2014. The The Poetry Blog. Web. 6 April 2014.
Weil, Joe. “On Shema Mitzvah in My Poetry.” 29 May 2013. The The Poetry Blog. Web. 7 April 2014.
Wiman, Christian. Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.