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Confessionalism (poetry)

Confessionalism (poetry)

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Confessional poetry traffics in intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about details of the poet's personal life, such as in poems about illness, sexuality, despondence. The confessionalist label was applied to a number of poets of the 1950s and 1960s. John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and William De Witt Snodgrass have all been called 'Confessional Poets'. As fresh and different as the work of these poets appeared at the time, it is also true that several poets prominent in the canon of Western literature, perhaps most notably Sextus Propertius and Petrarch, could easily share the label of "confessional" with the confessional poets of the fifties and sixties.


Development of definition

In 1959 M. L. Rosenthal first used the term "confessional" in a review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies entitled 'Poetry as Confession',[1] He interpreted the confessional "I" as personal and autobiographical. Later, also in relation to Life Studies, Rosenthal wrote: “Lowell’s poetry has been a long struggle to remove the mask, to make the speaker unequivocally himself. […] 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"[2]

Allen Ginsberg portrays an important aspect of confessional poetry with the following lines from the poem Howl:"[To] stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,..."

However, more recent criticism of the confessional poets has troubled the association of the confessional 'I' with the poet. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), Jacqueline Rose begins with the assumption that "Plath is a fantasy": her life and poetry have been constructed in such a way as to perpetuate a particular fiction about her marriage, mental illness, and "autobiographic" writing (5). Rose argues against the mythologizing tendency among Plath's critics by showing how Plath fictionalizes herself in her writing.

Later developments in confessional poetry begin to blur the distinctions between a public and a private activism. Authors such as Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde present personal difficulties in a socio-political context. Lorde's poem, "Coal" reflects on such personal problems within a given cultural context. Also in Levertov's, "Life at War" there is something inextricably personal bound in the conflict of the age.

What defines poetry as confessional is not the subject matter, but how the issue represented is explored. Confessional poetry explores personal details about the authors' life without meekness, modesty, or discretion. Because of this, confessional poetry is a popular form of creative writing that many people enjoy not only to read but to embark upon. Another element that is specific to this poetry is self-revelation achieved through creating the poem. This passes on to the reader, and a connection is made.

Reasons behind writing confessional poetry

Poets whose writing is classified as confessional (it has been argued) use writing as an outlet for their demons. Writing and then re-reading one's work changes the cognitive processes with which one's brain processes this information — it offers perspective. Anne Sexton famously said, "Poetry led me by the hand out of madness." But she also argued against this perception in her interviews. In an interview with Patricia Marx, Sexton denies that writing “cured her”:

“I don’t think [that writing cured my mental illness] particularly. It certainly did not create mental health. It isn’t as simple as my poetry makes it, because I simplified everything to make it more dramatic. I have written poems in a mental institution, but only later, not at the beginning”.[3]


Confessional free verse poetry seemed to have become the dominant approach in late 20th-century American poetryTemplate:Fact. Robert Bly in the preface to his 1983 translation of Antonio Machado's poetry, Times Alone, praised Machado for "his emphasis on the suffering of others rather than his own".[4] The reaction to confessional poetry has sparked new movements such as that of the Language poets and New Formalism.




fr:Confessionnalisme (courant littéraire)
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