M. L. Rosenthal ‘first applied the term confession to Robert Lowell’s work’ (1). One definition of what makes a poem ‘confessional’ is offered by Irving Howe, who argues that a ‘confessional poem would seem to be one in which the writer speaks to the reader, telling him, without the mediating presence of imagined event or persona, something about his life’. (2) The first poem that was called ‘confessional’ was Snodgrass’ ‘Heart’s Needle’, which ‘provided a model of truthfulness’. (3) Before then, the subject matter of poetry implicitly included little of the poet’s private life, instead focusing upon public issues using a detached persona. The new ‘confessional’ poems removed the mask that poets had been hiding behind and provided an insight into the private lives of the poets. However, upon close study it is clear to recognise the differences as well as similarities between the ‘confessional poets’ and their poems. The label ‘confessional poetry’ over-simplifies and undervalues the nature of the poetry of Lowell, Sexton and Plath. While these poems frequently engage in what is repressed, hidden and falsified, defining them as ‘confessional’ undermines the creative ability of the writer to construct a persona or imaginary scenario that is separate from their lives.
Critics have argued whether or not the poems of Lowell, Sexton and Plath are ‘confessional’. M. L. Rosenthal argued that Plath was a ‘confessional’ poet because she ‘followed Lowell’s autobiographical method in Life Studies.’ (4) Likewise, Edward Butscher argues that ‘Plath’s confessionalism was the ultimate goal of her poetic career.’ (5) Howe also describes Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ as a ‘confessional’ poem because it discusses her recurrent suicide attempts. Nevertheless, Howe criticises much of Plath’s poetry for being self-indulgent, describing ‘Daddy’ as a ‘revenge fantasy’ rather than ‘confessional’. (6) Howe separates Plath from the ‘confessional’ category because he claims that she has ‘abandoned the sense of audience’ in favour of self-indulgence. (7) In stark contrast to this, Rosenblatt argues that while Plath’s later poems were influenced by life experiences, her poetry does not depend on its confessional nature. Rosenblatt states that while these poems ‘begin with an autobiographical situation’ they ‘exist by themselves and can be read and understood in most cases without biographical information.’ Rather than directly using her experience in the poems, Plath frequently uses ‘elements from her experience as the starting point for imagistic and thematic elaborations.’ (8)
In her earlier poems, Plath appeared to repress certain themes that were influential on the imagery of her poems. Later, however, Sylvia ‘begins to tell the truth.’ (9) For instance, in ‘The Colossus’ Plath presents the image of her father, but not the full extent of her feelings toward him, which are revealed in ‘Daddy’. While she both loves and hates her father in ‘The Colossus’, it is in ‘Daddy’ that Plath unleashes her hatred upon him. Expanding on the reality of her experience, Plath’s persona is at conflict with her father because he is German, and she is a Jew. Robert Phillips’ argument that ‘Daddy’ is ‘a poem of total rejection’ (10) is reinforced by Plath’s line ‘Daddy, I have had to kill you.’ (11) However, more controversially, it has been argued that Plath is sexually obsessed with her father. Some critics have suggested that the ‘black shoe’ in which she has ‘lived like a foot’ (12) is a phallic symbol that proves her incestuous desires. In the poem, Plath moves from desiring her father, fearing him, to hating him. The suggestion of incest is embellished in Plath’s implication that she married a man just like her father:
I made a model of you, A man in black with a Meinkampf look And a love of the rack and the screw. And I said I do, I do. (13)
Like in ‘Daddy’, Plath addresses a German ‘Herr’ in ‘Lady Lazarus’, where she addresses the hidden theme of suicide. Plath’s uses of first person narration implies that it is her who has ‘done it again’. (15) Like Sexton, Plath frankly admits that this is not her first suicide attempt – ‘This is Number Three’. (16) However, at the end of the poem the speaker undergoes a rebirth that enables her to ‘eat men like air.’ (17)
In comparison, Plath explains the oppressive treatment that women receive in society in her poem, ‘The Applicant’. Like Sexton, Plath is tired of domestic servitude and the emphasis that is placed upon women’s appearance. Plath emphasises that a person will not be accepted by society unless they are ‘our sort of person’. (18) The purpose of a woman is to ‘do whatever you tell it’ or to ‘marry it’. (19) Plath points out the patronising treatment of women with her line ‘Come here, sweetie’, showing that a woman is treated like a dog, or a ‘living doll’ rather than an independent human being. (20) The qualities that are valued in women are sewing, cooking and talking, as well as the obvious requirement of looking attractive.
Critics often make the mistake of claiming that the voice of Anne Sexton’s poems is hers, rather than an invented persona. As Sexton said, in a radio interview with MacBeth, facts ‘“are very unimportant things, there to make you believe in the emotional content in a poem”’. (21) In order to be effective, the voice of Sexton’s poems ‘must likewise be both a selection (an aspect of the whole person who is writing) and an artifice, shaped and ordered to suit the needs of the poem.’ (22) Anne Sexton provides proof of her use of personas, stating that she ‘would alter any word, attitude, image or persona for the sake of a poem.’ (23) Sexton claims that distorting the truth ‘made a better poem’. (24)
What is typically ‘confessional’ about Sexton’s work is it’s handling of taboo or shocking subjects that were not traditionally discussed in poetry before the so-called ‘confessional poets’. These taboo subjects such as mental breakdowns, suicide, marital problems and incest were themselves hidden from poetry in the past. Sexton’s poems engaged in what was ‘repressed, hidden, or falsified’ from an early stage in poems such as ‘In the Beach House’, which associated her parents’ lovemaking, ‘the royal strapping’, with a beating she had received from her father. (25) However, Anne Sexton’s recurring themes were further expanded upon throughout her poetry so that any repressed feelings were finally revealed.
Repression was a key theme for Sexton, which is reinforced by the comments of Robin Becker a former student of Sexton’s, who explained how Sexton used to ‘“unrepress”’ the class. (26) What remained repressed for Sexton was her memories of sexual abuse, whether real or imagined. While her friends believe that Sexton was sexually abused, her therapist, Dr. Orne, believed that it was a false memory. However, Sexton’s preoccupation with incest is clear in many of her poems including ‘The Truth the Dead Know’, ‘Flee on Your Donkey’ and ‘In the Beach House’. In ‘The Death of the Fathers’, Sexton suggests incest in her description of dancing with her father. The innocent dance is perverted with the image of ‘The serpent, that mocker, woke up and pressed against me’. (27)
As well as repressed images of sexual feelings toward her father, Sexton’s poems imply an unnatural relationship with her mother. Sexton reported to her psychiatrist, repressed memories of her mother’s genital inspections, which left her feeling ashamed and humiliated. While this theme is not overtly explored in her poems, Sexton implies hostility toward her mother in many of her poems.
If the themes of insanity, suicide, marital discord and incest had been hidden from society, Sexton tackled these themes vigorously and forced people to acknowledge them. In an interview with Barbara Kevles, Sexton admitted: ‘ Recently I noticed in “Flee on Your Donkey” that I had used some of the same facts in To Bedlam and Part Way Back, but I hadn’t realized them in their total ugliness. I’d hidden from them.’ (28) In Sexton’s poem ‘Live’, she mentions her time in a mental hospital by referring to ‘my hospital shift’. (29) Sexton offers the reasons for her mental breakdown, blaming her suicidal tendencies and the pressures of her family:
a husband straight as a redwood, two daughters, two sea urchins, picking roses off my hackles. If I’m on fire they dance around it and cook marshmallows (30)
Like Robert Lowell’s poems about marital breakdown, which arguably influenced Sexton, Sexton also wrote a poem called ‘Man and Wife’. Aside from the pressures that Sexton feels from her children, the character of ‘Man and Wife’ feels isolated from her husband. Although they are married, they ‘do not even know each other’. (36) There is a sense that they are forced to stay together, out of obligation, like ‘A soldier is forced to stay with a soldier / because they share the same dirt’. (37) However, a sense of love is expressed in the lines ‘Oh darling, / we gasp in unison beside our window pane’. (38) This poem emphasises the complex nature of human relationships. Previously, before the confessional poets, marital discord would have found little, if any, expression in poetry.
What had been absent from poetry as well as society was an insight into the lives of women. Sexton took this hidden aspect of life and presented it in her poems. When All My Pretty Ones was published, it was Sexton’s ‘direct treatment of the female body in such poems as “The Operation” that attracted the interest of reviewers.’ (39) However, certain male reviewers could not cope with these frank ‘confessions that involved the emotional and bodily functions of women. For example, James Dickey criticised Anne Sexton for dwelling on ‘the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience’. (40)
An engagement with what has been ‘falsified’ for Sexton is explicit in her confession that untruthfulness was a ‘legitimate characteristic of her self-representation’. (41) Sexton admits that she falsified the experiences in her poems, for example, mentioning only one daughter, changing the number of visits to metal institutions, and referring to her brother that she did not have. In an interview with William Heyen and Al Poulin in September 1973, Sexton said:
I remember Ralph Mills talking about my dead brother whom I’ve written about. And I met Ralph and I said, “Ralph,” ... “Ralph, I had no brother, but then didn’t we all have brothers who died in that war?”...But I write my brother, and of course he believes it... I should say “Excuse me, folks, but no brother,” but that would kind of ruin the poem... (42)
Howe argues that the poetry of Lowell is confessional because the “I” ‘really did mean his private self, not a persona created for the poem’s occasion.’ (45) Patrick Cosgrove argues that Lowell is not a confessional poet but the label ‘confessional’ ‘revealed an essential part of the way in which Lowell, and the critics and commentators who admire him, thought about their –and man’s – place in the world of affairs.’ (46) That is, Lowell’s poems were viewed as confessional because his personal thoughts reflected what was occurring in society. In the same way, people assumed that Lowell was telling the truth, which was inevitably his truth, not the views of a persona. As Williams stated, ‘“There is no lying permitted to a man who writes that way.”’ (47)
Lowell himself encouraged the ‘confessional’ label when he asserted that Life Studies was ‘“about direct experience, and not symbols”; it tells his “personal story and memories.”’ (48) While his old poems hid what they were about, his new ‘confessional’ poems expressed private, hidden thoughts. However, this new personal style was criticised by critics such as Desales Standerwick, who found the subject matter ‘“embarrassing.”’ (49) Despite his criticism of Sexton, Rosenthal praised Lowell for removing the mask and emerging as ‘“the damned speaking-sensibility of the world.”’ (50)
What is unique about Lowell is that he grounds his personal poetry in the hidden past of the Lowell family - he focuses on ‘the family disgraces, tensions, neuroses, and failures.’ (51) The hidden past is valuable to Lowell for what it has to teach us about the present. In particular, his nervous breakdowns are caused by memories from his past that haunt him. However, unlike other ‘confessional’ poets, Lowell also explores the consequences of the past in modern society.
In many of his poems Lowell criticises the behaviour of his ancestors and blames them for the decay of society. In ‘Skunk Hour’, Lowell criticises the corrupt society, ‘the season’s ill’, which is responsible for his ‘ill-spirit’, when he confesses ‘My mind’s not right.’ (52)He points out the negative effects of the American Dream by criticising the materialistic urge that has replaced love:
there is no money in his work, he’d rather marry. (53)
What is ‘repressed’ in Lowell’s poetry is memories of his family, such as in ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow’, where Lowell reveals ‘the family conflicts and failures normally kept politely hidden.’ (59) In this poem, he remembers the repressed memory of his Grandfather as ‘manly, comfortable, / overbearing, disproportioned’ (60) and his reluctance to be with his parents. As Axelrod emphasises, the effect of Lowell’s terror at family disputes culminates in his ‘mental collapse as an adult.’ (61) While he portrays his family as intimidating here, he condemns his ancestors more freely in ‘For the Union Dead’.
Another theme that is usually hidden from society is that of marital breakdowns. In several poems, Lowell discusses the failure of relationships. In ‘Man and Wife’, Lowell contrasts the romantic early phases of a relationship, characterised by the statement ‘All night I’ve held your hand’ (62), with the stale relationship of the present. Twelve years later, the loveless marriage is characterised by his wife’s ‘old-fashioned tirade’ that ‘breaks like the Atlantic Ocean’ (63) on the head of her husband. This theme is followed up in ‘“To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage”’, which is narrated by the wife. In it, there is the threat that ‘This screwball might kill his wife.’ (64)
Like Sexton and Plath, Lowell also falsified his experience, what he called ‘“tinkering with the fact,”’ (65) in order to make dramatic effect. What was important to Lowell was that the reader ‘“was to believe he was getting the real Robert Lowell.”’ (66) For example, In ‘My Last Afternoon’ Lowell only presents the details that he would like the reader to know. He feels free to embellish the truth about setting and personality to make the description sound convincing.
The ‘confessional’ poets engage in what is ‘repressed, hidden or falsified’ in response to a literary tradition that excludes personal experience. Whether or not the voice of the poem belongs to the poet, the poems express universal themes that until recently were absent from poetry.
Axelrod, Steven Gould Robert Lowell: Life and Art Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
Baym, Nina et al eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th edition, Vol. 2 New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1998.
Butscher, Edward ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and Her Work London: Peter Owen, 1979.
Cosgrove, Patrick The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell London: Victor Gollancz, 1970.
Glenday, Michael American Literature in Transition handout 24th February 1999.
Juhasz, Suzanne Naked and Fiery Forms New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London: Harper and Row, 1976.
McClatchy, J. D. Anne Sexton Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood Anne Sexton: A Biography London: Virago, 1991.
Rosenblatt, Jon Sylvia Plath: the Poetry of Initiation Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980.