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date: 24 April 2018

Confessional Poetry

Confessional poetry is verse in which the author describes parts of his or her life that would not ordinarily be in the public domain. The prime characteristic is the reduction of distance between the persona displayed in a poem and the author who writes it.

This genre of verse derives from the romantics, who put a high premium on the exploration of personal feeling. Poems such as Nutting by William Wordsworth, Dejection by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Ode to the West Wind—“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed”—by Percy Bysshe Shelley would seem to be precursors. More immediately, confessional poetry relates to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot and also Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound, where intimate references to friends are worked into the verse:

  • Lordly men are to earth O'ergiven
  • these the companions:
  • Fordie that wrote of giants
  • and William who dreamed of nobility
  • and Jim the comedian singing:
  • “Blarrney castle me darlin'
  • you're nothing now but a StOWne.”

(Canto LXXIV) It would be an astute reader who could identify the figures to whom this refers as, respectively, Ford Madox Ford, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce.

Robert Lowell

The term “confessional poetry” first appeared in a review by M. L. Rosenthal of Life Studies (1959) by Robert Lowell (1917–1977), a poet who is regarded as being central to any discussion of this school. Although he began with elaborately formal verse, Lowell in that book broke new boundaries. This critique by Rosenthal, recognizing the breakthrough, was published in The Nation, 19 September 1959, and has been frequently reprinted. The reviewer says, “Lowell's effort is the natural outgrowth of the modern emphasis on the ‘I' as the crucial poetic symbol.” Rosenthal points out that the speaker in Lowell's poems is unequivocally himself. When that speaker attacks his father for lacking manhood or refers to his breaking marriage, we are in no doubt that it is Lowell's own father who is under attack and Lowell's own marriage that is in reference: “you turn your back. / Sleepless you hold / your pillows to your hollows like a child” (“Man and Wife”).

One advantage in this breaking down of distance is access to a mode of speech more specific and colloquial than was usual in earlier poetry. The showpiece of the whole school is perhaps “Skunk Hour,” again by Lowell. This shows the poet in the unbecoming role of voyeur:

  • One dark night,
  • My Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,
  • I watched for love cars. Lights turned down,
  • they lay together, hull to hull,
  • where the graveyard shelves on the town.…
  • My mind's not right.

The ellipsis here is that of the poet. A frankness of statement is associated with a degree of precision—“my Tudor Ford”—that acts as a guarantee of authenticity. The admission that the speaker of the poem may in fact be deranged is especially striking. However, though authentic, the narration is slanted:

  • A car radio bleats,
  • “Love, O careless Love…” I hear
  • my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
  • as if my hand were at its throat.…
  • I myself am hell,
  • nobody's here—

Once more, the ellipses are those of the poet. “Love, O Careless Love” was a popular song of the time. “I myself am hell” is part of a speech spoken by Satan in Paradise Lost by John Milton. The poet is visualizing himself as a fallen angel, and the implication is that love has brought him to this pass. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that the speaker is Lowell, even though it is Lowell seen by himself in a theatrically gloomy guise. To that extent, the poem is spoken in character. Even so, the biographical facts are well known.

Lowell was a victim of cyclothymia, or manic-depressive illness. The symptoms include violent mood swings, hyperactivity, extreme verbosity, and pressure of speech. Lowell went through an annual cycle, rising to something of a climax in late summer, a season when he wrote most of his poems, going past that to a high peak involving grandiose behavior, followed by a descent into gloom and inactivity that took place in winter. What is remarkable is that Lowell regarded every aspect of his behavior as worth recording and, nearing the manic climax of the cycle, wrote like a poet inspired.

He was not an uncritical observer of his own conduct. This opened opportunities for various kinds of irony. Of his term of imprisonment—for refusing to serve in the armed forces during World War II—he wrote:

  • These are the tranquillized Fifties,
  • And I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
  • I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
  • and made my manic statement,
  • telling off the state and president.

(“Memories of West Street and Lepke”) “Seedtime” is an allusion to Wordsworth's great autobiographical poem The Prelude. The phrase “the tranquillized Fifties,” describing the complacency of the United States a dozen or so years after the war, has passed into the language.

All this in fact happened. Lowell did indeed refuse the draft. He is not only dramatizing but mythologizing his own history because he thought it of importance. At the same time, he is looking back at his own youthful enthusiasm with a degree of adult disillusion, as though recognizing that his protest would have no effect upon the political outcome of the time.

The verse of Life Studies frequently rhymes and always has a firm rhythm that can be scanned. This is so even when superficially the author appears to be writing free verse:

  • Father's death was abrupt and unprotesting.
  • His vision was still twenty-twenty.
  • After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
  • his last words to Mother were:
  • “I feel awful.”

(“Terminal Days at Beverly Farms”)

  • In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother's coffin,
  • Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL
  • The corpse
  • was wrapped like panetone in Italian tinfoil.

(“Sailing Home from Rapallo”)

“Panetone” is a dark and hard Italian bread. Some of the rhythmic authority is maintained by internal rhyming (“morning”/“awful”) or by part-rhymes such as “Lovel”/“tinfoil.” The meter is basically a three-stress beat capable of being pulled into a longer line, as with “After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,” or compressed in such a way as to make the reader feel the meter is still proceeding beyond the bounds of the actual phrase vouchsafed—“The corpse…,” where “…” corresponds to the two light stresses and subsequent heavy stress of the anapestic foot in English meter.

John Berryman

The skill and vision of Lowell put him at the head of the confessional school. However, he was not alone. A related impact was made by John Berryman (1914–1972). As had been the case with Lowell, Berryman first came before the public as a rhetorician, engaging in elaborate verse forms and distancing himself from his subject matter. He took on, for example, the persona of the earliest American woman poet, Anne Bradstreet. Admirers of his work were considerably surprised by 77 Dream Songs (1964), a title deriving perhaps from a phrase in Eliot's poem “The Hollow Men.” However, whereas Eliot took refuge in romantic reverie, Berryman's Dream Songs shove the actualities in our faces.

He does this by means of a persona, “Henry,” who is patently the poet himself. This persona masquerades as a Negro minstrel; that is to say, a white man who has painted his face black for the purpose of entertaining the public. The persona is catechized through the Dream Songs—as used to happen in the singing troupe called the Kentucky Minstrels—by an interlocutor who in these poems represents death. This interlocutor addresses Henry as “Mr. Bones” but is himself sometimes so addressed. In his study of suicide, The Savage God, A. Alvarez said that the subject of the Dream Songs is mourning. Certainly a good many dead friends are evoked, and there is a central block of Dream Songs concerned with the alcoholic poet Delmore Schwartz. Berryman, himself an alcoholic, is additionally obsessed with his father, who committed suicide.

The following is extracted from a poem, Henry's Confession, which may be found in the first batch of Dream Songs, those published in 1964:

  • in a modesty of death I join my father
  • who dared so long agone leave me.
  • A bullet on a concrete stoop
  • close by a smothering southern sea
  • spreadeagled on an island, by my knee.
  • —You is from hunger, Mr. Bones

(Dream Song 76) It is a fact that Berryman's father, John Allyn Smith, shot himself dead at the back of the apartment building he inhabited with his family and was found by his wife, as John Haffenden, Berryman's biographer puts it, “lying in a spreadeagle fashion” (The Life of John Berryman, 1982). That is to say, he was sprawled out, not sitting down or in a sleeping posture. The name “Berryman” derives from a stepfather, and losing “Smith,” the name the poet was born with, may have contributed to a wavering sense of his own personality.

The Dream Songs are a kind of modern equivalent to Shakespeare's sonnets. They are in three parts, rather than a sonnet's two, and are loosely related to the conceptual shape of the syllogism in logic. For example, in the Dream Song just cited, the first section states “Nothin very bad happen to me lately”; the second section—the one quoted—states “in a modesty of death I join my father”; and the third states “I saw nobody coming, so I went instead.” The whole amounts to an exposition of stasis.

With some exceptions, each section of these poems consists of six lines. The third and sixth lines tend to be shorter than the others. Quite often the first line of a Dream Song has a feminine ending; that is to say the line ends on a heavy syllable followed by a light syllable, as in the word “lately.”

As the Dream Songs proceed, Berryman engages in some astonishing feats of syntax. In an elegy for his friend, the much-feared critic Randall Jarrell, he writes:

  • Let Randall rest, whom your self-torturing
  • cannot restore one instant's good to, rest:
  • he's left us now.
  • The panic died and in the panic's dying
  • so did my old friend. I am headed west
  • also, also, somehow.

(Dream Song 90, op. posth., no. 13)

The apparent contortion of that initial sentence may be straightened out if we omit the second “rest,” which is there by way of emphasis, and alter the word order to something like “Your self-torturing cannot restore one instant's good to Randall.” However, in revising thus we are losing the intricate speech rhythm and indeed what may be styled as the characteristic tone of Berryman, which is something like a confidential signaling for attention—a huge presence in an intimately constricting room.

Sylvia Plath

The confessional poets shared many points of subject matter and style—especially in the area of mourning—but there are variegations. Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) was a poetic generation younger than Lowell and Berryman, even though they lived on to lament her death. In her later work she learned from her elders, whom she greatly admired, and one thing she had learned was to place her personal predicament squarely in front of the reader. In fact, she projects her predicament with remarkable intensity.

The most famous of Plath's poems is an attack on her father called, with savage irony, “Daddy.” He had apparently committed an unforgivable sin by dying when she was a child of eight. For this he is resurrected as a statue “in the freakish Atlantic,” as an officer of the German air force with a “neat moustache,” as a Nazi commandant “with a Meinkampf look,” and as her errant husband, “the vampire who said he was you.” This last is finally impaled by the villagers with a stake thrust into his “fat black heart,” leaving his daughter exhausted and “through.”

This would be a scream of hysteria were it not underpinned by an achieved technique, in part derived from a three-line stanza form, the triad or stepped verse, developed by William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop. In Plath's companion poem, Lady Lazarus, the central figure dies every ten years and is resurrected. This is an allusion to Plath's childhood depression after her father's death, her suicide attempt at the age of twenty, and her final state of mind, which ended in suicide at the age of thirty:

  • I have done it again.
  • One year in every ten
  • I manage it—
  • A sort of walking miracle, my skin
  • Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
  • My right foot
  • A paperweight,
  • My face a featureless, fine
  • Jew linen.
  • Peel off the napkin
  • O my enemy.
  • Do I terrify?—

As with “Daddy,” there is allusion here to Nazi death camps—where, in one notorious example, the skin of dead Jewish prisoners was made into lampshades. One may question whether the predicament of the author, who is so clearly her own persona, has earned the right to draw upon such sources. What has happened to her—her father's early death, her husband's adultery—is certainly serious. However, what happened to six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis is very much worse. A favorable critic could, however, reply that this is how life felt for the neurotic Sylvia Plath.

There can be little doubt that the last year of her life saw a state of clinical depression. In her very last poem, Edge, Plath appears to be contemplating the murder of her two children. Everything appears to be at a slant. While she seems to be an authentic speaker, she is in fact highly biased. That does not alter the fact that her intensity captures the attention of the reader. She is iconic, gifted with a charismatic power of phrase. In Tulips, which, perhaps, bears repeated frequentation more than those poems already quoted, the speaker is in a hospital, in bed. It, again, is a piece of biography.

After a violent quarrel with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, Plath miscarried, had an inflamed appendix, and went to the hospital for an appendectomy. This afforded pabulum for a most remarkable poem. Here the author does not make use of the three-line stanza. As befits a calmer mood, the structure is that of seven-line stanzas, unrhymed, but with a steady five-stress beat that admits additional lightly stressed syllables. The poem, in form at least, is a sustained reproach to the world for bringing her tulips—red inducements drawing her out of a white world:

  • The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
  • The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
  • They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
  • And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
  • Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
  • The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
  • And comes from a country far away as health.

That last line suggests the reason why Plath has to be taken seriously, as a major poet. She has the power to conflate unlike entities, to leap across conceptual boundaries, and to do all this within a formal structure that—while, in the more tempestuous poems, is bruised and shaken—never comes within any chance of collapse.

Plath is, however, not a good model. In order to write like her, it is not only necessary to feel but to have developed a considerable technique. This may be seen in the failure of several poems concerning her death composed, so to speak, in her wake:

  • daddy you held me in the green rocker, read me the
  • Sunday funnies, smoking your Chesterfields, blowing
  • rings at the Dickeybird
  • we fed him dandelions out of the yard in the
  • summertime, dandelions still feel like Dickeybirds

Ellipsis, November 1972

Anne Sexton

More literate, but also derivative, is “Sylvia's Death” by Anne Sexton (1928–1974). If Plath is the high priestess of the confessional school, Sexton is certainly its lady-in-waiting:

  • O Sylvia, Sylvia
  • with a dead box of stones and spoons,
  • with two children, two meteors
  • wandering loose in the tiny playroom,
  • with your mouth into the sheet,
  • into the roofbeam, into the dumb prayer,
  • (Sylvia, Sylvia
  • where did you go
  • after you wrote me
  • from Devonshire
  • about raising potatoes
  • and keeping bees?)

Sexton appeared before Plath did on the poetry scene. Their initial collections, To Bedlam and Part Way Back and Colossus, both came out in 1960, but Sexton was, well before that time, an object of Plath's envy (Plath, Journals, pp. 475, 483–484). Sexton's work had taken off in 1957, soon after she joined the creative writing class run by John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and had been immediately published in The New Yorker, Harper's magazine, and other leading periodicals of the day. Yet, in Sexton's later poetry, the reliance on Plath's texts is obvious. Sexton has “two children, two meteors,” but Plath has “You hand me two children, two roses” (“Kindness”). Sexton has “with a dead box of stones and spoons,” but Plath has “this clean wood box / Square as a chair” (“The Arrival of the Bee-Box”). Sexton has “with your mouth into the sheet”; Plath has “They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff” (“Tulips”).

One may feel this particular mode was on the way, long before this lament. An early poem of Sexton is Music Swims Back to Me, but we do not feel the control in this that may be sensed in its main influence, Robert Lowell:

  • Wait Mister. Which way is home?
  • They turned the light out
  • and the dark is moving in the corner.
  • There are no sign posts in this room,
  • four ladies, over eighty,
  • in diapers every one of them.
  • La la la, Oh music swims back to me
  • and I can feel the tune they played
  • the night they left me
  • in this private institution on a hill.

The last line is plain prose, the free verse is next door to unscannable, and there is a tone of self-pity alien to the ironic detachment of Lowell and the self-dramatization of Plath.

The New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock left Sexton out of her well nigh definitive Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry because she found her “repellently self-indulgent.” Looking even at Sexton's better poems, it is hard not to feel some justice in that severe comment: “I, who chose two times / to kill myself, had said your nickname / the mewling months when you first came” (“The Double Image”); “Father, this year's jinx rides us apart / where you followed our mother to her cold slumber; / a second shock boiling its stone to your heart” (“All My Pretty Ones”). The allusions to Shakespeare—music swims back to me, “all my pretty ones”—seem not to have earned their position in her verse. Yet Sexton has her positive critics. Maxine Kumin, in an introduction to the Collected Poems (1981), tells us of what we had no doubt, that the stuff of the poet's life was in her poems. But she also claims that Sexton's work “evokes in the reader that sought-after shiver of recognition.”

Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin (1925–) was a classmate of Sexton's in the Holmes creative writing seminar. There is a force in Sexton's poems that those of Kumin may seem to lack, but the advantage this latter poet has is a sense of humor. While omitting Sexton altogether, Fleur Adcock included in her anthology such likable poems of Kumin's as In the Root Cellar and, here, The Retrieval System:

  • It begins with my dog, now dead, who
  • all his long life
  • carried about in his head the brown
  • eyes of my father,
  • keen, loving, accepting,
  • sorrowful, whatever;
  • they were Daddy's all right, handed
  • on, except
  • for their phosphorescent gleam tunneling the night
  • which I have to concede was a separate gift.

Perhaps the final line lets down the stanza with rhythmic flatness where one might hope for an ictus, a lift. Nevertheless, the apparent nonchalance is prevented from falling into bathos by a pattern of internal rhymes and faintly heard pararhymes at the line endings.

Kumin is not, however, always so genial. The American father has had a hard time at the hands of Lowell, Berryman, and Plath, and at times Kumin is no exception:

  • Sundays my father
  • hairs sprouting out of
  • the v of his pajamas
  • took in the sitdowns
  • picket lines Pinkertons
  • Bundists lend-lease
  • under his moustache.

(“The New York Times”) As is usual with confessional poetry, this has the virtues of specificity, and that specificity is not to the advantage of the poem's subject. It would not have been to Father's advantage, either, had he come down to breakfast in full evening dress. Perhaps the answer, sartorially and otherwise, would have been to adopt a happy medium. But this is the last attitude one is likely to find in a confessional poem:

  • these are the dream machines
  • the dream machines
  • they put black ants in your bed
  • silverfish in your ears
  • they raise your father's corpse
  • they stick his bones in your sleep
  • or his stem or all thirty-six
  • of his stainless steel teeth
  • they line them up
  • like the best orchestra seats.

(“The Nightmare Factory”)

Given Kumin's predilection in her poems elsewhere for areas of the body not hitherto usually alluded to in verse, it is fairly easy to infer what the “stem” stands for. Yet this very poem, like others of the confessional school that could be cited, is an emergence from verses of the late Victorian and indeed decadent 1890s period: We are the music-makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams (A. W. E. O'Shaughnessy, Ode). So a good deal of such writing is not so much modern as harking back to a post-romantic pattern and adapting it to the pain and sorrow that are the pabulum of certain writers in more modern times: “These are the tranquillized Fifties.…”

Diane Wakoski

The utterance of such major writers as Lowell and Plath made it easy for lesser poets to climb on the bandwagon. Such poets are “lesser” because they have imperfectly learned their craft. This results from education—missing, in the case of Sexton; incompletely absorbed, one may feel, in the case of Diane Wakoski (1937–). On paper, she is formidable. Since 1962 she has published more than twenty collections of verse and more than forty books as a total. She is one of the few poets who has ever been able to support herself by public readings, in her prime giving between fifty and eighty a year.

This may afford a clue. There seems, at first sight, little in the way of art in such a poem as The Father of My Country. It appears to be very much in the wake of the father poems voiced by Lowell and Plath, though nearer even than they to naked autobiography:

  • My father;
  • have you ever heard me speak of him? I seldom
  • do. But I had a father,
  • and he had military origins—or my origins from
  • him
  • are military,
  • militant. That is, I remember him only in uniform. But of
  • the navy,
  • 30 years a chief petty officer,
  • Always away from home.

So it is not a surprise to find, in various biographical accounts of Wakoski, that her father, a military man, deserted the family early on and visited only occasionally. The lines in verse above improve only marginally upon this flat prose account. In terms of meter, it is hard to find why some lines are longer than others. There seems to be no ascertainable rhythmic pattern.

What the layout most suggests is the lineation, be it prose or verse, likely to be adopted by an actor. The variegation of length in line will be readily understandable if we take it to be an actor's arrangement for a dramatic reading. Though in subject matter Wakoski finds herself a member of the confessional school, as regards her career she is a performance poet en plein. The art is not to elicit meaning from a poem but, through histrionic use of voice and gesture, to drive it in:

  • my father was not in the telephone book
  • in my city;
  • my father was not sleeping with my mother
  • at home;
  • my father did not care if I studied the
  • piano;
  • my father did not care what
  • I did;
  • and I thought my father was handsome and I loved him and
  • I wondered
  • why
  • he left me alone so much,
  • so many years
  • in fact, but
  • my father made me what I am
  • a lonely woman.

From this point of view, Wakoski seems to be an exponent in a mixed genre.

W. D. Snodgrass

At the other extreme is W. D. Snodgrass (1926–). He is formal, a master of variegated meters, a writer of considerable detachment—who nevertheless can employ distance as a device to evoke response from his reader. Here the voice emerges from the poetry. If the persona is ill, it is not with the almost punitive force with which Plath excoriates us. A kind of stoicism on the part of the poet prevents us from feeling guilty:

  • From stainless steel basins of water
  • They brought warm cloths and they washed me,
  • From spun aluminium bowls, cold Zephiran
  • sponges, fuming:
  • Gripped in the dead yellow glove, a bright straight razor
  • Inched on my stomach, down my groin,
  • Paring the brown hair off. They left me
  • White as a child, not frightened. I was not
  • Ashamed. They clothed me, then,
  • In the thin loose, light, white garments,
  • The delicate sandals of poor Pierrot,
  • A schoolgirl first offering her sacrament.

(“The Operation”) This is witty; learned, even—it was at Zephyrum, a promontory of Cyprus, that Arsinoe, mother of Aesculapius, the god of medicine, made an offering of her hair to Venus, goddess of love. So, in one phrase, “Zephiran sponges,” the author relates the shaving of the hair about his genital regions to love, medicine, and sacrifice, all in verse whose trisyllabic pattern of feet seems to associate it with the masters of classical Greek poetry.

Central to the work of Snodgrass is a sequence of poems concerned with a broken marriage. It is called Heart's Needle, after a statement in an Irish legend: the loss of “an only daughter is the needle of the heart.” This, again, is propounded with a degree of distance, in a series of what seem to be epistles addressed to a small daughter. It is separation seen from the father's point of view. The very control manifested by the verse, owing as much to Hardy as to Lowell, renders that pain of separation more and not less poignant than if it had been dealt with more directly:

  • Now that it's turning Fall,
  • we go to take our walk
  • among municipal
  • flowers, to steal one off its stalk,
  • to try and talk.
  • We huff like windy giants
  • scattering with our breath
  • gray-headed dandelions;
  • Spring is the cold wind's aftermath.
  • The poet saith.
  • But the asters, too, are gray,
  • ghost-gray. Last night's cold
  • is sending on their way
  • petunias and dwarf marigold,
  • hunched sick and old.

It is as though the poet needs this discipline of form—full rhyme, meter that is quasi-syllabic—to hold his emotion in communicable state. The sequence itself suggests that he is old to be a father. The season throughout is cold; if not winter, then certainly inhospitable autumn and delayed spring.

At one point he compares himself to a fox, captured but newly escaped, who has gnawed through his foot and left that part of his anatomy in a trap. The comparison is like and not like; we resemble and do not resemble the animals:

  • Of all things, only we
  • have power to choose that we should die;
  • nothing else is free
  • in this world to refuse it. Yet I,
  • who say this, could not raise
  • myself from bed how many days
  • to the thieving world. Child, I have another wife,
  • another child. We try to choose our life.

Snodgrass is the poet of authoritative understatement. He shows the range that the term “confessional poetry” can occupy. Thematically there is a reduction of distance between author and reader in this sense; we need have no doubt that what the author describes actually happened. Yet the mode of narration keeps the reader to some extent apart: there is a code in the formal meters, the patterned rhymes, the grave deliberation of tone.


To that extent, the term “confessional poetry” may seem arbitrary. Fleur Adcock, also a divorcée, has a poem similar to this called For a Five Year Old: “Your gentleness is moulded still by words / From me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds, / From me, who drowned your kittens” (Tigers, 1967). Yet nobody has enrolled Adcock among the confessionals. Nearer home, Adrienne Rich may at the time have raised eyebrows with her nakedly frank Twenty-One Love Poems (1976) addressed to another woman. She, however, would not be identified with these others. To that extent, the term “confessional” may seem almost dispensable.

Yet the characteristics these poets maintain in common are quite apparent. There is a tendency toward the extreme in imagery, a following of the gradations of the speaking voice, a willingness to disclose that which had hitherto been kept private, a concern with breaking marriages, deviant parents, mental as well as physical sickness, death, mourning—inescapable mourning, as much for one's own deranged self as for those others one has lost. These points may be rammed home if the truth is told that, of the seven poets discussed in detail here, three—Berryman, Plath, and Sexton—committed suicide, Lowell underwent several mental breakdowns, and of the others, Wakoski and Snodgrass were divorced. Of course, such events as these have happened to others. It is part of the breakdown of family life in the twentieth century. The strange distinction of these poets, however, is to treat such matters as raw material for their art. At its worst, confessional poetry is a therapy that thrusts private experience upon an unwilling reader. At its best, as in Lowell's Life Studies, it is a way of creating character so as to inform the trauma of the past with understanding and, sometimes, compassion.


John Berryman, The Dream Songs (1969)Find this resource:

Maxine Kumin, The Nightmare Factory (1970)Find this resource:

Robert Lowell, Life Studies (1959)Find this resource:

Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes (1981)Find this resource:

Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems, edited by Maxine Kumin (1981)Find this resource:

W. D. Snodgrass, Selected Poems 1957–1987 (1987)Find this resource:

Diane Wakoski, Inside the Blood Factory (1968)Find this resource:

Further Reading


Alvarez, A. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London, 1971; New York, 1972. Personalized but readable account of suicide and literature (not suicide in literature) with especial relationship to Sylvia Plath.Find this resource:

Dodsworth, Martin, ed. The Survival of Poetry: A Contemporary Survey. London, 1970. Contains essays on Robert Lowell by Gabriel Pearson, on John Berryman by Martin Dodsworth, and on Sylvia Plath by Barbara Hardy.Find this resource:

Phillips, Robert S. The Confessional Poets. Carbondale, Ill., 1973. The standard study; puts these diverse writers in context.Find this resource:

Simpson, Eileen. Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir. New York and London, 1982. John Berryman's first wife writes about her late husband and about Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, and others.Find this resource:

John Berryman

Haffenden, John. John Berryman: A Critical Commentary. London and New York, 1980. A thorough and searching discussion, especially useful concerning the Dream Songs.Find this resource:

Haffenden, John. The Life of John Berryman. London and Boston, 1982. Sympathetic and detailed biography.Find this resource:

Mariani, Paul L. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. New York, 1990; repr. Amherst, Mass., 1996. Contains more recent information than above.Find this resource:

Robert Lowell

Doreski, William. Robert Lowell's Shifting Colors: The Poetics of the Public and the Personal. Athens, Ohio, 1999. Reconciles the public and private aspects of Lowell's work in terms of poetic entities.Find this resource:

Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York, 1982; London, 1983. Based on many interviews with those who knew the poet well, including Elizabeth Hardwick, Caroline Blackwood, Eileen Simpson, Mary Jarrell, Richard Eberhart, and Robert Giroux.Find this resource:

Hobsbaum, Philip. A Reader's Guide to Robert Lowell. London and New York, 1988. Poem-by-poem survey with Life Studies at the center but paying especial attention to “The Mills of the Kavanaghs” and Imitations as well.Find this resource:

London, Michael, and Robert Boyers, eds. Robert Lowell: A Portrait of the Artist in His Time. New York, 1970. Reprints M. L. Rosenthal, “Poetry as Confession,” as well as essays by Randall Jarrell, Geoffrey H. Hartman, and Irvin Ehrenpreis, among others, and an interview with Lowell (1961) by Frederick Seidel.Find this resource:

Sylvia Plath

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore, 1990. Penetrating account of Plath's poems together with many side glances at Lowell on whom this critic had already (1978) written a distinguished book.Find this resource:

Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. London and Bloomington, Ind., 1970. Reprints an essay by M. L. Rosenthal concerning Plath in relation to confessional poetry, together with essays by A. Alvarez, Lois Ames, Annette Lavers, Ted Hughes, and A. R. Jones (on “Daddy”), among others.Find this resource:

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston and London, 1989. Perhaps too sympathetic toward Ted Hughes, but a clear-cut narrative detailing the events of this poet's complicated life.Find this resource:

Anne Sexton

Colburn, Steven E., ed. Anne Sexton: Telling the Tale. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1988. Essay by Laurence J. Dressner on “ ‘The Abortion’ and Confessional Poetry”; also essays by Kathleen F. McSpadden on “the religious quest” and Ruth E. Quebe on “the questing self.”Find this resource:

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. New York, 1991; London, 1992. Indispensable study of this self-reflexive poet.Find this resource:

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston, 1989. Essay by Steven E. Colburn, “Sexton as Storyteller”; also essays by Gwen L. Nagel on “death and time” and by Cheryl Vossekuil on the early poems.Find this resource:

W. D. Snodgrass

Gaston, Paul L. W. D. Snodgrass. Boston, 1978. A rare monograph on this most classical of the confessional poets.Find this resource: