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Related Poems
Daddy
by Sylvia Plath
Dream Song 1
by John Berryman
Related Prose
Groundbreaking Book: Life Studies by Robert Lowell (1959)
Groundbreaking Book: Live or Die by Anne Sexton (1966)
Groundbreaking Book: Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965)
Confessionalography: A GNAT (Grossly Non-Academic Talk) on "I" in Poetry
by Rachel Zucker
"Tell All the Truth but tell it slant": First-Person Usage in Poetry
by Cate Marvin
The Raw and the Cooked: Robert Lowell and the Beats
by Tina Cane
The Very Act of Telling: Sharon Olds and Writing Narrative Poetry
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Related Authors
Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell
Many of Robert Lowell's later works were drawn from personal experience and his collection Life Studies is considered by many to have changed the landscape of modern poetry...
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Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath
The author of several collections of poetry, Sylvia Plath is also the author of the novel The Bell Jar...
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Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton
Anne Gray Harvey was born in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1928. She attended Garland...
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Ted Berrigan
Ted Berrigan
Ted Berrigan was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 15, 1934....
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A Brief Guide to Confessional Poetry

 

Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or "I." This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W.D. Snodgrass. Lowell's book Life Studies was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties, and had a significant impact on American poetry. Plath and Sexton were both students of Lowell and noted that his work influenced their own writing.

The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.

The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work. While their treatment of the poetic self may have been groundbreaking and shocking to some readers, these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody.

One of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

Another confessional poet of this generation was John Berryman. His major work was The Dream Songs, which consists of 385 poems about a character named Henry and his friend Mr. Bones. Many of the poems contain elements of Berryman's own life and traumas, such as his father's suicide. Below is an excerpt from "Dream Song 1":

All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry's side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don't see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.

The confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day; Marie Howe and Sharon Olds are two contemporary poets whose writing largely draws upon their personal experience.


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