Literary Movements: Confessional


- is defined by its embrace of the lyric "I" in point-of-view, which while not a new idea, cast off the poetic persona many poets placed between their actual experience and their written work.

- is an American literary movement launched during the middle of the 20th century.

- The phrase “confessional poetry” burst into common usage in September of 1959, when the critic M.L. Rosenthal coined it in his review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in the Nation.

- It was originated in a rapidly changing America. The notion of the "American Dream", which many strived for, was being questioned by counterculture movements.

- 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.

- It began to rapidly grow in the 1960s, the form in which it was delivered also changed. Confessional Poetry was meant to be read aloud and performed as spoken word.

- By 1970, Confessional Poetry was losing steam as compared to when it originated but rather than completely disappear it simply morphed into other poetry movements including Slam Poetry and Performance Poetry.

Key characteristics of Confessional Poetry

Intimate Subject Matter

- Confessional Poets were not unique to write about emotions and feelings, but they were unique in the way they wrote about intimate, highly emotional, and psychological experiences that were considered taboo such as depression, suicide, drug use, alcoholism, and sexuality. Subjects once considered too shameful to speak about publicly, Confessional Poets were now openly discussing them.

First Person Point of View

- All Confessional Poetry is written from the First Person Point of View which means that the speaker of the poem is telling the poem from their point of view. First Person Point of View is indicated by the use of "I". By using the First Person Point of View, the poet is closing the gap between the speaker of the poem and the poet itself.

Autobiographical Experiences

- Confessional Poetry contains the real-life events and experiences of the poet. Confessional Poets did not make up stories, they simply drew stories from their own life and oftentimes focused on the less appealing, sadder aspects of life such as struggles with mental illness and trauma. Confessional Poetry, therefore, is autobiographical and forms the basis of what modern-day autobiographies and memoirs are like today.

Careful Craftsmanship

- While Confessional Poets did avoid describing their real-life events through metaphors, most wrote in very lyrical forms and focused on the use of literary devices. Literary devices such as metaphors, allusion, aphorisms, and imagery are commonly found and only enhance the Confessional Poets' lyrical language.

4 Most Notable Writers of the Confessional Movement

Robert Lowell

- Robert Lowell (1917-1977) grew up in Boston and attended Harvard College where he continued to pursue his interests in poetry which began in high school after he met the poet Richard Eberhart. While at Harvard, Lowell also met the poet Robert Frost. In 1959, he published a poetry book titled Life Studies which highlights very personal stories. In Life Studies, Lowell used loose forms and meters which is in contrast to his more traditional forms of poetry from the 1940s. By the 1960s, Lowell's poetry began to be more public and in the 1970s his poetry combined both traditional and more loose forms of poetry.

Lowell won many awards for his contributions to poetry including a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his second volume of poems, Lord Weary's Castle, and a National Book Award in 1960 for Life Studies. Lowell explored many themes in his poetry, drawing on his own life experiences with death, mental illness, politics, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

W.D. Snodgrass

- After serving in the US Navy as a typist during WWI, Snodgrass (1926-2009), originally born in Pennsylvania, attended the University of Iowa where he studied under the Confessional Poet Robert Lowell. With the help of Lowell, Snodgrass was able to publish his autobiographical book Heart's Needle (1959), which was purely Confessional in style and even influenced his teacher Lowell to explore Confessional poetry. Despite denying his status as a Confessional Poet, his nearly 30 books of poetry are considered foundational to the movement.

Anne Sexton

- Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was born in Massachusetts where she grew up and attended school. In 1954, after a manic episode she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and in 1955 her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, encouraged her to write poetry. Sexton was successful early in her career with some of her poems appearing in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and The Saturday Review. Under the teachings of Robert Lowell and the mentorship of W.D. Snodgrass, Sexton perfected her poetic style. She was close friends with Sylvia Plath, another famous Confessional Poet. Not long after she began her writing career, Sexton was gaining fame and even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for her poetry book Live or Die (1966). Her work focused on themes such as the experiences of women, alcoholism, and mental illness.

Sylvia Plath

- Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and attended Smith College. By the age of eight years old Plath had already published her first poem in the Boston Herald. Before becoming a nationally known poet, Plath was already publishing many of her poems in magazines with her first national publication appearing in the Christain Science Monitor. Plath was heavily influenced by other famous poets such as Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats, and Marianne Moore. Plath was clinically depressed and attempted suicide for the first time in 1953. Plath's poetry volume Ariel (1965) made Plath increasingly more popular after her death. Her poetry is a direct reflection of her experiences with depression, trauma, and death. Plath committed suicide in 1963 and was the fourth person to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1982 for her posthumous publication The Collected Poems (1981).


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