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Friday, April 14, 2017

The Pitfalls and Strengths of Confessional Poetry

David Elishmerni

The Pitfalls and Strengths of Confessional Poetry
When we speak of poetry, we are reminded of a literary work that uses rhymes to convey the ideas of a poet.  In many cases, these works are impersonal as they focus on subjects like heroism and love.  Some poets like Robert Howell, however, opted to focus on subjects that reveal their own personal feelings, emotions and experiences.  This started the confessional poetry movement which involves using a more personal style of storytelling by and expression by utilizing a first person perspective or using "I". This style is normally unacceptable for conventional poetry.  This new style have influenced popular confessional poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who are both Lowell's students. It has also prompted changes in poetry as a whole.
            Confessional poetry has allowed certain changes in poetry that have given writers more freedom to express themselves in a more personal style. The first person or "I" style of writing allowed poets to tell more personalized and introspective stories through their work by using the self as both the subject and the storyteller. By using "I" as the speaker in the poems, the reader could have a clearer and accurate perspective on what the speaker is feeling or thinking, as opposed to the purely descriptive third person perspective in most formal poems. The beginning of this movement left readers shocked due to its unconventionality, however, readers and poets have been learning to accept this style due to the freedom of expression that it allows.
            This type of poetry, allowed writers, such as Lowell and Plath to express themselves in themes that are not normally used in poetry due to the very personal and emotional nature of such topics. These themes include introspective feelings such as melancholia, depression, trauma and other mental illnesses that could not be accurately described in poetry otherwise, without the use of a confessional style. Other themes that are explored in confessional poetry are psychological experiences, reflections about death or dying, as well as emotions and feelings about relationships. Confessional poetry also dealt with themes that used to be avoided by writers due to explicitness, shame and societal limitations. Topics such as suicide, drugs and alcohol dependency, sex and other themes that were once excluded in poetry because of the negative implications, and negative feelings that they elicit to the reader have now been considered poetic as initiated by the introduction of the confessional poetry that allows the writers to be more introspective in their writing. Having to use a first person perspective paved the way for poets to explore a wider range of subjects that they could not usually express accurately and effectively if they use a less personal style of writing. For instance, in Plath’s most popular confessional poem “Daddy”, she used art and poetry to describe her childhood trauma upon losing her father during the Holocaust. The poem, which was autobiographical, described Plath’s sentiments about her father’s death. The poem which has references to deep-seated emotions and trauma about young child losing her father, and Plath would not have been able to achieve this profound effect on the readers without using a personal style of writing. These darker and less conventional themes have emerged in poetry since the introduction of the use of a personal style of writing. It allows the poets to write about their own feelings and sentiments, thus allowing an outlet for them to become genuine and vulnerable by expressing who they are and how they feel. In Lowell’s work in Life Studies, he provided the readers a look at who he is by becoming the center of his own work, he recreated himself in his own work by creating a subject, genuine and true to himself who shows all the vulnerabilities of being human. By presenting a poem this way, the characters in the poem are being open to the reader’s judgment and prejudices; thus, making it more difficult for the poet to expose himself completely. However, it depends on the poet’s writing style to avoid being harshly judged by the reader. For Lowell, he created a character that is very self-aware of his own faults, thus, creating a self-deprecating character that the reader would not judge. In the case of Plath, she created characters that are mysterious, hidden and defensive, thus, making it difficult for the reader to truly discern the real feelings and intentions of the characters.
In any case, confessional poetry provides the artists a medium to express their feelings, experiences, thoughts and perception, no matter how deep, dark or unconventionally taboo the subject is. It provides freedom for the writers; it is also in a way, very therapeutic for the writers to be able to voice out their deep emotions, anxiety and depression, as in the case of Anne Sexton who suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. She started writing about the psychology in her poems based on the advice of her therapist to help clear her mind. However, although it may seem very beneficial and encouraging for the poets, the reactions of readers to confessional poetry all differ. Some critics disagree with the artistic value of confessional poetry due to its lack of adherence to poetic structure and order. As most confessional poetry at the time have been written in free verse, many critics would prefer that poets stick to the conventional rhyme and meter of formal poems. The lack of structure and disregard to the accepted rules of poetry have left some readers uneasy and they find confessional poetry to be an inferior form of poetry. However, there are some readers who find the unconventionality of confessional poems liberating and refreshing. Many readers would also agree that the confessional poets such as Sexton, Plath, and Lowell have used careful attention to detail and structure to construct artistic poems that would be appreciated by both the writer and the reader.
Another issue that has emerged from confessional poetry is the lack of adherence to the conventional subjects of poetry. As mentioned earlier, the usual topics that have been written in the poems of the trio are considered taboo. Furthermore, Sexton, suffering from her mental disorders, has freely written about topics that may not suit the taste of formal poetry readers. Such topics include incestuous acts, self-gratification, fornication, adultery, menstruation, and drugs. Such changes in the direction of subjects in poetry have left critics to believe that confessional poetry is too self-indulgent for poetry. Since it uses a personal style, or "I" style or writing, it tends to focus mainly on the speaker in the poem, which basically is the reflection of the writer, and no one else. Although it may be novel and refreshing for the reader to read about the author’s genuine feelings and thoughts and provides them an introspective point of view of the speaker, the issue is that the works seem too self-centered and selfish. It looks at an individual’s psychological and emotional journey, but it excludes everyone else, as opposed to a more conventional poem that is aimed at including others and providing a perspective to the reader about the suffering of others. Thus, it is aesthetically and thematically disappointing for some readers as they deem it is too selfish for poetry.
Furthermore, confessional poetry has been criticized to lack the ability to gain the respect of readers because of the unconventionally self-centered and taboo topics, that may be distasteful for poetry readers. The lewd, embarrassing and shameful topics in these autobiographies have exposed all the flaws and intimate details about the writer or the writer’s mind, thus, by judging the poem’s speaker, readers are also judging the author according to the conventional standards of society. As a result, critics feel that confessional poetry lacks respect.
Overall, this style of writing may be embraced or even celebrated by many readers as it gives them a different point of view and it may also speak to them in a deeper level especially if they could relate to the emotions and themes that are expressed in the poem. It may also be therapeutic for both the writer and the reader in some cases; however, there are still some critics who find that this style lacks aesthetic and thematic value.  In my opinion, poetry is heading in a good direction, it should not be stagnant and constantly adhering to convention, it should incorporate the themes and ideas of the current context, thus, having poetry diversify its scope and structure might be a good direction to make poetry more relevant to the society.


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