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Confessional poetry emphasizes the intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about details of the poet's personal life, such as in poems about mental illness, sexuality, and despondence.


The "confessional" label was applied to a number of poets of the 1950s and 1960s. John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and W.D. Snodgrass have all been called 'Confessional Poets'. Some key texts of the American "confessional" school of poetry include Lowell's Life Studies, Plath's Ariel, Berryman's Dream Songs, and Snodgrass' Heart's Needle. A prominent consciously "confessional" poet to emerge in the 1980s was Sharon Olds, whose focus on taboo sexual subject matter built off of the work of Ginsberg.

Development of definitionEdit

M.L. Rosenthal originally used the term "confessional," in a 1959 review of Lowell's Life Studies entitled 'Poetry as Confession',[1] Rosenthal mentions earlier tendencies towards the confessional but notes how there was typically a 'mask' which hid the poet's 'actual face'. "Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal."[2]

The impetus towards more personal, more autobiographical writing, dates back at least a century and a half before Life Studies. In February 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in a letter to Thomas Poole: "I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book — let him relate the events of his own life with honesty — not disguising the feelings that accompanied them."[3]

There were clear moves towards the confessional mode before the publication of Life Studies. Delmore Schwartz's Genesis had been published in 1943, and John Berryman had written his Sonnets to Chris in 1947, although they were not to be published until 1967 (and then as Berryman's Sonnets).[4] Berryman's sonnet sequence fits in the long tradition of highly personal sonnet sequences, stretching back through George Meredith's Modern Love to William Shakespeare's sonnets and the sonnets of Petrarch.

Nevertheless, Life Studies broke new ground: the reviewer in the Kenyon Review saw clearly what new thing had been achieved: "For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest: what they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry."[5]

The difference between the long tradition of intimate, personal, lyrical poetry and the confessional approach, lies in the shameful confidences that Rosenthal identified, it goes "beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment".[6] In his 1955 poem Howl, Allen Ginsberg wrote "[To] stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,..."

Constructed selfEdit

Confessional Poetry movement-1

Confessional Poetry movement-1

In a letter to The Guardian on 20 April 1989, Ted Hughes wrote that there was a "Fantasia about Sylvia Plath".[7] Plath's life and poetry have been constructed in such a way as to perpetuate particular fictions about her marriage, mental illness, and "autobiographic" writing, and although this may in part be due to a mythologizing tendency among critics and biographers, it can be shown how Plath fictionalizes herself in her writing.[8]

Later writers such as Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Audre Lorde present personal difficulties in a socio-political context. For example, Lorde's poem, "Coal" reflects on such personal problems within a given cultural context. Levertov's "Life at War" presents something inextricably personal bound in the conflict of the age.(Citation needed)

What defines poetry as confessional is not the subject matter, but how the issue represented is explored. Confessional poetry explores personal details about the authors' life without meekness, modesty, or discretion. Because of this, confessional poetry is a popular form of creative writing that many people enjoy not only to read but to embark upon. Another element that is specific to this poetry is self-revelation achieved through creating the poem. This passes on to the reader, and a connection is made.(Citation needed)

Reasons behind writing confessional poetryEdit

Poets whose writing is classified as confessional (it has been argued) use writing as an outlet for their demons. Writing and then re-reading one's work changes the cognitive processes with which one's brain processes this information - it offers perspective. Anne Sexton famously said, "Poetry led me by the hand out of madness." But she also argued against this perception in her interviews. In an interview with Patricia Marx, Sexton denies that writing "cured her":

"I don't think [that writing cured my mental illness] particularly. It certainly did not create mental health. It isn't as simple as my poetry makes it, because I simplified everything to make it more dramatic. I have written poems in a mental institution, but only later, not at the beginning."[9]


Confessional free verse poetry seemed to have become the dominant approach in late 20th-century American poetry(Citation needed). Robert Bly in the preface to his 1983 translation of Antonio Machado's poetry, Times Alone, praised Machado for "his emphasis on the suffering of others rather than his own".[10] The reaction to confessional poetry has sparked new movements such as that of the Language poets and New Formalism.

See alsoEdit


Anne Sexton at home reads "Wanting to Die"

Anne Sexton at home reads "Wanting to Die"


  1. The Nation, September 19, 1959), reprinted in Rosenthal 1991, pages 109 – 112. Rosenthal somewhat reworked the review into an essay 'Robert Lowell and the Poetry of Confession' in his 1960 book The Modern Poets
  2. Rosenthal, 1959.
  3. The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume III, 1854, page 601.
  4. Kirsch, page 2, makes this observation in his reassessment of the historical context of Life Studies
  5. Thompson, John, "Two Poets",Kenyon Review 21 (1959) pages 482 – 490.
  6. Ian Hamilton, 'A Biographer's Msgivings', collected in Walking Possession, Essys & Reviews 1968 – 1993, Addison-Wesley, 1994. ISBN 0201483971
  7. Reid, Christopher, editor, Letters of Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber, 2007 ISBN 9780571221387), pages 552 – 556. The letter is a response to an earlier letter to the newspaper complaining that Plath's grave was hard to find and poorly maintained; Hughes is most angered by a false assertion that Plath and he had divorced, and he attributes this to the 'fantasia' generated by the academic Plath industry; the issue of the fantasia is explored in Chapter 3 of Jacqueline Rose's The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991)
  8. Rose, page 5
  9. Interview with Patricia Marx, Hudson Review 18, no. 4, Winter, 1965/66)
  10. Bly, Robert (translator), Machado, Antonio Times Alone, Wesleyan University Press, 1983, ISBN 978-0819-56081-0, page 1

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