The considerable difficulty inherent in categorizing literary movements is distinctly evident in the problems surrounding the term 'confessionalism'. Applied retrospectively to the work of a number of mid-century American poets, it was a term which these poets rarely used to describe themselves. Confessionalism has no leader, no manifesto, and in spite of representing an extreme development in modern poetry, it is often difficult to pin-point exactly. It is detected with most accuracy only in a stage of a poet's career, perhaps even in an individual poem or sequence, and because of this its role in the transition of creativity from one stage to another may be a key one. The critic M. L. Rosenthal was the first to explore at length the implications and achievements of the confessional poets and the scope of this essay is somewhat determined by the limits of that study. The poets providing the focus here are those which Rosenthal places centrally, but there are other figures, among them Randall Jarrell and Delmore Schwartz, whose work at times exhibits key characteristics of confes-sionalism and whose connection to its major figures makes them especially significant. I will concern myself primarily with work written in the 1950s and consider both its collective impact on the progress of modern poetry and its significance in the development of individual poets.
Steven Gould Axelrod cites three essential elements of confessional poetry: 'an undisguised exposure of painful personal event ... a dialectic of private matter with public matter . . . and an intimate, unornamented style' (Axelrod, 1979, p. 98). In a critical climate which often appears to privilege the first of these definitions at the expense of the others, it is important to consider the relationship between personal and cultural upheaval as well as the formal implications of such poetic change. The expression of personal pain has been regarded as a hallmark of confessional poetry. All its chief proponents suffered from severe personal difficulties: destructive family relationships; traumatic childhoods; broken marriages; recurring mental breakdowns; alcoholism or drug abuse. This was the first generation of poets to be widely affected by the development of psychoanalysis and many dealt with the recesses of the psy chological, among them such important writers as Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell and James Wright. The poets conventionally classified as confessional personally faced — and chose as their subject matter — more significant difficulties, however. The connections between these poets were formed in this context and reinforced by the similarities of their unstable lives. The opening of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl', 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness', seems to testify to the feeling of solidarity which these poets experienced. To assume this perspective, though, is to obliterate the aggression and competitiveness which also shaped this generation. Mental suffering could bring with it heightened awareness and at times feelings of omnipotence. As these writers recognized a common predicament, they also tried to assert their individual talent and pre-eminence among their peers.
The validity of personal experience as the matter for art has been the subject of considerable debate but perhaps never so positively and succinctly expressed than by Emerson in his 1844 essay 'The Poet', a text which would prove central to the foundation of American poetry:
The poet has a new thought: he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession. (Emerson, 1983, p. 450)
The idea of the poet courting extremity in order to report the limits of human life is an important aspect of this assertion. That such limits alter with the age makes con-fessionalism, in spite of its attention to personal trauma, a movement very much of its time which must be examined in the context of 1950s America, where the most enduring of its poems were written. Why it should apply so centrally to American poetry, rather than to any other tradition, is another question which needs to be addressed. In The American Moment, Geoffrey Thurley concludes that the New World inevitably mirrored the Old and that 'America was a self-conscious society from the moment of its inception' (Thurley, 1977, p. 4). This self-consciousness is implicated in the concern with Americanness which has preoccupied writers and readers alike. Yet, as Emerson suggests above, transition is crucial to the American poetry scene and the need to document the moment, to report, indeed to embody, cultural change is a key one.
Mid-century America was a country struggling towards readjustment; these were the years in which the Cold War took hold, when nuclear armaments were a developing threat and the disorder left in the wake of the conflict took its toll on both individual and society. It was also a time of economic growth and increasing prosperity for most Americans, though complacency was accompanied by fears for personal and national security, creating the kind of environment in which McCarthyism could flourish. A fractured society, then, was the result both of the traumas of war and of a culture unsure of its own extraordinary progress. If one result of the war was swift technological advancement in subsequent peacetime, it was a form of development which at once benefited and victimized the individual. This sense of becoming a victim was a crucial one, since it would radically alter the status and behaviour of the literary protagonist. The fragmented individual also sought wholeness through aesthetic expression itself, so the act of writing both represented this fragmentation and attempted to reverse it. In a world which seemed increasingly to deprive the individual of meaningful action, the poem became a way of redressing the balance and the poem which spoke directly from troubled experience provided a means of validating feeling in a threatening world.
The personality was clearly under threat in late forties and fifties American life since, as M. L. Rosenthal argues, 'the poetry is a constant struggle to assert the encompassing validity of the feeling personality in the face of depressing realizations' (Rosenthal, 1967, p. 11). This response to the particular stresses and limitations of the time was linked to another form of reaction — to the impersonality of modernism. T. S. Eliot's declaration that 'the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates' (Eliot, 1932, p. 8) demands a purely imaginative approach to idealism in art and the ability to withstand comparisons with reality which will be destructive to the spirit. In response to this, the writers of the generation following Eliot's sought to embody the individual perception in direct ways; rather than creating masks or different personae, they began to speak from a position which was unambiguously their own. Yet, at the same time, this position was one re-created by the poets and it is neither true nor useful to imagine that their lives appeared in their poetry unmediated by the creative power to shape and transform.
On the question of style, the informality employed by these poets was both profoundly effective and critically misleading. Again, transition is an important element: the early formalism of Lowell and Berryman, for example, could be seen as a response to cultural uncertainties, but these traditional techniques would later be excised to make way for looser forms. Thematically too, interest in the enduring questions of life was subordinated to an immediate concern with the temporary itself. Abandoning symbolism and complex patterns of imagery in favour of a form akin to, and often incorporating, direct speech, the confessional poets invited the reader to follow closely — indeed to re-experience — the mental processes exposed in their poems. Behind the apparently casual style, however, often lay a finely tuned appreciation of form and an ability to manipulate line and stanza to give the effect of unedited emotion. Not all had the inclination or the capability to achieve this level of mastery however, and con-fessionalism as a movement gave shelter to such luminous poetic talents as Robert Lowell alongside figures of cultural importance but far less technical sophistication, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Sexton among them. It seems that as a result the movement is in danger of being judged on its weaker moments, rather than on the significance of its achievements for mid-century American literature.
Robert Lowell (1917—77) is widely considered to be the most talented of the middle generation of American poets and is often credited with inaugurating the confessional movement with his influential collection Life Studies (1959). The transition was already perceptible, though, in the work of such poets as Allen Ginsberg and in
W. D. Snodgrass, whose first collection Heart's Needle would in many ways exemplify the possibilities of the change. Lowell himself taught Snodgrass and at first was un-enthusiastic about the personal tendencies of his work; later he recognized its importance and admitted that it may have influenced his own poetic evolution. The key point here is that while Ginsberg and Snodgrass were just starting their careers, Lowell was already a much acclaimed and respected poet. The movement away from the allusive, intellectual and often religious poems which characterized Lowell's earliest achievement was a brave and decisive one, further precipitated by the sense that his style was becoming increasingly unwieldy. The extent of the change made Lowell unsure as to its success and the self-doubt which he exhibited at the publication of Life Studies could be seen as indicative of a more deep-seated anxiety which this period of his life heralded.
Uncertainty was in fact a key to much of the work of the confessional poets. As the relationship between individual and world became more painful and difficult, the sense of being able to reach a position of intellectual certainty became ever more problematic. All knowledge was conditional and all aspects of life prey to continual change. In keeping with this tendency Lowell's Life Studies, as the title of the collection suggests, can be seen as drafts towards more finished works. This provisional aspect has important connotations for the autobiographical readings of the poems also, since what are regarded as factual renderings of family history, for example, or of mental distress, are similarly open to reinterpretation. Just as confessional poetry as a whole is a product of its time, these individual poems are the products of a particular stage in Lowell's career and personal life, when the death of his parents and declining success of his rather opaque poetic project forced a creative change. This notion of transition finds expression directly in a number of the poems: 'Waking in the Blue', which recalls Lowell's time in a mental hospital, begins with a painful movement to consciousness:
The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore, rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head propped on The Meaning of Meaning. He catwalks down our corridor. Azure day makes my agonized blue window bleaker. Crows maunder on the petrified fairway. Absence! My heart grows tense as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill. (This is the house for the 'mentally ill')
The poem's inward movement charts the observing mind turning toward itself, the language — as well as the speaker's heart — growing tense with inactivity. The period in hospital is itself a transitional time for Lowell, as he records in such poems as 'Home After Three Months Away'; removed both from the demands and the pleasures of life, the poet finds the materials of his art within the confines of the institution and of his own troubled mind.
The stylistic change which was such a striking feature of Lowell's work can be detected in the poetry of another key figure of the confessional group, John Berryman (1914-72). Closer to Lowell than the others, both personally and in terms of poetic rivalry and achievement, Berryman is most famous for his Dream Songs, published between 1964 and his suicide in 1972. These poems, though written after the main thrust of confessionalism was over, are seen by some critics as exemplifying its private and occasionally impenetrable nature: 'This is not so much confessional poetry', writes Richard Gray, 'as pure confession: moving, sometimes, in the way that the confidences of any stranger might be, but not something in which we can begin to share' (Gray, 1990, p. 260). Yet this assessment takes little account of what Stephen Matterson has called Berryman's persistent fictionalization of the self in his poetry (Matterson, 1988, p. 71). The pain, guilt, confusion and wonder expressed in these works are not just Berryman's own, but those of the age, and if Henry represents the protean self, this fluidity is aptly articulated through the use of a range of voices in the poems. Though Berryman draws extensively on his own life experience, it is a mistake to see the Henry of the Dream Songs as unmediated by an imaginative and creative intelligence. There is discipline to be found, not in the overall structure of the group but in the form of the individual poems (three stanzas of six lines each), though the broken syntax often threatens to distort meaning. The sequence of the Songs, which we might expect to offer an important way of reading the individual's relationship to the world, provides no comforting sense of resolution to this collage of personal pain and cultural displacement. Instead, the cumulative aspect of the poems is emphasized and with it the circumstances of their writing.
M. L. Rosenthal has remarked that Berryman, more than any other confessional poet, has absorbed 'the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends' (Rosenthal, 1967, p. 119) and it is true that the Dream Songs chart the damaging alienation of the individual and the conflict between white Anglo-Saxon and African-American cultures which was increasingly evident in sixties America. Moving ten years back in time to confessionalism's most important decade, we find the poem that decisively marked Berryman's transition from a kind of formalism to a direct personal style. Though his earlier sonnet sequence suggested the changes to come, the delay in its publication probably reflected a culture not yet receptive to that adventurous but flawed project. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet presents an extraordinary treatment of Anne Bradstreet, America's first published poet, and in doing so highlights Berry-man's use of the voice, how he mingles his own with Bradstreet's until at times the reader has difficulty in telling the two apart. The engagement of present with past is not itself an event in time but a continued intermingling of both contexts. The voices then, while articulating historically specific positions (and ones clearly of literary significance), also partake in a narrative of the divided self, since Berryman not only depicts, but identifies strongly with his female subject. His language, which combines direct, even contemporary, elements with formal and stylized phrasing, moves continually between distance and intimacy:
- Be kind you, to one unchained eager far & wild and if, O my love, my heart is breaking, please neglect my cries and I will spare you. Deep in Time's grave, Love's, you lie still. Lie still. - Now? That happy shape my forehead had under my most long, rare, ravendark, hidden, soft bodiless hair you award me still.
You must not love me, but I do not bid you cease
Allen Ginsberg's (1926-97) language proved as important in establishing his fame, or notoriety, as Berryman's stylized and frequently archaic diction did in determining the direction which his later poetry would take. 'The problem has been to communicate the very spark of life', Ginsberg said, 'and not some opinion about that spark of life' (Howard, 1970, p. 149) and his desire to evoke the immediacy and vibrancy of the human voice was combined with an ear attuned to the changes - particularly in music - which were occurring in mid-century America. As Thurley has pointed out, if Ginsberg were merely interested in rendering the voice realistically, there would be little innovative to remark in his language (Thurley, 1977, p. 174), yet when Howl and Other Poems appeared in 1956 it was its vocabulary which startled readers - and the censors - with its unabashed sexual and scatological references and its accelerated wit. Neither this collection, nor Ginsberg's later publications, relied exclusively on linguistic shock-value, however, and the lyricism which in many other writers might have presented an impediment to such extreme experimentation does appear occasionally in Ginsberg's work. His homosexuality and drug addiction made him a social outsider and the crudity of his language reinforced this alienation, yet implicit in the public acceptance of his poetry was an acknowledgement that a new way of evaluating and representing humanity was necessary. By courting extremity, Ginsberg affirms Emerson's idea of the poet 'writing back' from the edge of experience. Likewise, the undisputed influence of Whitman seems to depend not only upon the inclusiveness of 'Howl' or upon its fractured nature and insistent rhythms, but on this sense of the poet as chronicler of the minutiae as well as the breadth of human life; of a combination of earthy realism and spirituality.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
The drive to explore experience directly and not merely through the agency of memory makes the moment of writing vitally important to Ginsberg. His choice of form for a later poem, 'Kaddish' (traditionally both a Hebrew lament for the dead and a hymn of praise to God), draws on the elegiac element of confessionalism that has been noted especially in Robert Lowell's work. In this poem Ginsberg explores his ambiguous feelings for his mother by eroticizing his relationship to the disturbed and dying woman. Elsewhere the overt sexuality in his poetry testifies to a search for love and for meaning threatened on one side by a hostile materialist culture and on the other by the soulless nature of the pursuit itself. In spite of the degradation which features frequently in Ginsberg's work, its enduring spiritual concern assured him a cult following.
Spirituality is also an important consideration in any assessment of Theodore Roethke's work. Roethke (1908—63), born and raised in the Midwest, was sensitive to his perceived exclusion from the East Coast poetry scene and was anxious to cultivate critical attention. His first collection showed linguistic competence and a skilled ear but nothing to suggest his later experimental achievements, which were heralded in the 'greenhouse' poems and developed in the 'Lost Son' sequence. The Midwestern landscape was significant for the setting of Roethke's poems and also evoked the open spaces which challenged the individual's sense of identity. His most potent subject matter was the journey inward in search of the evolving self, a concern that had much in common with Wordsworth's Prelude and, like the Prelude, explored childhood experience as a key to understanding the spiritual and psychic life. Randall Jarrell, though not a poet to exhibit his personal traumas readily, used similar strategies to probe the psychological in his poetry, as did Delmore Schwartz in his acclaimed work In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1938). In keeping with the psychoanalytic developments of the age, these poets began to see childhood as a source of pain and sickness, rather than Wordsworthian joy. This transition was clearly an important one for Roethke, who freed himself to speak with a personal voice — of troubled sexuality, of the early death of his father — for the first time in his career.
The death of the father is at the centre of the 'Lost Son' narratives, but this applies not only to Roethke's real father but also to his loss of belief in a greater spiritual being. His search for identity takes place within this context and the pre-eminence of nature in his poems not only has an autobiographical resonance (his father was a prosperous market gardener) but suggests the impossibility of a single creative power. The poems are deeply involved in mystical experience and often chart a movement towards joyous communion with the cosmos, in marked contrast to the work of other confessional poets whose bleak world-view usually overwhelms the potential for a vigorous appreciation of life. Unlike both Berryman and Lowell, Roethke did not dread his manic episodes but seemed to welcome them as a source of creative renewal. His poetry engages with deeply personal matters while seldom revealing the details of his life, since his use of the child's perspective and his recourse to folk tale and nursery rhyme allow him to broach painful topics within a mythol-ogizing framework.
As the 'greenhouse' poems suggest, Roethke's schemes of imagery are vital to his work and are closely connected to the journey which it enacts, as in the poem 'Cuttings (later)': 'I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing, / In my veins, in my bones, I feel it, — / . . . / I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet'. The roots of the plant become the roots of life itself, the primal beginnings to which the poet must return in his search for self. Notable also here is the attention to detail, the microscopic rendering of the natural world which tacitly evokes Roethke's scrutiny of his own inner life. This kind of scrutiny had important formal implications too, and the movement towards a freer verse style did not imply a loss of attention to poetic form: 'If we concern ourselves with more primitive effects in poetry', Roethke argued, 'we come inevitably to the consideration . . . of verse that is closer to prose. . . . The writer must keep his eye on the object, and his rhythm must move as his mind moves' (Roethke, 1965, p. 181). In the most accomplished of Roethke's work, the reader is brought on the journey with him, one which is both mental and emotional:
Light traveled over the wide field;
The weeds stopped swinging.
The mind moved, not alone,
Through the clean air, in the silence.
Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Sylvia Plath (1932—63), the youngest and most controversial of this confessional group, was significantly influenced by Roethke in style, in subject matter and in her willingness to embrace mental illness as the inspiration for great art. Though younger than the other poets of the group she died before them and anticipated their own fate in many cases. Plath's legacy is hard to assess; she has attracted legions of imitators and her death has been read by feminists as evidence of a female talent destroyed by male oppression. The question of gender is certainly relevant to Plath's work, both in her exploration of familial and sexual relationships and in her concern with the roles of daughter, wife, mother. Her life, as well as her poetry, reflects this concern and rather than representing her traumas unmediated in her work, she to some extent used poetry to overcome or reconstruct relationships which in reality caused her pain and confusion. Always anxious for success and approval, Plath's relationship with her mother was particularly fraught with the difficulties inherent in maintaining a pretence of personal fulfilment and academic excellence during periods of inner turmoil and severe disappointment. Only in her poetry, and then only late in her career, could Plath allow the extremity of her troubled feelings to surface.
In spite of the emotional intensity of Plath's last collection, the posthumously published Ariel (1965), which was written in the final year of her life as she struggled with a broken marriage and the care of her two young children, a strong case can be made for the importance of history in this young poet's work. It is a case, however, which polarizes critics: does Plath use the individual life to explore parallels with history, or does she plunder history in order to clarify - or justify - her own private difficulties? The poem 'Daddy' is the one which focuses these issues most clearly: its sustained use of Nazi imagery is certainly uncomfortable for the reader and is fitted together in such a jumbled and at times contradictory way as to be the cause of formal, as well as ethical, dismay. Plath herself, keen to emphasize the public role of the poet, has put this aesthetic decision into context thus:
I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying - like madness, being tortured . . . with an informed and intelligent mind. I think that personal experience shouldn't be a kind of shut box and mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be generally relevant, to such things as Hiroshima and Dachau, and so on. (Lane, 1979, p. 35)
So the personal and the public are not merely paralleled in her work but are intermingled in more complex ways. In spite of the estrangement of the individual from public meaning during this period and the repeated rendering of this predicament by other confessional poets, the individual in Plath's work is often an explicit part of history, simultaneously embodying its key concerns and struggling against its apparent omnipotence. What has been termed Plath's obsession with victimhood, then, is not her concern alone, but a crucial preoccupation of the modern sensibility.
The issue of Plath's suicide, of whether dying is an art she does exceptionally well, is the source of much of the attention she has attracted and a cause of concern among critics. As Robert Lowell comments in a letter to M. L. Rosenthal: 'Maybe, it's an irrelevant accident that she actually carried out the death she predicted . . . but somehow her death is part of the imaginative risk' (Rosenthal, 1967, p. 68). In describing the genesis and writing of this final collection, however, Plath emphasized the ordered nature of her art, both in terms of setting and arrangement and in an unbroadcast radio interview offered concise and rational comments on her most disturbing and highly wrought poems. Of 'Lady Lazarus' she said: 'The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also just a good, plain, very resourceful woman' (Rosenthal, 1967, p. 82).
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.
Once again process is highlighted and the artificiality of the natural act is pursued in the self-consciously colloquial phrasing here. There is nothing casual about Plath's art at this point, yet in the extremity of her final months she managed to combine emotional tension with a remarkable clarity of purpose.
Plath's last poems, which she claimed were intended 'for the ear, not the eye', 'poems written out loud' (Rosenthal, 1967, p. 88), far outstripped in intensity and in technical achievement the work of Anne Sexton (1928—74). Sexton's art was always more dependent upon her mental illness than was Plath's, or indeed any of the other confessionals. Apart from some poems from her teenage years, she first began writing when in psychoanalysis and this soon flourished in the form of a committed and painstaking art; Sexton worked long hours daily during her most intensely creative periods and would revise poems continually to achieve the effect she desired. With little outside her own life to deeply engage her, she sought stability for her work in particular schemes — fairy-tales, horoscopes, the Psalms — and such striving after form is reflected, though rarely achieved, in the poems themselves. The revelatory style which Sexton preferred worked against containment and her poems, in spite of their intensity, often lack a sustained trajectory.
The immediacy of Sexton's poetry, this desire to render the emotional experiences of her life in intimate detail, makes her perhaps the least historically observant of the confessionals and the flaws that her work exhibits — self-absorption, repetitive themes, overstatement of human truths — are often those which lend weight to the negative criticism levelled at confessional poetry as a whole. Though Sexton rarely manages to transmute the matter of her own life into something universally meaningful, it is clear that she wishes to use it to gain access to hidden emotional territories. If Plath's life-history is appropriated by feminists, in Sexton's case they are attracted by the willingness of her poems to expose taboos of women's experience with unnerving candour. Yet, as Helen Vendler has succinctly observed, 'taboo-breaking is not in itself a poetic task' (Vendler, 1988, p. 301), and many of the aesthetic difficulties which Sexton confronts stem from her insistent and at times indiscriminate exposure of private matters. The voice which she employs to do this is not always recognizably her own, indeed her desire to explore every kind of experience would render this kind of consistency impossible. Voice is of vital importance, however, as the centrality of performance to her reputation affirms, and the poem with which she usually began her readings testifies also to an imaginative use of imagery and to the spirit which kept her writing through a life of continuing emotional and physical pain:
I have gone out, a possessed witch, haunting the black air, braver at night; dreaming evil, I have done my hitch over the plain houses, light by light: lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind. ('Her Kind')
Sexton's popularity is evidence of one kind of cultural importance, yet her inability to connect with America's present or past in more complex ways renders the limitations of her work clearly. Perhaps the most striking thing to observe about her in this context is the persistence of the confessional element in her work. Many other writers adopted these features and transformed or moved beyond them, but Sexton's later work suffered greatly from her entrapment in a limited private world. It is a clear reinforcement of the importance of transition to the confessionals, both as theme and as poetic process, that one of their most distinctive members should be crippled by her own formal and imaginative stasis. In the work of the most impressive and talented of these poets, uncertainty deepens exploration of the human spirit and the merging of private and public worlds provides a moving and enlivening account of cultural change and poetic development; one which helps us to place the work of later American writers in their true context.
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