Among those poets who were inclined to challenge certain aspects of the New Criticism, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman introduced [a poetry] which some maligned as "confessionalism" but others hailed as a liberation from the tyranny of poetic decorum.
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and well into the 1980s the confessional model remained influential with academic critics and literary historians across a wide spectrum, perhaps because it offered a humanly compelling and rather clear-cut way ofevaluating poetry. Poems involving daring self-revelation could be assumed to be bold and sincere.
The antics and agonies of the celebrated confessional generation might be seen, in part, as a desperate flailing of mortals deceived by their predecessors into the divinity of the poetic calling.
I place these varied statements about confessional poetry at the beginning of the chapter in order to illustrate the extent to which the definition of "confessionalism" has itselfbeen the subject of contention. Was confessionalism an important movement in American poetry, a significant break from New Critical and modernist models? Or was it simply a convenient, and ultimately reductive, critical label used to explain certain developments in postwar poetry? Does the term describe a generation of poets who sought desperately to fulfill their lofty poetic ambitions by means ofa self-indulgent display of raw emotion? Or does it celebrate a liberating and daring move away from a pervasive "tyranny of poetic decorum"?
Robert Lowell's shift during the decade of the 1950s from a poetic modeled on New Critical formalism to a more relaxed, colloquial, and self-revelatory free verse was certainly a dramatic change, but it was hardly unique among poets of the period. Similar trajectories can be traced in the careers of John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Adrienne Rich, and James Wright, among others. There is no doubt that the so-called "confessional" movement represented an important change in the way the American poetic mainstream approached the writing ofpoetry. The poems were presented in the first-person voice with little apparent distance between the speaker and the poet; they were highly emotional in tone, autobiographical in content, and narrative in structure. The personal reflections of poets were no longer couched in the distanced idiom characteristic of both modernism and New Criticism. The mode of confessionalism - whether one approved of the term or not - served as a model for poets who chose to reject modernist difficulty and New Critical complexity in favor of a more relaxed or personal voice. It also allowed poets to articulate feelings, thoughts, and emotions that challenged the decorum of an era marked by its containment of psychic needs and desires. Responding to the "tranquillized Fifties," as Lowell called them, these poets resisted midcentury cultural norms that demanded "the repression of grief [and] the plowing under of traumatic experience."4
As Diane Middlebrook suggests, one of the chief characteristics of confessional poetry was its investigation of "the pressures on the family as an institution regulating middle-class life"; more specifically, confessional poems focused on such issues as "divorce, sexual infidelity, childhood neglect, and the mental disorders that follow from deep emotional wounds received in early life."5 The appeal of confessional poetry was heightened by its seemingly direct portrayal of poets' tempestuous lives. In fact, it was often the biographies of the confessional generation as much as their poetry that attracted the attention ofscholars, critics, and readers. Plath, Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Delmore Schwartz were all suicides, and Jarrell attempted suicide. Other confessionals experienced problems with alcoholism (Lowell, Bishop, and Berryman), emotional breakdowns and depressions (Lowell, Berryman, Bishop, Plath, and Sexton), and divorces (Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, and W. D. Snodgrass).
Historically, most critics trace the beginnings ofconfessional poetry to the poems Lowell began writing in the late 1950s. The most extreme phase of the confessional mode lasted until the mid-1960s, and included Lowell's Life Studies, W. D. Snodgrass's Heart's Needle, Sylvia Plath's Ariel, Anne Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back and All My Pretty Ones, and John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs. Other poets of the period, such as Elizabeth Bishop, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke, have also been grouped with the confessionals. The confessional mode continued to exert an important influence on the poetry of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, the "postconfessional" lyric was to become the dominant stylistic mode ofAmerican poetry in the late twentieth century. Poems dealing with relationships, sex, marriage, and domestic life became so common in the wake of the confessionals that they were no longer seen as daringly provocative; instead, such poems were written in creative-writing workshops across the country and soon came to constitute the new mainstream ofAmerican poetry. Poets such as Louise Gluck and Sharon Olds, both from the generation after the confessionals, have focused much oftheir work on family relationships and on such subjects as divorce, adolescent anorexia, and childhood abuse. Olds' volume The Father, one of the most successful adaptations of the confessional mode, is a sequence of poems devoted to her conflicted feelings about the death of her father.
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