The Confessional Dilemma

by Eric Greinke

Confessionalism has been a major force in poetry since its emergence in the mid-fifties.  Although it reached its peak as a literary movement in the seventies, its impact is felt to this day because its primary value (candor) has been integrated by both academic and independent literary factions.  The widespread editorial and aesthetic preference for autobiographical realism impoverishes poetry and often imprisons poets on the arid moral badland between altruism and narcissism, having to choose between writing for oneself or for others.

The antecedent for confessionalism was the autobiographical persona of Walt Whitman.  In Song of Myself and other poems, Whitman elevated the autobiographical point of view to a new height, extending the macrocosm of new world democracy to the microcosm of the individual. In its historical context, Whitman’s poetry represented a shift from the objective to the subjective in a time of national strife and war when the needs of individuals were secondary to those of larger society.  Significantly, Whitman was also the father of the small press movement.   He self-published Leaves of Grass and represented himself as working class.  Although Whitman was more of a braggart than a whiner, his emphasis on self laid the ground work for the confessional poetry movement.  His ego-boundaries were expansive and he wrote to others, but the confessional element in his poetry was consistent.

While it is well known that Allen Ginsberg was greatly influenced by Whitman, little has been made of his early contact with Robert Lowell at a time when both poets were formulating a confessional approach.  Robert Lowell began to depart from his original formalism into confessionalism in the mid-fifties, producing Life Studies (1956) his breakthrough confessional collection.  He had already won a Pulitzer (1947) for Lord Weary’s Castle, but Life Studies represented an entirely different, much more autobiographical approach.  It was a revolutionary move for a Pulitzer laureate, and the academic literati took notice.

1956 also saw the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the first confessional collection by an independent poet.  Both camps had their leaders at the same point in history, a rare convergence of the same impulse coming from both the Palefaces and the Indians simultaneously.  Such a confluence is unique in the history of American poetry, and is the probable explanation for why autobiographical narratives have become the standard in the independent magazines and presses while also deeply infecting their counterparts in the university presses and journals.

As in Whitman’s time, the post-WWII confessional movement may be seen as an elevation of individual concerns in the context of widespread social conflicts and concerns. It developed during the Korean and Vietnam wars, as an outcry of the individual against a backdrop of public craziness.

For an overview of literary movements in the academic establishment, the Pulitzer Prize records are revealing.  The first confessional work to win a Pulitzer was Heart’s Needle by W. D. Snodgrass (1960), evidence that the academics had embraced confessionalism as the “next new thing” within a few years of its emergence.  Heart’s Needle expressed the angst Snodgrass felt following his 1953 divorce from his first wife and his separation from their young daughter.  It is intensely personal, and at the time represented a departure from the prevalent poetic conventions in both tone and, more importantly, subject. Some of its value was the emotional catharsis it provided for the poet, a value that is essentially external to rather than intrinsic in the poems themselves.  This later became a “slippery slope” in the hands of young poets prone to narcissistic navel-gazing. Ironically, Snodgrass was Lowell’s student, and achieved recognition for a confessional collection before his mentor did.      

Meanwhile, the Beat movement had exploded into public consciousness, fueled by Life magazine.  Although Beat poets varied greatly in style, they held a common high regard for the principles of confessional candor espoused by Allen Ginsberg, who composed what many consider his confessional masterpiece Kaddish from 1957 to 1959, when it was published.  Kaddish is an elegy for Ginsberg’s mother Naomi, who had a history of mental illness that had resulted in hospitalizations throughout Ginsberg’s childhood.  The poem is highly cathartic and filled with details of Naomi’s behavior and Ginsberg’s emotional reactions to them.  It is painful to read but a powerful expression of a son’s complicated love for his imperfect mother. He should have gotten the Pulitzer for Kaddish, generally considered his best poem, but an academic poet (Snodgrass) got it instead.  The old-boy network was already in place.  Ginsberg couldn’t get their grudging respect until he became the most popular American poet of the century.

Ginsberg was in contact with Robert Lowell while both were discovering the confessional mode.  They had a mutual acquaintance in William Carlos Williams, who was probably the link between them.  Lowell was a big fan of Ginsberg’s Howl, which he read when both poets were in San Francisco in 1955. Ginsberg was a lifelong drug “experimenter” (addict) who ultimately died of liver cancer.

Reviewing the Pulitzer Prize winners from 1960 to 1982 illustrates the predominance of academic confessionalism during a twenty-plus year period.  In 1965, John Berryman won, for 77 Dream Songs.  In 77 Dream Songs, Berryman presented himself through an alter ego named Henry, or in some of the poems, Mr. Bones.  Through these personae, Berryman reveals his confusion, depression and anger in the form of free association, crowded with hallucinatory references to news items, politics, slang and baby-talk.  Berryman was the most creative of the confessional poets.  Significantly, he limited his use of the first person “I.”  Berryman was an alcoholic who eventually committed a dramatic public suicide.                                                                                                                                        

In 1967, Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer for Live or Die, a memoir of Sexton’s treatment for mental illness.  Sexton had a long history of alcoholism and the erratic behavior of a Borderline Personality Disorder.  She was also prone to depression.  Eight years after she received the Pulitzer, she too committed suicide.

Robert Lowell, the academic father of the movement, won a second Pulitzer in 1974, for The Dolphin, his first for a confessional work.   The Dolphin revolves around Lowell’s divorce from his wife Elizabeth Hardwick and his affair with a woman named Caroline Blackwood.  Lowell incorporated language taken directly from his wife’s personal letters into his poems, assuming that a personal invasion of privacy was justified by “poetic license.”  Lowell was an alcoholic and a manic-depressive who had relationship problems that led to a lifetime of serial marriages.   

Finally, Sylvia Plath was awarded the Pulitzer in 1982 for her Collected Poems, nineteen years after committing suicide with her children in the next room.  It was the first posthumous Pulitzer given.  Like Ginsberg, Plath achieved recognition from the establishment only after her poetry became very popular.  Young sophomoric female readers identified with her alienation, resentment and ultimately, her self-destructiveness, a clear indication that the confessional poets were often seen as role-models by readers with similar problems, thus expanding literary boundaries into the psycho-social realm, for good or ill.

By the eighties, the confessional literary fad had become entrenched in alienated youth who were influenced primarily by Sexton, Plath and Ginsberg and a newcomer, Charles Bukowski, who would become a heavy influence on the next generation of independent “small press” poets, deeply infecting the Art with the value of autobiographical confessionalism.

Charles Bukowski was a hard-drinking, self-taught (like Sexton) college drop-out whose 40+ books of autobiographical fiction and poetry made him the widely read and influential “King of the Small Press.”  Bukowski is the direct literary descendent of Ginsberg, in that he became wildly popular, strictly through the route of small press publication.  Like Ginsberg, he eschewed traditional metaphor in favor of an egocentric persona that alienated readers could identify with.  His subjects were limited to drinking, sex, music, and gambling.  His repetitive poems and stories relied on anecdote and his language incorporated vulgarisms and “street-talk.”  It is no great stretch to say that Bukowski became the inspirational role model for generations of “small press poets” to follow.

I wrote one of the first reviews of Bukowski’s work (Mocking-Bird Wish Me Luck, Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, CA, 1972) to appear in a large, general-readership newspaper, in 1972.  At that time, the Grand Rapids Sunday Press was one of a small number of large, general-interest newspapers to run regular reviews of poetry books.  I had an ongoing light correspondence with John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press in Los Angeles.  Martin regularly sent me copies of his Black Sparrow books, including the Bukowskis.  Martin was very active in promoting Bukowski, even paying him a monthly salary from his own income to quit his post office job to stay home and write.   He started Black Sparrow Press to promote Bukowski.  (This is an example of what can happen when a publisher really believes in an author.)  When Martin retired and sold his printing rights to Bukowski, he received a seven figure price from Harper/Collins.  My comments seem prophetic to me now, given the popularity that followed:

“At his best he is a clever and stimulating poet; at his worst, he is exactly what most of his readers want him to be: the stereotyped underground poet, such as they might wish themselves to be.”      (The Grand Rapids Sunday Press, August, 1972)

Like Plath, Sexton, and Ginsberg, Bukowski’s popularity was based more on the psycho-social identification readers made with the poet than with the poems.  All of these poets fell victim to self-parody after achieving popularity the easy way.  Their work plateaued.  It became redundant and predictable.

Among contemporary poets, Sharon Olds is the most notable practitioner for whom confessionalism is the primary aesthetic value of her poetics.  She won the Pulitzer in 2013 for her book Stag’s Leap, a collection of poems exploring the details of her divorce.  Olds is a polarizing poet.  Several poets whose opinions matter to me detest her approach, while others admire it “for its courage.”  Is it courage or exhibitionism?

We no longer refer to it as confessionalism because it has been deeply integrated into our shared aesthetic values.  But at what cost?  Sensationalism and exhibitionism sell newspapers, but they’re exploitative.  Popularity achieved through sensationalism leads to self-parody.  Catharsis was an emotional yo-yo diet that provided only temporary relief for these poets, given their tragic fates.  It is very significant that their aesthetic values shifted away from metaphor to persona as the major component in their poems.  Metaphor is essential to depth in poetry.  Without it, there is little or no mystery, resulting in poems that are not so durable.  Durability is also essential to poetry.  A poem is a musical word machine that should be built to last.  The durability of a poem is largely dependent on its degree of both universality and ambiguity.  

The elephant in the room is that these poets as a group made poetry much more popular for a time, but to do this, they inadvertently dumbed-down the Art.  They were going for personal (but public) catharsis, and for a time they expanded the boundaries of poetry, but then, in an unexpected vicious backlash, the expansion of the autobiographical persona to the status of a central value of poetry actually limited the potential range of persona itself.  Since metaphor was no longer there to carry the poetic load, we were left with a use of persona that restricted us to autobiographical realism.  Because the poems were also narratives, the important distinction between poetry and prose was either blurred or eliminated altogether, leaving us with narcissistic, banal prose set in ragged lines to look like (imitate) a poem.  Donald Hall called it the “McPoem.”

Sensationalism may appeal to the “popular sensibility,” but it is exploitative of both the poet and the reader.   Exhibition of “dirty laundry” in public reinforces and validates exhibitionism and narcissism, promotes self-parody and encourages self-conscious navel-gazing.

Confession may have provided temporary cathartic relief for these poets, but they were poor role models for impressionable young readers or beginning poets.  Suicidal or depressed young women were attracted to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and to her angst-filled poetry.  Young men emulated what they perceived as Charles Bukowski’s “macho” (misogynistic), fatalistic attitude and lifestyle.

All of this is deeply problematic for poets who are still in the sometimes lengthy process of finding their own voices.  Their best strategy would be to focus on poems rather than poets.  Poets should avoid gratuitous sensationalism in their work, and be willing to write first-person narratives that are not based primarily in their own experiences.  In my own work, I’ve found that removing myself as much as possible from my poems leads to many opportunities, including greater depth and universality.  Every poet should strive for a personal standard that results in positive contributions to humanity.  Personal growth may then ensue as well.


About the Author: Eric Greinke’s work has been published or is forthcoming in the Aurorean, California Quarterly, The Delaware Poetry Review, Forge, Gargoyle, Ginyu (Japan), The Green Door (Belgium), Ibbetson Street, The Journal (U.K.), Lake Effect, Main Street Rag, The New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, Pinyon, Poem, Prairie Schooner, Prosopisia (India), The South Carolina Review & The University of Tampa Review, among others.  His book For The Living Dead - New & Selected Poems (Presa Press, 2014; Simon Pulse, 2014) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  He is one of twenty American poets included in the international anthology The Second Genesis: An Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry (Anuraag Sharma, Ed., 2014).  New in 2018: Shorelines (Adastra Press), Masterplan - Collaborative Poems, with Alison Stone (Presa Press).