dVerse Poetics: The Art of Confession in Poetry

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I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.

Sylvia Plath in conversation with Peter Orr, 1962

Dear versemakers, This is Anmol (alias HA) and I am delighted to be hosting the Poetics prompt for this week. If you remember, I did a guest prompt back in November, wherein we discussed Desire and Sexuality in Poetry. Later, Grace and Bjorn were so kind to ask me if I would like to be a part of the dVerse team and host on a regular basis. I am glad to be associated with this wonderful community of poets and I look forward to writing and participating with you all for many prompts to come.

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Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, Ink and gouache on paper c. 1946-1952 Estate of Robert Hittel, © Estate of Sylvia Plath

Today, I exhort you all to think of and mull over the concepts of Confessional Poetry, made popular by the likes of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. I have personally been inspired by the nature of confessional verse and its myriad shades — how it binds the reader with the lived experiences of the poet, in a semblance of empathy and kindred understanding of our humanity, has always astounded me and made me fall in love with the poets who have been brave enough to hollow themselves out for a poetic expression rooted in their identity and psychology. We won’t delve too much into the psychoanalytic perspective and history of the confessional narrative in literature and art but rather follow the words of some confessional poets and inculcate an understanding based on the same.

It was American poet, critic, and editor, M.L. Rosenthal, who first applied the term “Confessional” for Robert Lowell’s work after the latter published his poetry collection, Life Studies, in 1959. In his essay, “Poetry as Confession”, Rosenthal says, “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.” Read for yourself and decide if you agree with Rosenthal or not. Here is an excerpt from Lowell’s poem, Skunk Hour.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

If you read the entire poem, you would see that the parts excerpted here begin with a switch in the poem to the ‘I’, and what is overshadowed by the other characters in the previous stanzas becomes an all-out confession here. The revelation by the poet of his voyeurism speaks of a need to belong and of his loneliness. More so, he is inferring to the actions of lovers without blatantly speaking of it, thereby making the reader a part of the experience so that we can derive our own view of sight with the poet. He says, “My mind’s not right”, and a little later, “I myself am hell” (read “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” from Paradise Lost). This is as if a kind of comfort derived from this realization, a kind of catharsis to say how things are and how he feels about them. Alienation is a common theme in confessional verses, which Lowell uses very effectively here.

Two wonderful poets famously known for their confessional verses, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, attended the poetry-writing class at Boston University taught by Robert Lowell in 1959. What an extraordinary class that must have been! Let’s move on to these two brilliant women poets who mastered the art of weaving personal mythology using their own self as the poetic symbol and subject.

Sylvia Plath is equally derided and loved for the nature of her confessional poetry in which her self is confronted with the multitudes of passion and paranoia. Those who consider Plath as a teenage pop icon do not give her credit for how she made herself and her experiences take the form of a poetic sensibility which contradicted the atypical classification of a confession. Certain schools of thought suggest that to use confessional for Plath’s poetry is not justified because unlike Lowell, she used the autobiographical details of her life in an emblematic way and her details and expressions are not as realistic as that of Lowell. Let’s decide for ourselves:

The Night Dances
(From Ariel)

A smile fell in the grass.
Irretrievable!

And how will your night dances
Lose themselves. In mathematics?

Such pure leaps and spirals –
Surely they travel

The world forever, I shall not entirely
Sit emptied of beauties, the gift

Of your small breath, the drenched grass
Smell of your sleeps, lilies, lilies.

Their flesh bears no relation.
Cold folds of ego, the calla,

And the tiger, embellishing itself –
Spots, and a spread of hot petals.

The comets
Have such a space to cross,

Such coldness, forgetfulness.
So your gestures flake off –

Warm and human, then their pink light
Bleeding and peeling

Through the black amnesias of heaven.
Why am I given

These lamps, these planets
Falling like blessings, like flakes

Six sided, white
On my eyes, my lips, my hair

Touching and melting.
Nowhere.

Plath uses the subjective experience of her son Nicholas’ little movements resembling a dance when he would wake up in the night as the source material for this poem. This is an intriguing poem in how she says so much without actually divulging anything. It is a confessional verse in how it is rooted in her own experience and resulting from the tangibility of her emotions. With many interesting images and metaphors having opposite shades of warmth and coldness, she speaks of this bond with her son, but with some uncertainty and pause. At once, it is very dissimilar from Lowell’s work as the conclusion and the central theme remain elusive, but then there is still the manifestation of ‘I’ in this narrative. This is characteristic of other Plath poems too. Also read one of Plath’s last poems, Edge. Did you notice the Sylvia Plath quote at the beginning and understood how she worked on her poems?

For a poem to be confessional doesn’t mean that the poet is not going to hide behind certain screens and create a distant narrative of their experiences and histories. This may be done consciously or unconsciously. Or it can be something which is unbeknownst to the poet herself. In an interview with The Paris Review, Anne Sexton said, “My doctors tell me that I understand something in a poem that I haven’t integrated into my life. In fact, I may be concealing it from myself, while I was revealing it to the readers. The poetry is often more advanced, in terms of my unconscious, than I am. Poetry, after all, milks the unconscious.”

This brings us to the fact that confessional poetry has a history of being associated with depression and mania. Neurosis is oft an integral part of the confessional literature when the poets grapple with the inner violence of the self in their poems. Karl Malkoff opined that “the work of Lowell, Roethke, Plath, Sexton and the others must be placed in the context of not only private, confessional poetry, but the poetry of madness as well”. As we know, both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton ended their own lives after years of battling with depression. In that context, listen to Anne Sexton reciting her poem called Wanting to Die:

Finally, we will rush to the subcontinent and look through the poetics of one of the most prominent Indian English poets. For those who haven’t heard of her before, Kamala Das was the author of several novels, poetry collections, and short stories in English and Malayalam. She brought about intensely personal experiences of her life in all that she wrote, which of course confronted and challenged the mores of a traditional society. It is interesting to look at her writing through the lens of feminism which is also the case in the writings of Plath and Sexton (more on that some other time perhaps). Here is an excerpt from her poem, The Old Playhouse:

It was not to gather knowledge
Of yet another man that I came to you but to learn
What I was, and by learning, to learn to grow, but every
Lesson you gave was about yourself. You were pleased
With my body’s response, its weather, its usual shallow
Convulsions. You dribbled spittle into my mouth, you poured
Yourself into every nook and cranny, you embalmed
My poor lust with your bitter-sweet juices. You called me wife,
I was taught to break saccharine into your tea and
To offer at the right moment the vitamins. Cowering
Beneath your monstrous ego I ate the magic loaf and
Became a dwarf. I lost my will and reason, to all your
Questions I mumbled incoherent replies. The summer
Begins to pall. I remember the rudder breezes
Of the fall and the smoke from the burning leaves. Your room is
Always lit by artificial lights, your windows always
Shut. Even the air-conditioner helps so little,
All pervasive is the male scent of your breath. The cut flowers
In the vases have begun to smell of human sweat. There is
No more singing, no more dance, my mind is an old
Playhouse with all its lights put out.

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Cover of Kamala Das’ “outspoken and controversial” autobiography

Isn’t that a powerful commentary on the nature of married life and the power dynamics in such a relationship? Do check out her excellent autobiography and more of her poetry. Confessional poetry, in the voice of a woman, can take the form of a kind of protest and resistance against gender injustice, misogyny, sexism, and invasive patriarchy.

From all that we have read today, we can see that all these confessional poets broke certain barriers and transgressed the accepted norms of the society. This assertion of individuality provided them with multiple subjects and themes to work on. This kind of poetry worked because it was a refreshing change in the outlook which shifted to the expression steeped in personalization from universalization. It takes courage to confess. This kind of poetry has a quality of being an egocentric act of therapy, and so to say that the poets seek to validate their confession by making it public.

So, the Poetics challenge today is to write a confessional verse in the style of any of these poets or write something which plays with the ideas expressed here — to put your regrets, your guilts, your sins, your humanity, your lived experiences, and all that you have kept within, out there through unbridled frankness or hyperbole or hidden allusions and metaphors or in any which way you want. It is all about challenging the restrictions that we impose in our written expression and to share something which is depictive of our own self.

So, write and share one link to your poem in the Linking Widget down below. Do not forget to visit and read the written word of others. I wish you all a great week ahead.