When I was a sophomore in college, a well known and well-awarded male poetry professor told me that because I was a woman, my poetry sounded whiny and that “serious academics” weren’t interested in poems about the experience of being a woman or about women in relationships. He said that I would never truly be successful, because there a very few “great” female poets. He said this as fact. He shared a slew of other extremely inappropriate ideas with me, and when I went to the head of the English department to file a complaint report, I was shooed away and encouraged to avoid being blacklisted in “our” field. Even the professors that I had personal relationships with advised me against making waves. Two years later, during my advanced poetry workshop, another male professor announced to a room full of students (mostly female) that my writing was trashy and that he just didn’t get why I needed to use words like cunt in my poems. Despite academia’s extreme distaste for communicating the female experience, I have consistently written in a confessional/autobiographical vein throughout my undergraduate, graduate, adjunct, and now high school teaching career. I have become extremely interested in how confessional became and remains taboo and predominantly associated with the feminine voice.
The confessional mode is known as autobiographical, therapeutic, and unflinchingly honest (Gill 20). And, although the Confessional Movement was considered a breakthrough due to its disturbance of and ability to transcend earlier orthodoxies, the work of poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath was met with resistance because of its disavowal of high academic verse and its move towards a more common, accessible language. The confessional verse of Sexton and Plath could be consumed by the masses, which implied that the mode dangerously democratized the field of poetry, no longer belonging exclusively to the highly educated and elite. Even so, as Jo Gill writes, “In its own time and since, ‘confessional’ has been used as a pejorative adjective and applied disproportionately to poetry written by women” (20). So, within the context of academic workshops in our undergraduate and M.F.A. programs and through various venues where we exercise formal criticism, the term “confessional” often becomes synonymous with depressed, suicidal, and dramatic: the very patriarchal social constructions that women poets have fought for centuries.
In this structure, confessional women writers are labeled as uninhibited, apt to unwomanly assertion, passion, and individualism. They break free of the culture of lying and silence surrounding women writers. And in response to this culture of silence, Adrienne Rich wrote: “For if in our speaking we are breaking silences long established, ‘liberating ourselves from secrets’ in the words of Beverly Tanenhaus, this is in itself a first kind of action” (Gelpi, Chalesworth, and Gelpi 195). For middle generation American female poets, the confessional mode was also an important instrument of change. Although, the courage displayed by American women poets may not be valued in the same way it would be, for example, in a society that is more oppressive or in a culture that lacks free speech altogether (Glück 24). In her 1963 poem, “Kindness,” Sylvia Plath writes, “The blood jet is poetry/ There is no stopping it” (269). And while the culture of confession represented a step toward resisting the depreciative and belittling societal attitude shown to female writers, it has ultimately been viewed as a disadvantageous mode for serious writers in both academic circles and distinctly anti-academic circles alike. In this respect, Rich explains: “Honesty in women has not been considered important. We have been depicted as generically whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating. And we have been rewarded for lying” (196). We are not rewarded for truth telling; we are punished or excluded.
While it is true that the confessional mode implies a type of honesty in the act of confession itself, Anne Sexton revealed that she was emotionally guarded despite the apparent vulnerability of her poems: “I, who reportedly write so truthfully about myself, so openly, am not that open” (Middlebrook). This perspective calls into question our perception of the confessional mode. As with most poets associated with the Confessional Movement, Gill explains that “Plath’s writing does not necessarily fit securely into any one frame or tradition. Instead, it sits between or moves around several” (15). While I see how labels are inherently problematic, I think that this type of defense of Plath’s work, or more specifically, resisting the label of confessional poetry, feels a bit unsettling. If poetry is “an exploration of the deepest and most intimate experiences, thoughts, feelings, ideas: distilled, pared to succinctness, and made music to the ear by lyricism,” does confessionalism not embody that exact spirit? (Bolton 118). I found it appealing that in her study of the therapeutic power of poetry, Bolton addresses poets’ tendency to regard “good” writing as art-for-art’s sake and not as therapy, but contends that poetry does not “[need] protecting in this way” (122). This urge to “protect” poetry from any association with healing is reminiscent of the fear that I initially addressed, the fear that anyone can access poetry and that it no longer belongs to an intellectual elite. Perhaps this fear subconsciously infiltrates those of us who spent an insane amount of money on fancy poetry degrees (myself included, of course).
In contrast, the language of Robert Lowell’s confessionalism, for example, needs no such defense. His confessional work has been described by Book Week critic, Richard Poirier, as “cool and violent all at once” and has been termed “contemporary introspection.” Furthermore, Lowell is hailed as an historian. New York Times Book Review critic, G.S. Fraser, has characterized Lowell’s Life Studies as having demonstrated a (very masculinized) “sheer brute strength.” Why has the academy and its communities identified confessionalism as “too intimate” or “too emotional,” and why does it seem that Lowell or Berryman’s confessionalism resists such labeling, while Plath and Sexton’s must be defended?
In Jean Baker Miller’s Toward a New Psychology of Women, which discusses men and women’s ability to cultivate and feel weakness or helplessness, the consequences of this disparity are clear: “The fact that these feelings [of vulnerability] are generally associated with being ‘womanly,’—hence unmanly—serves to reinforce the humiliation suffered by the man who has such experiences” (32). And, in an echo of Rich’s previous sentiments, Miller writes: “In Western society men are encouraged to dread, abhor, or deny feeling weak or helpless, whereas women are encouraged to cultivate this state of being” (29). The rhetoric of the personal creates an intimacy and empathy from poet to poem and from poem to reader. Thus, poets like Plath felt that it was their duty to create verse that was rooted in a social and historical context. Plath wanted her work to transcend the personal in order to shed light on the universal: “Personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be shut-box and mirror-looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant and relevant to the larger things” (Gill 20).
Appropriately clear in the work of Anne Sexton, confessional writing is driven by a prevailing sense of loss and an acute awareness of audience; it is a splitting open of the self. In writing poetry, perhaps the emotional, personal, and sentimental is, to an extent, unavoidable when creating a space of intimacy between reader and poet. Sexton, in particular, tackles taboo subjects in poems such as “In Celebration of My Uterus” and “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator.” In Sexton’s poems, we often witness a type of confessional listing, although this technique seems to serve more as a resistance to social norms. If “the fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness,” then Sexton’s confessional verse, while still confessional, stands in a contradictory “fullness” to being torn open (Glück 3). Sexton writes: “They said you were immeasurably empty/ but you are not. They said you were sick unto dying/ but they were wrong./ You are singing like a school girl./ You are not torn” (181-182). This poem is rebellion; it is a declaration of self-identity. This type of confessional writing requires an extreme consciousness of risk-taking, and not just risk in content, but in tone and in the process of discovery itself. It this not cool and violent as well?
In 1971, Adrienne Rich wrote: “For writers, and at this moment for women writers in particular, there is the challenge and promise of a whole new psychic geography to be explored. But there is also a difficult and dangerous walking on the ice, as we try to find language and images for a consciousness we are just coming into, and with little in the past to support us.”(168). If poetry is a consciousness that we are just coming into, then it is in a sense immediate, and the confession is an active act of momentary awareness and revelation. The act of confessing is what creates the deep and intimate bond between poet and reader. There is the illusion of a shared secret between them, a truth of what happened, a privileged knowing that maintains connection. The deception comes with the feeling of anonymity created. Fear of “punishment” for telling is perhaps lost. A facade of safety remains. Confessing implies an element of salvation, and in this way, the poet is saved by the act of writing in itself—sins symbolically absolved. To argue that confessionalism is somehow a lesser form seems ludicrous in light of the tradition’s ability to cross time and operate in the wilderness of what is missing, what is untold, or something never meant to be shared. One cannot define an entire movement. Confessionalism is not static—it has grown and adapted to current trends and informs and is informed by other movements. This tradition, like any tradition, resists true definition, because definition is imprisonment, or at least a condemnation to stasis. Taking on the challenge of writing poetry, and especially confessional verse, is both valiant and constructive. In this model, in its repeated use, confession takes on totemic properties, meaning “confession” not only represents itself as a stereotype, but also as an emblem of audacity and forward movement. Therefore, confessionalism stands for a sisterhood of silence-breaking, publicizing the private, and approaching a more accessible academic discourse.
Confessionalism revolutionizes (still) the imaginative presentation of our inner lives. Our consciously developed constructs (woman as ungrateful in her exposure of domestication) when one’s sense of self is in conflict with society, does not allow for a poet’s multiple identities to exist simultaneously. However, as a contemporary movement, confessionalism plunges forward, despite a historically unreciprocated respect of artistry and the status as “unforgiven” for the betrayal of “high” academics (though I believe the movement no longer seeks either as validation). Contemporary confessionalism moves away from the patriarchal design that allows poets to be passionate within certain limits, as long as they do not cross over into melodrama as defined by current trends. Through the feminist lens of resisting submission and becoming civilized, confessionalism must be elevated from the rank of dutiful martyr and held up as more than principally feminine. Knowing weakness is not the same as being weak, and confessionalism is one of many paths to illumination, meditation, and limitless poetic growth. I am proud to write in this tradition of empathy and understanding. Today, when I teach and when I write, I am responsible for embracing what’s “trashy” and for refuting those negative connotations. I will continue to wonder when we will all wake up and realize that we are on the same side.
Bolton, Gillie. “‘Every Poem Breaks a Silence That Had to Be Overcome’: The Therapeutic Power of Poetry Writing.” Feminist Review:Contemporary Women Poets No. 62 (Summer 1999): 118-133. Web.
Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth, and Albert Gelpi, eds. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. Print.
Gill, Jo. The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.
Glück, Louise. Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry. New Jersey: The Eco Press, 1994. Print.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.
Miller, Jean Baker. Toward a New Psychology of Women. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Huges. Cutchogue: Buccaneer Books, 1981. Print.
Sarah Marcus is the author of BACKCOUNTRY (2013, FinishingLine Press) and Every Bird, To You (2013, Crisis Chronicles Press). Her other work has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Cimarron Review, CALYX Journal, Spork, Nashville Review, Slipstream, Luna Luna, and Bodega, among others. She is an editor at Gazing Grain Press and a spirited Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She holds an MFA in poetry from George Mason University and currently teaches and writes in Cleveland, OH. You can find her at sarahannmarcus.com.