-- Alice Corbin Henderson, Associate Editor of Poetry magazine, May 1916 issue
It's almost viral, and always with us, like bird flu... or hope springing eternal, or rumor: everywhere you turn you run into complaints about "confessional poets." In fact, if you want to sneer at someone's work, just call it confessional!
Who are, or were, the supposedly confessional poets? There's no excuse, in our Wiki-age, for not knowing that the term "confessional" was coined by M. L. Rosenthal in a review of Lowell's Life Studies ("Poetry as Confession," The Nation, September 19, 1959; reprinted in The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction). Like a sneeze, the impact was immediate and reasonably widespread; in no time, the term was used to make the likes of John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass look bad, different from each other as these writers are, and notwithstanding that Rosenthal himself regretted the term, calling it "both helpful and too limited." When Berryman was asked, "You, along with Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and several others, have been called a confessional poet. How do you react to that label?" he replied: "With rage and contempt. Next question!" For his part, Lowell responded that he had succeeded so well in creating a literary character in his poems named "Robert Lowell" that readers carelessly assumed that the two were identical.
It's way past time for a discussion about supposed "confessionalism" - about the way the term gets tossed around in order to pigeonhole people. Because if you believe that words are material objects that can and ought to be freed from the burden of meaning and/or should subvert hegemony, then calling a poem or poet confessional is intended to be a jeer, a de facto deathblow... What's more (and apparently worse): the implication is that the writer is - here comes another label! - bourgeois; after all, it takes money and leisure to confess or be (if it's the same thing) autobiographical. At the same time, those who wish not to abandon meaning and feeling, but are simply sick of artless gut-spilling, of weeping in broken lines, also spurn the "confessional." You know: discipline is good for you, and like cleanliness will bring you closer to rectitude and virtue, etc. All man's miseries, Pascal concluded, derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.
Even now, the complaint continues, with Sharon Olds's recent success winning prizes in the UK, viz - this from The Independent:
It's quite hard today to imagine a culture where anything "confessional" was in any way new. It's everywhere: in newspapers, on blogs, on Twitter, on websites, on radio, on TV. You really can't get away from it. You might want to, but you can't. In books, in interviews, in columns, and in journalism, the word that leaps out, again, and again, and again, and again, is "I". [...] "Beauty is truth," said Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn", and he didn't mean things that were literally true. Truth is what you find not in spilled feelings on a page, or in tearful confessions on Oprah Winfrey's sofa. Truth is what you find in art.
There's a disconnect in the above, as if a good so-called "confessional poem" can't be a good poem, or art. Or both. Or, yes, maybe even truth, whatever that may be.
In the end, this persistent silliness reminds me of the Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition - nobody expects... the confessional poem!!!
Maybe people who put down the "confessional" don't have anything to confess themselves; Lowell, interestingly, did. Hopkins, the most innovative language poet writing in English, was relatively innocent - but you can take his poetry to the confessional. The great sinner T.S. Eliot famously praised Baudelaire by noting that most of us aren't man enough to be damned. I know I'm not!
In any case, I'll confess this: I wish the label would go away - it's not good for anything.
"I suppose we make it worse by shouting a lot, do we? Confess! Confess! Confess! Confess!"