CONFESSIONAL POETRY: MY EYES HAVE SEEN WHAT MY HAND DID
. . . In which the poet recalls one term’s beginnings and proposes a rehabilitation.
What is understood as confessional poetry today does not have much in common with the particular triumphs of its original practitioners. I was born in 1967, and most of the young poets I know grew up reading the poems of Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. Many began to write because of them. We also grew up reading a host of anthologized imitators who, having to varying degrees misread the confessional enterprise, reduced the art of confessional poetry to relaying personal data in “verse” form. Such poems insist that personal angst is a self-sufficient poetic subject.
The term “confessional poetry” is now slightly schizophrenic. If asked to name confessional poets, my list might include Theodore Roethke, but not for the same reason someone else’s might include Mona Van Duyn. Often when poets use the term “confessional” we have to explain to each other what we mean; are we referring to the Freudian models of Lowell, Berryman and Plath? If the term is being used to refer to a poet who came of age in the 1970s or early 1980s and is currently settled comfortably in what is referred to as the “mainstream” of poetry, more often than not we mean to imply that their work amounts to nothing more than an artless retelling of personal material capped off with a tidy epiphany–an implied unity of consequence that is not to be trusted.
It may prove worthwhile to restore the term, if not to its original definition (which was coined by a critic and is misleading in its emphasis on the Catholic ritual of absolution), then to a positive identification. Thus we might again speak of a kind of poem that is self-mocking and dead serious, metaphysical and secular. These are not poems of “self-expression” or personal epiphanic resolution. Rather they articulate moments of primary existence: a graph of language, time, and identity such that the resulting artifact–the poem–is indivisible. The best confessional poetry uses detail from life to position the poem’s speaker in psychic moments from which truths–hilarious, grave, desperate, terrifying, fraudulent–are spoken.
Here’s a banal confession of my own: When I was a young girl, my mother read to me from Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. As far as I can remember, Lowell’s poems were the first poems I loved. Reading out loud my mother would stop to reread what she referred to as his “Miltonic lines.” The poems “Skunk Hour,” “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” and “Man & Wife” were her favorites. At ten or eleven, I marched around my suburban backyard saying to myself: “I have a nine months’ daughter,/young enough to be my grand-daughter. / Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear” and “Tamed by Miltown we lie on Mother’s bed; / the rising sun in war paint dyes us red.” I particularly loved the “murderous five days’ white” of the magnolia trees on Marlborough Street. I had no idea what “Miltown” was, but Lowell’s music was in my head.
My mother told me these poems were “about” Lowell’s life: his childhood, his marriages, his manic depression. Somewhere along the line I understood that Lowell was a “confessional poet” and that he had, for a time, used the particulars of his life as his poetic theme. Fortunately, my mother was more interested in how Lowell wrote than in what he seemed to be writing about, and I am thankful to have had my attentions diverted from “subject” and directed instead towards Lowell’s mastery of sound, image and line. Years later I began to think about the poet’s position vis vis his subject, or, more exactly, to what degree the poet was the subject. The fine balance struck between the presumed inconsequentiality of the lyric “I” and the desperate attempts of that “I” to understand itself make for a poetry that is moving, human.
It is difficult to imagine–at least for poets of my generation–how startling and violent this postwar poetry must have seemed to readers of Stevens, Frost, Eliot, Williams, and Pound. In 1960, the publication of Lowell’s Life Studies announced a decided break with traditional lyricism. To the American poets who had modeled themselves after Keats’s Romanticism or the oblique aesthetic of modernism, it must have seemed as if the barbarians were at the gate. Lowell’s own particular set of religious concerns, as well as the raw (often difficult) biographical information imparted in these poems, prompted the critic M.L. Rosenthal to call the poems “confessional.”1 Certainly Lowell was intimate with the rite of absolution as well as with the Puritan notion of conversion, a process in which the pilgrim continually strove to forge a direct connection between the Self and God. But what Lowell’s poetic strategy really resembled, as many critics have pointed out, is the Freudian hour on the analyst’s couch2. In Lowell’s case, the patient came equipped with rigorous poetic craft.
Our current formulation of the confessional lyric (or narrative) is host to a a shaky conflation of motives–the will to understand and the will to purge. Critic Helen Vendler writes that ” . . . the aim of the Freudian lyric is primarily analytic, not confessional.”3 In Freudian analysis, an analysand articulates the family romance in broken phrases, in pieces, through contradiction and fabrication, by sheer invention and astute recollection, by associative logic and interruption. The speaker tries to make a pattern out of the colossal confusion of memory and history. It is an ongoing process: understanding achieved one week is smashed to pieces the next. Only by ruthless scrutiny of personal weaknesses–and the relinquishing of one’s reason to associative thinking–are clear, moving, necessarily fleeting portraits of the self possible. The brevity of these insights–the slipperiness of them–fills the analyst’s hour (and great confessional poetry) with its exquisite pathos. There is no absolution, no purification, no easy answer to the searching lyric “I” of true confessional poems. Berryman wrote that poetry “enables the poet gradually, again and again, to become almost another man; but something of that sort happens, on a small scale, with the creation of every real poem.”4 Indeed, the ritual of poetry was not enough to save even him.
When I think of great confessional poetry, I think of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” On the grossest level the reader learns details of what most would consider “private life,” but it is when Lowell describes states of extreme metaphysical terror that he is the confessor I love:
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.
I think of Berryman’s Dream Songs, especially Song 28, “Snow Line,” written in the voice of a lost sheep:
I’m too alone. I see no end. If we could all run, even that would be better. I am hungry. The sun is not hot. It’s not a good position I am in. If I had to do the whole thing over again I wouldn’t.
Or Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,”5 where the notion of Catholic confession or prayer arguably informs the structure of the poem:
You have come to my rescue again and again in my impassable, sometimes despairing years. You have allowed my brilliant friends to destroy themselves and I am still here, severely damaged, but functioning.
The restless, desperate voices of these poems have no intention of stopping for absolution from a reader or the priest behind the black grate. Self-pity is mocked, sin is simply the inability to find peace: the essential loneliness of the human condition is struck upon with a painful clarity achieved by virtue of–and in spite of–poetic distance, not through reiteration of event.
In 1970 John Berryman told an interviewer: “My idea is this, the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point he’s in business.”6 Berryman, consummate literary snob that he was, might have added, “emphasis on artist.” Personal tragedy may indeed force the mind to contemplate action and history, free will and fate, meaninglessness and order. But personal tragedy (or personal reflection) can’t make one a poet, confessional or otherwise. And, of course, it hardly matters what poetry is called; it only matters if it’s good or bad poetry. Good poetry depends on the fusion of sound, syntax, image, music, truth, feeling–what Berryman called “a flowing ceremony of trouble and light”7; what Keats described as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact.” The original confessional poets positioned themselves in language first–the facts of their lives positioned them further in the direction of self-scrutiny. The self they strove to sing from was a self beyond the literal, beyond the “universal,” arrived at through the demands of the moment.
The painter Philip Guston wrote: “I do not see why the loss of faith in the known image and symbol in our time should be celebrated as a freedom. It is a loss which we suffer, and this pathos motivates modern painting and poetry at its heart.”8 For my purposes, the lost “known image” in modern poetry might be identified as the autobiographical fact, or even narrative structure. (Here I am referring to postmodern or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.) Some young poets reared on confessional verse–both excellent and inferior–see the flat models offered to them by recent poets of quick resolve and go to great lengths to avoid a central lyric “I” or references to their own lives. They rightly wish to avoid what Lowell referred to as poems that were “lurid, rapid, garish, grouped, heightened by life,/yet paralyzed by fact.” 9 Certainly, we all weary of sentimental poems lacking in craft. But to reject the confessional mode as pass or reductive would be to reject a kind of poem that has a great capacity to humanize. As Berryman wrote in Song 58: “The law: we must, owing to chiefly shame/lacing our pride, down what we did.” Or as Lowell wrote in “Dolphin”: “My eyes have seen what my hand did.”
1M.L. Rosenthal, The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1960.
2Helen Vendler, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition, Harvard University Press, p. 49-50.
3ibid. p. 50.
4John Berryman, John Berryman: Collected Poems, 1937-1971, edited and introduced by Charles Thornbury,
7ibid, from Canto Amor
8Philip Guston, Nature in Abstraction, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958.
9Robert Lowell, “Epilogue,” Day By Day, 1977.