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Impersonal Personalism: The Making of a Confessional Poetic Author(s): Steven K. Hoffman Source: ELH, Vol.

Impersonal Personalism: The Making of a Confessional Poetic Author(s): Steven K. Hoffman Source: ELH, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Winter, 1978), pp. 687-709

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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When M. L. Rosenthal firstused the term"confessional" poetry in reviewing Robert Lowell's Life Studies, he did so as a matterof critical convenience to reflect both the autobiographical subject matterof the poetry and its connection, however undefined, to a

similar impulse in the literary tradition from Augustine to Wordsworthand Whitman.Rosenthal's doubts about the suitability of the term,implicit even in this initial statement,surfaced in an

expanded discussion ofthe phenomenon

a termboth helpful and too limited, and very possibly the concep-

tion of a confessional school has by now done a certain amount of damage."' Unfortunately,his fearshave been fullyjustified,forthe label is now a major stumblingblock. To those who have chosen to attackthe mode on fundamentalgrounds,the termconjured visions ofthe kind ofsolipsistic self-advertisementdisparaged by Eliot and his heirs, and has thereforebecome a token of derision or outright contempt. Equally burdened by an all too literal application, even the movement's defenders have been forcedintoa quandary: either to glorifythe courageousness ofself-explorationin the face ofgrave psychic risks,and its potentiallytherapeutic value, or to rise to the righteous defense of a particularfavoredpoet against the ominous

taint of the label.2 The poets themselves have had to resortto un- necessarily elaborate defenses when, in point of fact,none of the major confessionals-Lowell, Berryman,Roethke, Ginsberg, Snod- grass, Sexton, Plath, and the originator of the mode, Delmore Schwartz-are solely "confessional" in the limited and generally pejorative sense thathas gained such wide currency.3An inevitable counterattackagainst earlier formulations,begun in the mid 1960's, has centered on the quest fornew but no more adequate labels, including Alvarez's "extremist" poetry, Monroe Spears' "open poetry,and Marjorie Perloff's"documentary" verse.4 It is not the purpose ofthis essay, however, to enlist in the dubi- ous pursuit of less offensiveterminologybut to delve beneath im- precation to consider confessional poetry as poetry; indeed, as a

in The New Poets: "It was

ELH 0013-8304/78/0454-0687 $01 00


(1978) 687-709

? 1978 by The Johns Hopkins UniversityPress


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definable poetic. vidual styles and

certain characteristicsfundamentalto all of theirwork. If they do not properlycomprise a literaryschool, with all the qualifications

attendantto thatdesignation, they do make up a distincthistorical movement firmlyrooted in both the Romantic and modern tradi- tions. Contemporary confessional poetry is a phenomenon that synthesizesthe inclinationto personalism and consciousness build- ing of the nineteenth century with the elaborate masking techniques and objectifications of the twentieth,a phenomenon which, under the veneer of self-absorptionunprecedented even among the Romantics, makes notable inroads into mythand ar- chetype, as well as social, political, and cultural historiography characteristicof high modernism. Finally, the movement is very much a product of its own age, the troubled war years-both "hot" and "cold" extending fromthe late 1930's when Schwartz pub- lished In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1938) throughthe Viet- nam era that formsthe backdrop for the last major confessional opus, Lowell's Notebook (1970), a period typifiedby a deficiencyin shared public values and manifestthreatsto the very concept of individuality comparable to that which accompanied the violent turnofthe French Revolution and the "Waste Land" period follow- ing World War I. The poetic climate created by these conditions is precisely the subject of Schwartz's influential "The Isolation of Modern Poetry,"an essay thatprovided the theoreticaljustification forthe confessional movement:

Withoutunderestimatingthe wide range of indi- talents represented, it is still possible to abstract

Itbecameincreasinglyimpossibleforthepoettowriteaboutthe livesofothermen;fornotonlywas he removedfromtheirlives, but,above all,thecultureandthesensibilitywhichmadehima poetcould notbe employedwhentheproposedsubjectwas the lives ofhumanbeingsin whomcultureand sensibilityhad no


Since the only lifeavailable to the poet as a

manofculturehasbeen thecultivationofhisownsensibility,that is theonlysubjectavailabletohim,ifwe mayassumethata poet

canonlywriteaboutsubjectsofwhichhehasanabsorbingexperi- ence in everyway.5

From a broad historical standpoint,the roots of the confessional mode are in the great Romantic lyrics and personal epics- Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and "The Prelude," Coleridge's "Dejection Ode," Whitman's "Song of Myself," much of Shelley and Byron, and even such heavily mythologized works as Keats'


The Making of a Confessional Poetic

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"Fall ofHyperion" -which M. H. Abrams has variouslytermedthe "Greater Romantic Lyric" and the "crisis autobiography" and, highlighting the continuity with earlier meditative/descriptive verse, Robert Langbaum, the "poetry of experience."6 Common to all are threebasic attributes,the firstofwhich is the prevalence ofa dramatic element in what is essentially a lyric utterance. The "poetry of experience," for instance, involves "a character in a dramatic action, a character who has been endowed by the poet withthe qualities necessary to make the poem happen to him" (The Poetry of Experience, p. 52). The second unifyingfeature, quite obviously, is the ratherexplicit autobiographical connection, due less to the use ofthe firstperson than the apparent convergence of the poetic action with the externallydocumented life of the poet, with primary emphasis placed on moments of emotional and philosophical crisis. Yet as Abrams convincinglyargues in Natural Supernaturalism, the Romantics were well within clearly marked traditions,predominantly aesthetic and eschatological in nature, which, oftento a greaterextentthan purely factualconsiderations, determined overall structureas well as the placement, even the choice ofspecific dramaticincidents designed forthe highest emo- tional impact. The entire poeticized experience, then, serves ul- timatelyas both the epitome of a broader cultural experience and an essentially evangelical paradigm forsuccessful personal adapta- tion to, and usually transcendence of the circumstances of the age, which is offeredto the reader for his edification and profitable emulation: "In other words, the theodicy of the private life belongs to the distinctive genre of the Bildungsgeschichte, which translatesthe painful process of Christian conversion and redemp- tion into a painful process of self-formation,crisis, and self- recognition, which culminates in a stage of self-coherence, self- awareness, and assured power that is its own reward" (Natural Supernaturalism, p. 96). As will be demonstrated below, all of these Romantic attributes are importantaspects of the confessional poem. But it would be a serious mistake to envision an unbroken line connecting them. De- spite the radical personalism of Wordsworth's"The Prelude" and virtuallythe entire Whitman canon, neither poet approaches the minute autobiographical particularityof the confessionals, the al- most numbing rehearsal of family conflict,severe emotional im- balance, and the difficultiesin everyday living; neither so consis- tentlyor in such copious detail affordsus entryinto the marriage

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bed, the asylum, or the detoxification ward. Given confessional absorption in the often sordid and certainly "unpoetic" aspects of life,it is not surprisingthat,with the exception ofcertain visionary moments in Ginsberg, Roethke, and Plath-themselves very often equivocal-the contemporarypoets renounced the bardic impulse of their forbears. Naturally this shiftin point of view has had an effecton the tone ofthe speaking voice, a subject treatedin George Wright'scogent studyof literarypersona, The Poet in the Poem. In contradistinction to the confessional protagonist who, mired in seemingly insoluble difficulties,typically functions close to the level of the reader and whose occasional rhetorical flightsare al- most always ambiguous, if not simply ironic, the Romantic "be- comes a hero as well as a protagonist.His speech accordingly be- comes superb. He addresses the reader from a height that the

reader can only dream ofattaining

of his experience and capabilities, the persona must speak in ele- vated language, continuallypassionate, continuallyabove the usual level ofhis audience."7 While the reader's relationshipto the poem is a matterof great concern forboth groups, the mechanics of that relationship have significantlyaltered. Thus if a confessional movement is in many ways unthinkable without its Romantic background, there is a considerable gulfbe- tween the two, a gulf which is bridged by the peculiarly modern version of the "poetry of experience," which, according to Langbaum, is a continuation of the dramatic impulse evident among the Romantics but only as it passes throughthe intervening embellishments of Browning. The tendency to anchor personal, if not explicitly autobiographical experience in fullydeveloped dra- matic incidents is a significantlink between the principal European and American modernists, Baudelaire, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wil- liams, and laterAuden, all ofwhom won high praise fromSchwartz fortheirabilityto evoke dramatically"the attitudesand emotions of

Conscious ofthe superiority

a human being in a given situation."8 Due also in part to Pound's desire to expand the province of poetry to include more of the

breadth of prose-itself a reaction to the high achievements in the novel by Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust,Joyce,and the Great Russian realists-modern dramatic verse deviates fromthe Romantic on a number of significantgrounds,only one ofwhich is the tendencyto

draw charactersapparentlynotto be

Above all is the willingness, so vital to the advent of confes- sionalism, to treat the unpoetic material present in abundance in


withthe poet himself.


The Making of a Confessional Poetic

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modern urban life without the Wordsworthian compulsion to spiritualize the mundane or even to dignifyit beyond its essential worth.Thus the trivialpeople and tedious routines of Boston and London in Eliot's Prufrockand Other Observations (1917) remain so, the working class ethnics of Williams do not rise above them- selves, and Yeats' "paudeen" shopkeepers merely exemplify the gray average of twentiethcenturyexistence. As a consequence of this renewed poetic effortto take realityon its own terms,the per- sonae ofthe poems, even when nominallythe poets themselves, lay no claim to the "extraordinaryperspective" so pervasive in the Romantic period. Quite to the contrary, according to George Wright; the ambivalent, limited modern protagonist,like Brown- ing's, tends to be "ratherlike othermen, perhaps just enough more perceptive than they to feel his insightsand experiences are worth

The modern persona has become a representative

ratherthanan ideal man" (The Poet in the Poem, p. 53). Again, Eliot appears to be central in this regard. The protagonistsof his early associational dramas, "Prufrock" himself and the unnamed focal figuresin "Portraitofa Lady," "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," and "Preludes," struggle interminablyand with a notable lack of suc- cess against internal dislocation and incipient breakdown and the increasinglyominous threatsfromthe urban environment,itselfan effectivepsychescape of dislocation and decay. There are, in fact, strikingand hardly coincidental similarities betwen these poems and later"confessions" ofpersonal and culturalanguish, notonlyin subject matterbut also theircharacteristicmanner ofpresentation:

the collage effect,ironic allusiveness, and linguisticvariation,all of which is undergirded by a foundationof plain colloquial speech. Obviously the major obstacle to claiming Eliot as a direct pre- cursorofthe confessionals has been his insidious public role, firmly established in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," as the cham- pion ofpoetic impersonality:"Poetry is not a turningloose ofemo- tion,but an escape fromemotion; it is notthe expression ofperson- ality,but an escape frompersonality.But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to es- cape from these things" (my italics). However, focusing on the italicized passage and similar statementshere and in other essays, recent commentatorson this once unassailable doctrine have de- termined that personality does have a place in Eliot's poetic, if properly objectified and thereby transformed,and so does strong


personal feeling, again if shaped aesthetically by means of the ob-

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jective correlative. Both procedures are in factcentral to an under-

standing of the best confessional poetry. But

even ifwith the ben-

efit of hindsight such comparatively recent views of Eliot make his poetic theoryless hostile, and perhaps conducive to a confes- sional poetic, ifwe now see more clearly the verypersonal material imbedded in "Prufrock,""Portraitofa Lady," and especially "The

Waste Land," it must be admitted thatthe firstgeneration of con- fessionals by and large took him at his word, at least until theyhad already begun to manipulate autobiographical materials on their


The widespread literal acceptance of Eliot's pronouncements notwithstanding,ample precedent for a confessional poetic was available in the worksofothermajormodernists.Althoughhe substi- tuted cityscape forlandscape, Auden, another reputed kingpin of impersonality, drew directly on the Romantic meditative/ descriptive formatforseveral poems in his earliest collections. Of special note is "1929," in which the characteristically "Auden-


period figure-is based on a virtual facsimile of the poet himself musing on very personal experiences in prewar Germany,even to the point of naming names, and the powerful feelings they engen- dered. Williams' early vignettes of everydayAmerican life are also interspersed with dramatic interludes along the lines of "Danse Russe" which delve beneath the public mask ofthe imperturbably good hearted "happy genius" to tap a deeply private current of loneliness and quiet desperation: "'I am lonely, lonely. / I was born to be lonely, /I am best so!'" No members of the modernist mainstream,however, are as im- portant to the confessional movement as W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. The relevant Yeats, the Yeats who had removed the "coat / Covered with embroideries /Of old mythologies" to find "there's more enterprise / In walking naked," is to be seen in the disap- pointed lover and acerbic social critic of the middle period, the often splenetic broken sensibility in the opening movements of "Among School Children" and "Sailing to Byzantium," and cer- tainlythe "wild old wicked man" ofLast Poems. Granted, the de- scentfromthe netherworldoftheCeltic Twilighttothe "the foulrag- and-bone shop of the heart" was never as simple as that.The new candor was ever complicated by itsplace in the new mythologyofA Vision; "personal utterance" was consistentlyfilteredthroughthe anti-selfor mask. Yet a critical aspect of the later poetry,and cer-

spokesman-the anxious, ironic, politically sophisticated


The Making of a Confessional Poetic

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tainlyone reason forits lasting appeal, is the appearance, however masked and mythologized,ofthe worldly,contingentside ofYeats' complex poetic personality. Though stripped of its dense esoteric underpinnings, it is this presence, one which moved Roethke to comment in his journal, "When he ran out of material, Yeats in- vented himself,"'10that exerted a powerful influence not only on Roethke but also Plath and, to a lesser extent,Berryman.Pound's personal life,a shadowy presence in much ofPersonae, also comes to fullerview in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," which, in its occasion- ally overlapping axes of Mauberly and "EP," has somethingof the Yeatsian self/anti-selfdialectic, and particularly the Cantos-to Berryman,"Only apparently a historical or philosophical epic, ac- tually a personal epic."" Nowhere does Pound himself appear closer to the surface than in the Pisan Cantos, the brilliant section with the heaviest concentrationof distinctlyautobiographical indi- ces, drawn both fromthe incarcerationexperience itselfand better days in London and Paris. If nothingelse, the personal nodes that appear almost surrealistically,come to momentaryfocus, and then are swept away in the torrentof images and ideas streamingfrom the multifaceted intelligence that orchestrates the proceedings provide the experiential ballast and emotional depth too oftenlack- ing in a work thattends toward disembodied cerebration.


then,are the precedents, both Romantic and modern,that


the confessional movement, the pivotal figure in which

was Delmore Schwartz. Beginning withthe widely acclaimed short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," Schwartz produced a series of works that established the central confessional direction,

an oftenwrylyrealistic depiction ofautobiographical incident typi- cally involving a remembrance ofthingspast. This is the focal point forShenandoah (1941), a closet drama ofidentity;Genesis (1943), a massive personal and familial narrativewith verse explication; and

the early lyrics "In The Naked Bed, evocation of midnightangst; "Calmly

an Audenesque descriptive meditation on the dissolution offamily unityand personal confidence; and "Ballad of the Children of the Czar," a Yeatsian examination ofan imprisoningfamilyheritage,all of which were collected in his firstpublished volume. While the confessional rubric must be applied loosely enough to embrace Lowell's realistic and documentaryanecdotes, Roethke's surrealis- tic sequences, and Berryman's expressionistic experiments in lan-

In Plato's Cave," an Eliotic We Walk This April's Day,"

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guage, its essential nucleus is always itsdramaticelement, ordrama in combination with narrative,whether it be the drama of discrete, separate incidents as in Life Studies, the unified sequences of The Lost Son, or an entire volume, viz., The Dream Songs. The indi- vidual poem mostcommonlyincludes a specified concrete premise or environment,albeit a highly ellipitcal one in much of Roethke and Berryman,a definable character or characters,purposeful ac- tion, and, however ambiguous, resolution. Thus, to a point, A. R. Jones' attemptat definitionin "Necessity and Freedom: The Poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton," one of the ear-

liest efforts[1965] to codifythe issue, is a useful one: the confes- sional poem, to Jones, is a "dramatic monologue in which the per- sona is not treated dramatically,as a mask thatis, in the manner of

Browning's Dramatis Personae, but is projected

Whitman'sSong ofMyselfor Pound's Pisan Cantos. In otherwords,

although the poem's

naked ego involved in a very personal world and with particular

private experience" (p. 18).

"naked ego," one mightadd thatthe dramaticnatureofthe poem not only lends aesthetic and essentially public shape to inchoate emo- tional materialbut also allows necessary aesthetic distance. Such is the essence ofRoethke's advice to fledglingpoets in his journals, a principle designed to please the strictestEliotic criticand one un- doubtedly applied in his own verse: "Don't be afraidofthe dramatic poem. There you don't have to 'think' and you can stand one step away fromyourcozy littleselves, on occasion" (Strawfor theFire, p.

lyrically, as in

style is unmistakablydramatic,the persona is

Postponing forthe momentthe issue of


To assume that the poetic voice is the "naked ego" of the poet himself rather than a carefully constructed aesthetic entity-and here "Prufrock" definitelycomes to mind-is surely to underesti- mate the considerable artistictalentrepresented by the confession- als and the degree to which pure invention dominates their work. Indeed, the balance of the poem's autobiographical impact is an illusion, what Lowell properlycalled in the retrospectiveDolphin (1973) poem "Heavy Breathing," "the fictionI colored with first- hand evidence." So greatis the temptationin considering the mode to accept its fictiveelements as literal factand therebyidentifyat virtuallyeverypoint the poet and his persona thateven the confes- sionals themselves have fallen prey to it. Note, forinstance, the self-correctivenature of Berryman's comments on "Skunk Hour":

"For convenience in exposition with a poem so personal, I have


The Making of a Confessional Poetic

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been pretending that'I' is the poet, but of course the speaker can never be the actual writer,who is a person with an address, a social

security number,

reflectionopens inevitably an abyss between his person and his persona. I only said that much poetry is 'very closely about' the person. The persona looks across at the person and then sets about its own work" (The Freedom of the Poet, p. 321). Allowing for differencesin degree but certainly not in kind, the best confes- sional poetrypreserves Eliot's distinctionbetween the "man who suffers"and "the mind which creates." Particularlypatent exam- ples can be found in Delmore Schwartz's earliest work,in which the Schwartzian likenesses-the troubled insomniacs and family historians-are always distinct fromthe evaluative intelligence which, reminiscentofEliot's, has at itsdisposal the historyofWest- ern thoughtfromAristotleon. The most strikingapplication ofthis bifurcationis in the chorus of "Voices" which explicate Genesis,

but it is also evident in the notable shiftin both tone and mannerof address which concludes and summarizes the compelling anxiety

of "In The Naked Bed, In Plato's Cave": "Oh


The necessity forthe artistof

son of man, the

ignorantnight,the travail/Of early morning,the mysteryofbegin- ning /Again and again." Perhaps the most notable confessional voice construction is Henry, the spokesman forThe Dream Songs, actually a constantly modulating collection of voices, only one of which is close to Ber-

ryman'sown, constructedalong the lines ofthe echoic structuresof "The Waste Land"s and the Cantos. Capable of a wide range of roles, the protagonistis above all a skillful linguistic and ortho- graphic construct,blending almost equal amounts of traditional rhetoric,Joycean puns and ellipses, minstrelshowmanship, black streetdialect, various species of American slang and sexual argot, and baby talk; in short,an entire vaudeville of one. Even the oft criticized Love & Fame protagonistis a combination ofat least two distinctvoices: a distastefullyjejune braggartwho controlsthe first sections of the volume and a desperately humble, self-lacerating older man who surfaces frequentlyin the firsthalf and dominates the second. The other major confessionals are also known by and oftenconfused with theirexplicitlyliterarypersonae. With the aid ofJenijoyLaBelle's splendid studyofRoethke's sources The Echo- ing Wood of Theodore Roethke (1976), we can now see more clearly the scrupulous care withwhich he constructedthe distinctivevoice of"The Lost Son" and Praise to the End! frompassages ofYeatsian

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rage, Whitmanic celebration, and Wordsworthian expansiveness graftedonto the characteristicidioms ofthe so-called "mad" poets Blake, Smart, and Clare, the frenetic natural energy of Dylan Thomas, the bounce of Mother Goose, and the quiet contemplative rhythmsofEliot and Vaughan. Lowell too fused a unique and mul- tifaceted aesthetic personality in Life Studies by drawing on the New England colloquialism of Frost,the understatedironyofRan- som, the matterof factobjectivityof Bishop, Jarrell,and his prose sources, and, particularlyforthe pumped up "Cock ofthe Walk" in "Waking in the Blue," the manic/depressiveenergy of Berryman's "Nervous Songs." All, ofcourse, culminate in the hauntingconclu- sion to "Skunk Hour",withits explicit echoes ofH6lderlin, Milton, and St. Johnof the Cross. Finally there is Plath, the most consis- tentlystylized and elaborately masked of the confessionals,whose theatrical repertoire ranges fromthe downtrodden little girl of "Daddy" to the long sufferingChristof"Fever 103'," the avenging bitch goddess of"Lady Lazarus," and the distantregal queen ofthe bee poems. In a sense "Edge," one of several Ariel poems usually ascribed to the suicidal urge, also summarizes this issue. Contrary to Plath herself,the flawed being with"an address, a social security number,expectations," "This woman," her literarycounterpart,

is perfected Her dead Bodywearsthesmileofaccomplishment, The illusionofa Greek necessity Flows in thescrollsofhertoga.

In the process offindinga suitable public voice, no easy proposi- tionas the verse ofsuch recentheirs ofthe movementas Erica Jong will attest,the confessional also applies his craftsmanshipto the experiences thatare to be described, particularlythe broad reaches ofpersonal emotional turmoil.Criticslike Alvarez are undoubtedly correctin emphasizing the unconscious motivationformostconfes- sional poetry-indeed, the ultimatesource forall greatart-but too easily lose sightofthe crucial and explicitlyconscious activitiesof selection and arrangement. For the confessionals as for all ac- complished poets, the immersion in experience is not in itself poetry; rather,that experience must be transformedinto images, the images intorhythmicpatterns,the patterns,finally,intodramat- ically convincing poetic incidents which become the joint posses- sion ofpoet and reader. That thisidealized process is pertinentmay


The Making of a Confessional Poetic

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be illustratedby examples fromeach ofthe main confessional lines. Among the surrealists,one firstturnsto the introductory"Flight" section of Roethke's "The Lost Son," in its suggestion of incipient emotional breakdown a representative confessional effort,to find thatexperience rendered as a dramaticactuality.Every device con- tributes to the progressive descent into irrationality:the rhythms themselves-hortatory and staccato at first,incantatoryat the end; the series of questions and their mysteriousanswers; the ghostly shapes and echoes; and the climactic shock ofthe finalline's harsh, merciless consonants:

Voice,come outofthesilence. Say something. Appearin theformofa spider Or a mothbeatingthecurtain. Tell me:

Whichis thewayI take; Out ofwhatdoordo I go, Whereand to whom?

Darkhollowssaid,lee to thewind,


The saltsaid,lookbythesea, Yourtearsare notenoughpraise, You will findno comforthere In the kingdomofbang and blab.

moonsaid,back ofan eel,

Similar achievements are to be found in Plath's "Fever 103o,." in which the oppressive weight of family responsibility and male

dominance is made terrifyinglyavailable

shortlines and images ofdiscomfitinghigh fever,Isadora Duncan's

strangulation,and choking "yellow sullen smokes" which "Make theirown element" and "will not rise," or in Sexton's "Ringing the Bells," wherein ominously repetitive nursery rhyme rhythms evoke the regressive natureand barely controlledterrorofadvanced mental illness. Among the confessional realists, Lowell's metonymicjuxtaposi-

tion of concrete objects, so

Poetic Art of Robert Lowell, is the primarymeans forthe objectifi-

cation of personal feeling. Well versed in the Lowellian mode, Snodgrass connoted the emotionally wrenching process of divorce in the "Heart's Needle" sequence through images of the natural landscape: the newly liberated fatherreflected in the ambiguous "hungrybank swallow /flauntinghis free/flight";the overprotec-

through claustrophobic

persuasively treated in Perloff's The

Steven K. Hoffman


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tive wife, a "red- / winged blackbird which "shrieked, slapping frailwings,/diving at myhead"; and the painful separation froma daughterimplicitin tree branches first"wrenched in the shattering wind" then "hackjed] free" by chain saws. Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra" is also reminiscent of Lowell, and Eliot, in that the poet findsmetaphorsforpersonal crisis in the disconnected and decay- ing flotsamof a junkyard, particularlya sunflower,"a dead gray


big as a man." In his own inimitablestyle,Berrymantoo

transfiguredhis private traumas into objective shapes, projecting the terrorof detoxificationinto the grotesque religious ritual of Dream Song 202 ("With shining strideshear his redeemer come")

and a lament fora fatherdead by his own hand in the movingly elliptical Dream Song 29, in which tortuouslyinverted syntaxand heavy alliterationprovide rich emotional inference:

Theresatdownonce,a thingon Henry'sheart so heavy,ifhe had a hundredyears

& more,& weeping,sleepless,in all themtime


For the most part, then, the confessionals actually held to the specific caveats of "Tradition and the Individual Talent"; farfrom loosing a torrentof personal feeling, they offeremotion fused to

images and objectified or "structural emotion, provided by the drama." Given theirratherfreesense ofautobiographicalfactuality, they do express a "medium"' and only indirectlya personality.Of course this is not to imply thatthey are wholly free of legitimate censure. When the crucial shaping power is absent, when, in

Robert Phillips' somewhat excessive Confessional Poets, they fail to "see

ence to the poetic one"- a judgment thatcan be broughtto the late work of Schwartz, Sexton, and Ginsberg-the verse does become slack and self-indulgentand deserves the criticalhostilitytoo often

applied in broad strokesto the entire confessional canon. But even those criticswilling to grantthe successfultranslationof privateto poetic experience have been slow to recognize the extent to which the process also transformsan individual issue intoone of general import.Not since the greatRomantics has a group ofpoets so consistentlybeen burdened by accusations of poetic solipsism; yet the confessionals as a group maintain the traditional artistic commitmentto truth,"truth,"as Anne Sexton tells us, "that goes beyond the immediate self,anotherlife."'2 The typicalpersona in

criticismof Berrymanin The throughthe personal experi-


The Making of a Confessional Poetic

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these poems, like thatof the Romantics,tends to bear the accumu- lated ills of his age, and the poem itself is the medium through which these mattersare summarized,intensified,and made dramat- ically available to the reader. Like the moderns, however, the con- fessional protagonist lacks the heroic qualities necessary to rise completely above conditions; thereforehis affirmativecapability is characteristicallymuted and ambivalent. Seen in this light,Berry- man's heretoforepuzzling comment in Dream Song 366 takes on added clarity: "These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. /They are meant to terrify& comfort."What is terrify- ing about the confessional poem is precisely its immersion in the primaryexistentialconditions oflife at any time and also in specifi- cally modern difficulties. Schwartz's poetryis the most direct manifestationof the confes- sional concern with our common human plight. The primarypur- pose forthe explicatorypassages in all of his work,culminatingin the chorus of commentatorsin Genesis, is, in the words ofShenan- doah, to forcethe reader to "see the particularas universal," even at the cost ofpurely aesthetic considerations. Through the cumulative insightsofthe Genesis "Voices," numbered among whom are Aris- totle,Kant, Marx, Freud, and the existentialists,the life of Hershey Green, particularlythe manifestdifficultiesofachieving an accept- able identity,is put forthas the epitome of the life of his age. Equally open in his intentions is Allen Ginsberg, many of whose poems are implicitlyconstructed along the lines of the "Sutra" or sermon explicitly represented by "Sunflower Sutra." Here the analogue forthe "broken" and "battered" consciousness ofthe per- sona is the equally dislocated and Moloch dominated junkyard America, the focal point for which is a rusting locomotive, "the specter ofa once powerful mad American locomotive," the essence of national promise. If the others do not have such explicit designs upon us, and therebyeither severely circumscribe or entirelyeliminate internal commentary,they nonetheless share the same basic impulse. In many ways the exemplary confessional, Lowell "uses his intense self-explorationsin Life Studies as a source ofmetaphorsforunder- standing aspects of the public world."'13 In "Skunk Hour," forin- stance, the multiple ills of the persona treated in the final four stanzas-the personal isolation and internaldiscord, the failuresin love, the sense ofbeing cut offfromnaturallife and burdened by a decaying hierarchical past, and the lack ofviable externalreligious

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props-are all implicitin the wider social scene depicted in the first four. Even the climactic Satanic statement,"I myself am hell," corresponds directlyto an earlier general proposition,"the season's ill." The implicit interchange between private and public realms throughoutLife Studies, with its incisive analysis of the "tran-


only the direct linkage of the two in poems of For the Union Dead (1964),

Notebook (1970) but also

and oppressively impersonal "Fifties,"' anticipates not

the more patently "public" Near the Ocean (1967), and

analogous effortson the partof Snodgrass,

Sexton,and Plath. Once again, Snodgrass is closest to Lowell in that he used the familyportraitsof Remains (1969) as images forthe dynamics, or more properlythe lack of a dynamic in modern mass society. The same imprisoningand impersonalizing forcesevident in the non-confessional"Lobsters in the Window," an examination of the undifferentiatedcrowd, are at work in "Survivors a vision ofthe mausoleum atmosphere,"dark and still," ofthe familyhome, whose denizens, the living dead, "brush togetherand do not feel lust,/Hope, rage, love." To much the same effect,Sexton drew on Lowell's use of the mental hospital as social microcosm in both "Ringing the Bells" and "Flee on Your Donkey" (Live or Die). The latterdepicts a sordid portraitof humanitynumbed by "tranquiliz- ers, insulin, or shock," regimented by the "Dinn" of mindless routine,and ultimatelyreduced to the "X's" ofthe hospital register, minds rotting"like black bananas," hearts "grown flat as dinner plates." In Plath's work the "flattening"of individuality to an in- sentient average is due to the pressure imposed by thatpeculiarly modern mechanistic horror,the "Panzer-man" of "Daddy," the ul-

timate manifestationof which is the Hiroshima image of "Fever

1030." Here the stifling"sullen

smokes" thatconnote the persona's

repressed selfhood also "trundle round the globe / Choking the aged and the meek,/The weak," thus signifyingthe common fateof a victimized world. The human predicament is also the essential subject in Berryman and Roethke but is broached in two distinctlydifferentmanners. However personal in detail, The Dream Songs, like the Pisan Can- tos and Genesis, is, in its overall effect,very much a portraitof a specified historicalperiod and its characteristicanxieties. If Henry can never be completely detached fromBerrymanhimself,he is also the mind ofthatage, to be identifiedin particularwithall ofthe isolated and oppressed segments of society whose representative

speech patternshe adopts. Ultimately,"at odds wifde world and its


The Making of a Confessional Poetic

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god," he speaks forall of us, or at least a high percentage of us, as "Mr Heartbreak,the New Man" ofDream Song 5 who findshimself

unwittinglysnarled "in

chief identifiable agent ofwhich is "the brainfeverbird." Roethke, on the other hand, remains closest to his Romantic forbearsin the assumption of archetypal poetic roles. The confessional journey detailed in The Lost Son and Praise to the End! moves hardlyat all in an identifiable social world but in the realm of the greenhouse and its environs, an impressively elastic symbolic milieu, both womb and tomb,personal and collective unconscious, prelapsarian ordered garden and chaotic, violent hell. Thanks in large part to Kenneth Burke's seminal contributionsto Roethke scholarship,we can now pinpoint various stages in this complexly interwoven and exceedingly painful physiological, psychological, and spiritual progressionand, withthe aid ofMaud Bodkin,and throughherJung, interpret,although never with complete certainty,the specific im- portofthe various disembodied murmursand luminous shapes that make up thelandscape ofthethreemajorinterrelatedsequences, the Greenhouse, "The Lost Son," and "Where Knock Is Open Wide." For ourpurposes here itis sufficientto saythatin theirconnection to literaryhistory,Jungianpsychology,quasi-Christian theology,and ancient vegetative myth,these poetic experiences pass almost im- mediately froma specified individual consciousness intothe imagi- nation of the race. Given the abundant terrifyingaspects of the confessional world view, Berryman'sassertion thatthere is comfortin the poems may be subject to considerable doubt. As heirs ofthe "Waste Land" and citizens ofthe modern world,the poets accepted the a priori failure oftheirculture to sustain viable human life. Yet, more importantly,

as part of a continuing Romantic tradition,they shared as an ideal the impulse discussed at lengthin Natural Supernaturalism to heal the divisions existing within the individual self and between that self and others and its environment.Of these responsibilities, the confessionals have been most successful at the first,and herein lies

the "ccomfort"their poems provide us.

create aspects of the contingentworld and thus detail the myriad threatsto individualityimplicitin it,the poets are also involved in a

painstakingconstructionofa selfto assertagainstthem.14Granted,it is a distinctlymodern version ofthe self loosely based, as Schwartz tells us in Genesis, on the existentialistconcept of "Being-in-the- world" (cf.Heidegger's Daesein) so prevalentin the Americanintel-

de netting"of a nightmarishexistence, the

In the same works that re-

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lectual climate of the 1950's and, with the possible exception of Ginsberg's, very farindeed fromthe world swallowing "Imperial Self" ofthe American Renaissance. But keeping in mind the hostile environmentsof the poems themselves, the depersonalized age in which theywere written,and the degree to which the confessionals expanded the province of self to include the uncharted regions of the preconscious and unconscious, it is nonetheless a significant aesthetic achievement. Because each poem is a discrete stage in the development of a multifaceted self, that self has an independent

existence, a tangible literaryhistoricity.In addition, it is the ongo- ing process of development, along with the autobiographical con- nection that lends "authenticity" to it, that most completely in- volves the reader. In this respect the confessional has a potentially salutary effecton his audience analogous to that of the Romantic exemplars of the "poetry of experience," in whose work "the au-

tobiographical illusion is

about the self-developmentof an individual with whom the reader can identifyhimselfto make the poem an incident in his own self- development as well. For the poetryof experience is, in its mean- ing if not its events, autobiography both for the writer and the reader" (The Poetry of Experience, p. 52). In that the confessionals constructtheir literaryselves virtually fromthe ground up, fromanonymity,extreme dissociation, or im- prisonmentin external forms,the characteristicmovement of their poems is, as Jarrellnoted in Lowell's early work, fromnecessity and entrapment to qualified liberation. Again Lowell's "Skunk Hour" epitomizes the initial stage ofdevelopment. Lost in a ruined landscape, the isolated persona is faced witha similardeterioration ofhis own personalitywhich approaches absolute negation: "I hear / my ill-spiritsob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat."However, at the verypoint he takes upon himselfthe dam- nation of his world with the Miltonic "I myselfam hell," an emo- tional turnupward occurs, signalled by the admittedlyambiguous skunks. Though completely unreflective and bestial, these crea- tures are indicative of a minimal animal self-assertiveness and commitmentto survival; theyhave the instinctsnecessary to derive sustenance fromthe littlethe world will offerand, moreover,"will not scare." In identifyinghimselfwiththese lower formsoflife,the persona indeed deprives himselfofcertainaspects ofhis humanity, but thisis an essential firststep toward regaininga fullersense ofit. Thus, thoughthe poem is properlyplaced at the end ofthismagnif-

importantas precisely the plot-a plot


The Making of a Confessional Poetic

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icently ordered volume as the culmination of a gradual erosion of

personality, it is at the "agonizing reappraisal"

ing its rootsin the personal and familialpast, which carries us back

into Life Studies and forwardto For the Union Dead, Near the Ocean, and the Notebook group. In much the same manner, Schwartz's canon officiallybegins in

"In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" who, by reviewing the past, achieves

withhis twenty-firstbirthday.Similarly,Snodgrass' Heart's Needle,

which opens in "Returned to Frisco, 1946" with its narratormerely one amidst the crowd, "shouldered like pigs along the rail,"

same time the spark fora hithertostifled ofthe constituentelements of self,includ-

with an "anonymous" figure a sense ofidentityconsonant


in "These



" with Adamic self-naming

("Snodgrass is walking throughthe universe"), and culminates in a much firmerhold on a unique personalityin the finetitlesequence.

So too do Roethke's major confessional sequences originate either

at the point of biological inception ("Cuttings," "Where Knock Is

Open Wide") or in the dissolution of an unsatisfactoryguilt-ridden ego ("The Lost Son"), and Berryman'sDream Songs with a sulking "HuffyHenry," who, while temporarilyincommunicado and essen- tially selfless, is soon to be "pried open forall the world to see."

Turning to individual poems, one finds a remarkable degree of uniformity.Sexton's "Flee on Your Donkey" protagonistdoes make her escape fromthe stultifyingworld ofthe hospital, "the same old crowd /the same ruined scene," by means ofa "hairybeast," one of the "sweet dark playthings" dredged fromthe unconscious during intense self-examination; Ginsberg's spokesman in "Sunflower

Sutra" eventually reaches a renewed appreciation forthe spiritual essence of his identityby meditatingthe Blakeian sunflower; and Plath's "Fever 103O""heroine puts offthe "old whore petticoats" of limiting social roles and fans fromthe "yellow sullen smokes" of subjugation the "pure acetylene /Virgin" oftriumphantindividual- ity. In so doing, her apotheosis becomes a "lantern" capable of illuminating the path to be taken by other suppressed selves both inside and outside the confines of the poem. While the confessional effortat self-constructionis undoubtedly

a noteworthyachievement-for, as Snodgrass states in the title poem ofAfterExperience (1968), "Lives are saved this way"-the group has the same basic limitationas the Romantics: the inability

to project thatself into a recognizable milieu of otherindependent

human agents. Consequently, the carefullystructuredpoetic iden-

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titytends to remain isolated, ever threateningto harden into the sterilityevoked by Plath's "Spinster':

Androundherhouse she set Such a barricadeofbarband check Againstmutinousweather As no mereinsurgentmancould hope tobreak Withcurse,fist,threat Or love,either.

This danger may in factaccount forthe tendency among the confes- sionals to renounce the mode, oftenat a cost in quality,eitherforthe creation of an idealized "second world" of relatedness as in Schwartz, a direct poetic communion with the transcendentOther as in Berrymanand Sexton, or a bond with immanent Otherness itself-through the medium of death in Plath or nature in Roethke and Ginsberg-at which point the concept ofa separate, contingent self,withoutwhich confessional poetrycould notexist,is put aside. The exceptions to this trendare Snodgrass, whose "Heart's Nee- dle" sequence turnson the complex interactionsofthe developing self with other people and a distinctlyindependent natural envi- ronment,and of course Robert Lowell, whose breadth of vision is unmatched among the confessionals and, it may well be argued, among contemporary poets in general. To be sure, the self- formationprocess begun in Life Studies continues throughouthis career, but by Notebook it has been transferredintothe tumultuous mainstreamof American social and political life in the late 1960's; the great public events-the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon peace march, the Columbia uprising, and the 1968 Democratic convention-and the smaller private dramas utterly converge. Without minimizing the difficultiesof maintaining an identityin such an atmosphere, Lowell's protagonistsnow exemplifya rejuve- nated respect forand commitmentto the human other,made man- ifestin the humane kinship with the "green steel head," the titular political enemy of"March II," and the strongromanticand familial

ties of For Lizzie and Harriet (1973) and The Dolphin. Once

realized only in its firmdefense against the intrusionof the other, consistentlyperceived as a threat,the self in the most recent vol- umes depends foritsveryexistence on the mutual satisfactioninher- ent in the human relationship, even to the point in "Angling" of willing and ecstatic immersionin another's being: "I am swallowed

up alive





the aptest summary of Lowell's

The Makingofa ConfessionalPoetic

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achievement is Gabriel Pearson's, one which illuminates both the potential range and intrinsicvalues of a confessional poetic:

Lowell's poetic progress could be seen

as self-therapy.But

thetermsaretoorestrictive.One couldputitratherthatLowell's poeticcareerimitates-inan Aristoteliansense-the progressof self-therapyandtherebyproposesitselfas a case ofan ultimately viableexistence.Itbecomesexemplaryas a measureofthedepth and intensityofthe forcesthatbatterthe selffromwithinand without,and describesthe formsthatresistanceto these can assume. Lowell as poet becomes the implicithero of his own poetry,but,ofnecessity,verymucha debunkedand debunking hero,diffident,arrogant,self-destructive,perhaps,mostof all, despiteall, persistentand operative.15

Though more limited than Lowell, the other confessionals also merit some of Pearson's praise, and on similar grounds. They too thrustagainst the multitudinous dehumanizing forcesin twentieth centuryexistence to emerge with thatmost precious prize, a mul- tifaceted,independent self,an accomplsihment made equally avail- able to those readers who have carefullyfollowed the stages of the conflict. In that their abiding interest in the preservation and growthofthe selfis accompanied by an equally strongcommitment to the impersonal dictates of theircraft,the confessionals combine the best featuresofboth the Romantic and modern traditions.That even the major confessionals did not always produce uniformly outstandingpoetry,thatthe confessional banner now seems to have passed into less giftedhands, should not blind us to the consider- able artisticachievements ofLife Studies, Notebook, The Lost Son, The Dream Songs, Ariel, Heart's Needle, and, to a lesser extent,In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Kaddish, and Live or Die. In a period dominated by a new surrealisticpoetic of cold detachment, elliptical extremism, and ultimately silence, it is comfortingto know that we can still turn to poems in which men continue to speak to men in mutuallyunderstandable terms,poems thoroughly engaged in recognizable human experience, poems, finally,which hold firmlyto the updated Romantic ideal expressed by Wallace Stevens in "The Noble Rider and the Sound ofWords," thatthough unconstrained by any specific sense ofsocial or political obligation, the poet nonetheless "fulfillshimself only as he sees his imagina- tion become the lightin the minds ofothers.His role, in short,is to help people to live their lives."

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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1 The New Poets: American and

BritishPoetrySince World War II (New York:

OxfordUniv. Press, 1967),

"Poetryas Confession,"Nation,(19 September1959), 154, 155.All futurereferences

to these and otherfootnotedsources will be cited informallyin the text.

2 The mostprominentvictimofthe formertendencyis the usually astute British


25. Rosenthal's initial use of the term appears in

criticA. Alvarez,whose acceptance of the authenticityof the "confessional" attri- butes of the poetryled him to speculate at lengthon the potentiallypathological outcomeofsuch intense self-absorption,especially in lightofthehighincidence of suicide among the poets involved. See "Beyond All This Fiddle," in Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955-1965 (New York:Random House, 1968), pp. 3-22 and The

Savage God: A Studyof Suicide

veryreal danger to the critical perspective thatthis attitudeentails is illustrated

in Alvarez's posthumous tributeto Sylvia Plath forthe BBC Third Programme. Because he failed to adequately distinguishthe self-destructivemotifsin Plath's poetryfromherreal lifesuicide,he leftthedefiniteimpressionofa directcausal link between the two. Realizing the potentiallydire consequences of this standon the analytic function,he considerably softenedit in a postscriptto the essay when reprintedas "Sylvia Plath" in The Artof Sylvia Plath: A Symposium,ed. by Charles Newman (Bloomington:Indiana Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 56-69. Anotherunfortunate outgrowthof the overemphasis on the "confessional" as opposed to the "poetic" nature of confessional verse is what I choose to call the therapeuticfallacy: the presumptionthattheconfessionalmanagestoexorcisehisprivatedemonsthroughhis work.Rosenthalhimselftouchedon the issue in his originalreviewofLife Studies; RogerBowen perpetuateditin"Confessionand Equilibrium: RobertLowell's Poetic Development," Criticism,11 (Winter1969), 78-93; and RobertPhillips applied itto the entire group in The Confessional Poets (Carbondale: SouthernIllinois Univ. Press, 1973). IfthisstandardFreudianpositiondoes indeed have validity,itcertainly does not help to distinguishthe confessionalsfromany otherlyricpoets, who also release potentiallyexplosive personal issues in the act ofcomposition.In addition, when applied specificallytotheconfessionals,ithas tended to seriouslyobscurethe degree towhichconscious craftdeterminesthisliteraryendeavor.Anne Sexton,who actuallybegan towritewhile intherapy,putthematterin a morereasonable perspec- tive:"You don'tsolve problemsinwriting.They'restillthere.I've heardpsychiatrists say,'See, you've forgivenyourfather.There itis in yourpoem.' ButI haven'tforgiven myfather.I just wrotethatI did." See "CraftInterviewwithAnne Sexton," in The CraftofPoetry:InterviewsfromtheNEW YORK QUARTERLY, ed. WilliamPackard (Garden City,N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 21, 22.

3 While a completelistofcontemporarypoets who have writtenexamples,isolated or otherwise,ofconfessionalpoetrywould indeed be a long one, it seems properto thinkofthese eightas constitutingthe centerofthe movementnotonly in lightof the sheer volume of outrightconfessionalverse theyproduced but also the high degree of personal interactionand artisticcross fertilization-higherthan usually allowed-among them. Schwartzis the pivotal figurelargelybecause of his early workin the mode and its considerable impacton Berrymanand Lowell, attestedto in the long series ofelegies to him in The Dream Songs and Lowell's Paris Review interviewwithFrederickSeidel, reprintedin RobertLowell: A Collection ofCriti- cal Essays, ed. by Thomas Parkinson(Englewood Cliffs,N.J.:Prentice-Hall,1968), pp. 12-36.Snodgrass,whose encounterwithAnne Sexton at a 1958 Antiochconfer- ence provided the impetusforthe latter'sinitialefforts,studied under bothLowell and Berrymanat Iowa. Sexton and Plath attended Lowell's poetryworkshopat Boston Universityand, althoughthey never met him, both later came under the influenceofRoethke(See Sexton's"ClassroomatBostonUniversity,"HarvardAdvo-

(New York:Random House, 1972),pp. 255-74. The


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cate, 145 [November1961],13-15and "The BarflyOughttoSing,"inTheArtofSylvia

Plath, pp.

some ofthemovement'sprimaryRomanticand modernsources-primarilyWhitman,

Pound, and Williams-and Life Studies (See Lowell's

and Critic, ed. By AnthonyOstroff[Boston: Little,Brown,1964], p. 108). Againallowing fortheuniqueness ofeach poet's achievement,particularlyinsofar as the various approaches to freeversus controlledformsare concerned,one is still able to identifytwo and possibly three major confessional tendencies. The main

line, whatcould be called the realistic,anecdotal, or documentaryapproach,begins withSchwartz,reaches itshighpointin Life Studies-much ofwhichwas completed longbeforeits 1959 publication-and continuesin Snodgrass'Heart's Needle (1960), the familyportraitsin Sexton'sAll My PrettyOnes (1962), and several pieces (e.g., "Point Shirley") in Plath's The Colossus (1960) but also includes partsofRoethke's Greenhouse sequence in The Lost Son (1948); Berryman'sLove & Fame (1970), a

volume heavilyindebtedto Lowell;

Sutra." The second, predominantlysurrealisticwing had its genesis in Roethke's "The Lost Son" and the related sequences in Praise to the End! (1951) and sub- sumes the madhouse pieces in Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and Live or Die (1966), the hallucinatorydramasofPlath'sAriel (1965), and the experi- mentsin sur-or "unrealism" in Lowell's Notebook (1970). While The Dream Songs (1969) has numerousexamples ofbothtendencies,because ofitslinguisticvariation

and overall expressionisticcoloration,it must be considered a confessional wing unto itself,as the virtualabsence of successfuldevelopmentsfromit by otherswill attest.

4 Alvarez introducedhis termin "Beyond All This Fiddle" and embellished it in Under Pressure: The Writerin Society,Eastern Europe and the USA (Baltimore:

Penguin Books, 1965), pp. 181-89and The Savage God, pp. 255-74. Spears used the term"open" poetry,as well as the"poetryofinvolvement"inDionysus and theCity (New York:OxfordUniv. Press, 1970),pp. 229-61. Perloff'sdiscussion of"documen- tary"verse is to be foundin The Poetic ArtofRobertLowell (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 80-100; 164-85. A parallel criticaltendency,and one whichthisstudyhopes to extend,has been to concentrateless on replacementterminologythan the technical aspects of confes-

and even Ginsberg's"Kaddish" and "Sunflower

174-82).While Ginsbergremainssomethingofan outsider,he did drawon

served as a catalystforthestudied informalityofLowell's "On 'Skunk Hour,' "in The ContemporaryPoet as Artist

sional poetry.General worksof this natureinclude Donald Davie's

Poetry,"Michigan QuarterlyReview, 5 (January1966), 3-8; A. R. Jones' "Necessity

and Freedom: The PoetryofRobertLowell, Sylvia Plath,and Anne Sexton,"Criti- cal Quarterly,7 (Spring 1965), 11-30; RalphJ.Mills'Creation's VerySelf: The Per- sonal Element in RecentAmericanPoetry(FortWorth:Texas ChristianUniv. Press,

AM that I AM': The Ethics and Aesthetics of

(March 1974), 37-39. Recent studies of

individual confessionalswithinsightsrelevantto the entiregroupare JohnBayley's "John Berryman:A Question of Imperial Sway," Salmagundi, No. 22-23 (Spring- Summer1973), 84-103; Philip Cooper's The AutobiographicalMythofRobertLow- ell (Chapel Hill: Univ. of NorthCarolina Press, 1970); JohnCrick's RobertLowell (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1974); JenijoyLaBelle's The Echoing Wood of Theo- dore Roethke (Princeton:PrincetonUniv. Press, 1976); PerloffsThe Poetic Art of

Self-Revelation,"AmericanPoetryReview, 3


1969); and Alan Williamson's "'I

RobertLowell; RosemarySullivan's TheordoreRoethke:The Garden Master (Seat- tle: Univ. ofWashingtonPress, 1975); and Alan Williamson'sPitytheMonsters:The Political Vision of Robert Lowell (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1974). 5 Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, ed. by Donald Dike and David Zucker (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 10, 11.

6 More complete discussions ofAbrams'nomenclatureare to be foundin "Struc- tureand Stylein the GreaterRomanticLyric,"in From Sensibilityto Romanticism:

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Essays Presentedto FrederickA. Pottle,ed. by FrederickHilles and Harold Bloom (New York: OxfordUniv. Press, 1965), pp. 527-61 and Natural Supernaturalism (New York:Norton,1971); Langbaum's, in The Poetryof Experience,2nd ed., rev. (New York:Norton,1971). I am indebtedto Perloffs The PoeticArtofRobertLowell

forsuggestingthe relevance to the confessionalmode oftheAbramsarticleand the Langbaum book. 7 The Poet in the Poem (Berkeley: Univ. of CaliforniaPress, 1960), p. 48.

8 "The Poet as Poet," in Selected Essays ofDelmore Schwartz,p. 73. In restricting mydiscussion to these poets myintentionis to focuson whatare generallyconsid- ered the major exemplars of the main line of literarymodernism.Obviously the confessionalscould, and in manyindividual cases did draw on otherexamples of modern experiential poetry-Thomas Hardy's dramaticvignettes,Ford Maddox Ford's turnofthe centuryimpressionism,AmyLowell's imagism,and the worksof such nativeAmericanpoets as Lindsay, Masters,Robinson,and Frost.The latterare particularlynoteworthyin a discussion ofthe confessionalsin thattheycharacteris- tically"sought not only to portraycharacterand local settingbut also to tracethe impactofsocial conventionsand institutionson individuallife,as well as thedeeper psychologicaltensionswithinand between individuals." See David Perkins'A His- toryof Modern PoetryFrom the 1890s to the High ModernistMode (Cambridge:

The Belknap Press, 1976), p. 232. Anotherpoet deservingof some mentionin this regardis D. H. Lawrence, whose Look We Have Come Through!(1917) is arguably the firstmodernconfessionalwork.Yet,like the othersmentionedhere,his impact on the contemporarypoets seems limited-clearly evident only in Roethke and perhaps Ginsberg.The poets singled out fordiscussion in the textexerteda much morepervasive influenceon the confessionals,especially in theirformativestages,

and, indeed, laid

9 Naturallythe confessionalsrecognized the deeply personal aspects ofthe Four Quartetsand theoutrightconfessionalnature-albeit in a moretraditional,religious

sense of the term-of "Ash Wednesday." Insofaras Eliot's earliest verse is con- cerned,mostofthemsharedthe experience ofSnodgrass,who initiallyaccepted on faithits fundamentalimpersonalityand only laterrealized its privateimport.See

Robert Boyers' "W.

much ofthe groundworkformidcenturypoetryin general.

D. Snodgrass: An Interview," in Contemporary Poetry in

America, ed. by RobertBoyers (New York:Schocken, 1974), pp. 175 ff.Schwartz, however,was an exceptionto thistrendand, given his criticalrole in the develop- mentofthe confessionalpoetic,a particularlyimportantone, forhe saw clearlythe autobiographicalrelevance of"The Waste Land" as well as thepotentialdangers- so oftenascribed to confessionalpoetry-of what he called Eliot's "journalistic" method.His remarkson the matterin "T. S. Eliot's Voice and His Voices" (1954) shed additionallighton his own workand thatoftheothermembersofthe group:

It mustbe admittedthatthe new methodis a dangerousone, requiring

not only a

severe criticalsense to assure the genuineness and the purityofwhatis

received: the listening and the quotation can easily become self- indulgent;can become an intolerablelooseness, emotionalism,or self- revelationfortheirown sake or forthe purpose of sensationalism." (Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, p. 140)

greatdeal of passive receptivitybut also the operationof a

10 Strawfor the Fire: From the Notebooksof Theodore Roethke,1943-63,ed. by David Wagoner(Garden City,N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), p. 201.


Pound," in The Freedom of thePoet (New York:Farrar,Straus& Giroux,

1976), p. 269.

12 Barbara Knowles, "Anne Sexton: The Art of Poetry XV," Paris Review,

(Summer 1971), 182.


13 AlanWilliamson,PitytheMonsters:The Political VisionofRobertLowell, p. 4.


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14 The selfof which I speak is neitherA. R. Jones' "naked ego" nor Rosenthal's "literalself' but a purelyaestheticentitywhich,while based on thepoet's own,has an existence solely in the poem. Its closest kinshipis withthe poetic voice itself;in fact,the creationofa recognizable voice-also a cumulativeprocess that,especially in the confessionalsequences, carriesits own past along withit-is forthese poets the technical counterpartofa simultaneousconceptual process ofcreatingand put- tingintopracticea continuallyembellished fictiveobject,a compositepoetic self.In thatthe poet himselfremains sufficientlydistinctfromhis poetic counterpart,the failuresor successes of the one need have no direct bearing on those of the other. Thus it is thatthe confessionalsoftenprojecta successfulpoetic adaptationto cir- cumstanceeven when such was notthe case in theirown experience. 15 Gabriel Pearson, "RobertLowell: The Middle Years," in ContemporaryPoetry in America, ed. by RobertBoyers,p. 53.

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