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Confessional Poetry: Characteristics and Examples

Confessional Poetry: Characteristics and Examples

In the late 1950s, confessional poetry emerged in the United States, which changed the landscape of American poetry forever. This Penlighten article gives you confessional poetry examples to help you grasp the concept in a better way.
Rucha Phatak
What Led to It?
Confessional poetry was a reaction to the depersonalized poetry of the 1920s and 1930s. Poets of that era believed that a poem was different from the poet himself, which confessional poets did not adhere to.

It was only in the 1950s that confessional poetry was introduced. This style of writing could be seen in snippets throughout the literary history. Italian poet Petrarch had used first person in his poems to express his feelings and thoughts. In the sixteenth century, William Shakespeare's sonnets exposed different aspects of a poet's personality. A great romantic English poet, William Wordsworth has also written poems based on his feelings and experiences. His magnum opus The Prelude can be considered his autobiography. The same can be said for Wordsworth's contemporary, S. T. Coleridge. In 1943, American poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz's confessional poem Genesis was published.

However, it was in the late 1950s that "confessionalism" in poetry gained full recognition. It was a rebellion against modernist writers like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden who demanded impersonality in poetry. In 1959, an American poet and editor Macha L. Rosenthal used the term "confessional" in his review named Poetry as Confession of Robert Lowell's Life Studies. Rosenthal believed that Lowell removed the mask that hid the poet's actual face, which is "rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal." Lowell's Life Studies caught the attention of the public, and thereon, confessional poetry became popular. Along with Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass are some of the famous confessional poets of that era.


A Glossary of Literary Terms by M. H. Abrams defines confessional poetry as a type of narrative and lyric verse, given impetus by the American Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959), which deals with the facts and intimate mental and physical experiences of the poet's own life.

Characteristics of a Confessional Poem

First-person Narration
According to the Academy of American Poets, confessional poetry is "Poetry of the personal or 'I'." It means that all the poems of this school are written from the first-person point of view. This allows readers to identify emotionally with the speaker of a poem.

Intimate and Personal Subject
This can be the most defining characteristic of confessional poetry. The earlier norm of impersonal poetry dealing with social issues was broken by this type of poetry. It dealt with taboo subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, suicide, alcoholism, depression, drug abuse, gender roles, family life, infidelity, etc. Things that are deemed as embarrassing and shameful were discussed frankly in confessional poetry. Confessional poems always have an autobiographical touch to them.

▶ Lyrical Workmanship
Rather than just pouring your heart out on a paper, confessional poets maintained a level of craftsmanship. They paid attention to rhyme and prosody in their poems. Use of allusions, metaphors, etc., can be seen in such kind of poetry.


"Daddy" as a Confessional Poem

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two--
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

The poem 'Daddy' was written by a confessional poet Sylvia Plath in the year 1962, which was published posthumously in the year 1963. Plath, in the poem, gives an account of a girl with Electra complex who gives her father, who passed away, a godly status. Hers is a complex case as her father was a Nazi, while her mother was partly Jewish. The haunting images and equally haunting relation of the girl with her father mirrors Plath's life in the poem. Pitted against her father as a malefic Nazi, the girl (mirroring Sylvia) in the poem dons the part of a Jew, who is a victim. Through the poem, Plath seeks revenge and makes peace with herself, declaring that no matter how evil her father was, she is through with him. The possible hate, rage, and even love that Plath felt for her father was imprinted in the poem with the help of imagery, metaphor, and rhyming words ending with an "oo" sound.

"Lady Lazarus" as a Confessional Poem

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it--

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?--

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot--
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart--
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash-
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there--

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

This is another example of Sylvia Plath's confessional poetry. The poem was written shortly before her suicidal death in 1963 and was published in the same year. The speaker of the poem, Lady Lazarus talks about her third suicide attempt and her rebirth after it. She shares a lot of similarities with Plath, because Plath, a patient of depression, too had attempted suicide many times. Plath has used Holocaust images to make the poem more striking.

▶ "Skunk Hour" as a Confessional Poem

Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season's ill--
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.

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.

The poem is written by Robert Lowell, published in his collection, Life Studies (1959). Lowell has dedicated the poem to his friend and poet Elizabeth Bishop. As the poem begins, the speaker is reflecting on the coastal town of Maine. He starts describing things that are wrong with the town. Then, the focus of the poem shifts from the town to the speaker who admits that he is depressed and not in the right state of mind. The speaker mirrors Lowell because he as well had suffered from a mental illness and needed hospitalization.

Criticism of Confessional Poetry

Confessional poetry received both positive and negative reactions from critics and readers. On one hand, this type of poetry was considered to be frank, bold, and new, while on the other, it was criticized for being self-indulgent.

Whatever the reactions are, confessional poems are very interesting to read as the reader acquires a glimpse into the poet's life.