October 15th, 2010

Confessional poetry is poetry that confesses the truth. It is purely subjective, in other words, its main concern lies  in dealing with the self. It earned its place in America as an autobiographical genre in the late 1950’s and late 1960’s, when poets like Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Sharon Olds, and W.D. Snodgrass began to reveal, through their poetry, the truth about themselves.

The term “confessional” first appeared in M.L. Rosenthal’s review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies in 1959, it was largely welcomed by other critics who sought to define this new type of poetry. What was so new about confessional poetry? It was nothing like the world had ever read before in prose, it was frank, unflattering, fragmented, and dark, reflecting the mind behind and its constant mea culpa. The confessional poets chose to bypass the idealistic in order to get to the real. Predominantly they talked about mental illness, suicide, divorce, addiction, and sexuality.

Here’s an example of Sylvia Plath’s confessional poem Ariel, known to be about her struggles with depression; she committed suicide in 1963 :

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!–The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Berries cast dark

Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
Something else

Hauls me through air—-
Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.

Godiva, I unpeel—-
Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.
And I
Am the arrow,

The dew that flies,
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning

Structurally, the confessional poem is mostly made up of free-verse prose, it often contains specific information, such as dates, names of places, etc. It hardly ever rhymes but it is rhythmic, the tone is conversational and straight-forward, as would a confession.

There are many critical debates surrounding confessional poetry. The first one, that confessional poetry is not deserving of scholarly attention as argued by critic Michael McIrvin: “Poetry that is solipsistic and banal and masturbatory (i.e., seems to assume no reader, and speaks to little beyond the poet’s own tiny life) demands at best a voyeuristic reading or, more likely, a completely passive one in which no meaning is achieved for anyone except, maybe, the poet.”

The second, that confessional poetry is in fact relevant and deserving of critical attention but claims that it is too personal, that it is divisive in nature, that the “I” excludes the reader. Critics like Charles Molesworth believe that egocentrism drives the confessional poet “to become God or resign consciousness altogether”. On the other side of this debate, critics like Donald Davie believe that confessional poetry is not personal but that it is meticulously personalized, in order to produce a mass-produced individuality, much like a keychain with the name Sylvia or Robert on it.


Delbanco, Nicholas. Speaking of Writing: Selected Hopwood Lectures. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1990. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel, the Restored Edition. New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. Print.

Price, Deidre Dowling. “Confessional Poetry and Blog Culture in the Age of Autobiography.” The Florida State University of Arts and Sciences,  22 March 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2010.

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