Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or “I.” This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass. Lowell’s book, Life Studies, was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties and had a significant impact on American poetry. Plath and Sexton were both students of Lowell and noted that his work influenced their own writing.
The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression, and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton, in particular, was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.
The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work. While their treatment of the poetic self may have been groundbreaking and shocking to some readers, these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody.
One of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is “Daddy” by Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood:
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
Another confessional poet of this generation was John Berryman. His major work was The Dream Songs, which consists of 385 poems about a character named Henry and his friend Mr. Bones. Many of the poems contain elements of Berryman's own life and traumas, such as his father’s suicide. Below is an excerpt from “Dream Song 1”:
All the world like a woolen lover
once did seem on Henry’s side.
Then came a departure.
Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
I don’t see how Henry, pried
open for all the world to see, survived.
The confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s pioneered a type of writing that forever changed the landscape of American poetry. The tradition of confessional poetry has been a major influence on generations of writers and continues to this day; Marie Howe and Sharon Olds are two contemporary poets whose writing largely draws upon their personal experience.