A Formal Essay on Confessional Poetry
by Jacob Murphy, Form VI
6 min. read — November 16, 2022
Being one of the most important and influential poetic genres of all time, confessional poetry has had an immense impact on contemporary literature. Writers like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson pushed the limits of what poetry was considered to be and wrote riveting pieces about not only the world around them but also their own inner trauma and psyche. One of the most challenging things about analyzing confessional poetry is understanding what confessional poetry is and how it is possible to pin a definition on poetry that is so deeply personal. In the poems Dream Song 14, With Mercy for The Greedy, and Waking in The Blue, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell respectively provide meaningful insight into their lives, and also into the inner workings of confessional poetry.
One of the key things that is to be looked at when reading confessional poetry is the manner of confession. What is the poet confessing? How is this confessed? Answering both of these questions is paramount to understanding which poems are truly confessional, and furthermore, which poems exemplify the best characteristics of confessional poetry. Dream Song 14 by John Berryman is a poem about all-consuming boredom. Berryman confesses that every aspect of life is boring to him. People, literature, and art all are intrinsically uninteresting in his eyes. The heaviest part of this poem comes at the end, where Berryman illustrates that this boredom has become a barrier to companionship. He uses the image of a dog to symbolize this. As the dog “has taken itself & its tail considerably away into mountains or sea or sky,” all hope of him finding a companion leaves as well (16-17). Additionally, Berryman is troubled by humanity’s apprehension to label life as boring. The loss of hope for a companion and the realization of his place in society as an intellectual outcast drives the cadence of his poem. The tone is somber, the rhythm is monotonous and dark, and the syntax he uses tells of a man troubled with his realization that he may never be interested in life, and therefore may never be happy. This poem exemplifies confessional poetry. Berryman portrays his inner trauma and concerns with the world, and he does so with metaphors and symbols that are both highly imaginative and highly compressed.
With Mercy for The Greedy by Anne Sexton concerns Sexton's various attempts to cope with a lost child. The material she is confessing in this particular work is twofold. On one hand, she is attempting to repent for an abortion through religion. On the other, she seeks to use poetry as an outlet for her trauma and consequently rid herself of the guilt she feels. Unlike Berryman’s poem, the title is particularly telling. With Mercy for The Greedy is Sexton's way of asking for forgiveness for her abortion. Sexton got the abortion because, among other things, the introduction of this child into her life would derail her writing career at a time when it was flourishing. Sexton is having trouble coming to terms with being more concerned with her own writing career than the life of her child. In this way, Sexton considers herself to be greedy. Sexton’s verse in this poem is much more cryptic than Berryman’s. Sexton uses imagery to portray her own complex trauma in a way that is not present in Dream Song 14. In lines 22 and 23, Sexton says “your cross, hung with package string around my throat. / It tapped me lightly as a child’s heart might”. This verse combines both her longing for her child and the role that she wants religion to play in her struggle with her own emotions. Her illustration of the cross standing in for the child's heartbeat is indicative that the literal abortion procedure was not incredibly damaging, but the void that it caused was. Sexton wishes that the church would stand in place of her absent child and fill the void she so desperately hopes was filled. On the other hand, the way in which she describes the rope hanging around her neck is deliberate. She describes it almost as if the rope is a noose, slowly choking her even as she looks to it as a source of hope. Sexton hoped to show the reader that the church can fill a void but is not a permanent remedy to any deep emotional trauma. This fact is corroborated later in Sexton’s life; in 1974 she committed suicide.
Waking in The Blue by Robert Lowell is a poem that covers the deeply personal topic of Lowell’s time in a mental health hospital. This poem strikes a middle ground between Berryman and Sexton. Although not as explicit as Berryman in diagnosing his own trauma, he is not nearly as enigmatic as Sexton. Lowell writes this groundbreaking confessional poem in a clear progression from young to old. At first, Lowell talks of a BU sophomore who “catwalks down our corridor,” a line clearly meant to invoke a feeling of nimbleness and youth in the reader (4). Later on in the poem, however, Lowell talks about “These victorious figures of bravado ossified young,” or people who were once youthful but are now in a very fixed state of insanity (33). Lowell is in an interesting position as the narrator of this poem. He is able to not only look into the past to see himself living vicariously through this nimble college student but also into the future, where his mental illness will have rendered him utterly insane. Lowell knows that becoming this future version of himself is nearly unavoidable, and this confessional poem is confessing as such. Lowell expresses in free verse that there is nothing he can do to prevent himself from falling into the disarray in which he sees other patients. This is perfectly encapsulated in the final line of the poem, where Lowell explains that “We are all old-timers, each of us holds a locked razor.” This line is delivered as Lowell is shaving in the mirror. He realizes that everyone, no matter mental fitness, is predestined to be old. For Lowell, this old age comes with the overbearing threat of illness, both physical and mental. Any attempt at staving off old age is in vain, as even though Lowell is shaving to make himself look younger, eventually his locked razor will dull.
Dream Song 14, With Mercy for The Greedy, and Waking in The Blue by John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell, respectively, illustrate the wide range of confessional poetry. Berryman uses explicit language to convey his feelings of isolation and hopelessness, Sexton uses abstract and obscure diction to attempt to cope with her grief over her lost child, and Lowell tackles the inevitability of his mental health overtaking his faculties in a long-form poem that is ripe with metaphor. Each poet successfully and interestingly uses rhetorical devices to invoke specific emotions in the reader while still using the imaginative and concise language that is so integral to poetry.