Comments on Confessional Poetry (as


Comments on Confessional Poetry (as though you cared)

I know that you have been waiting with bated breath to discover what stunning revelation was forthcoming in these comments on confessional poets. On the other hand, you might wonder what a confessional poet is. If you belong to either of these two schools (note: not factions) or any in between welcome. Take a seat. I promise not to keep you long.

Confessional Poets--particularly those of the suicidal school--John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, are probably not completely responsible for the phenomenon, but do bear a burden of responsibility for the progressive diminution of poetry. Surely this started with J. Alfred Prufrock, when the poet started to become so practiced in omphaloskepsis as to preclude the general audience. To some extent poetry became a game for the intellectual elite rather than a recreation for the middle classes as it had been up to that time. Ordinary people read Keats, Wordsworth, the Bronte Sisters, and in the United States, Freneau, Bryant, and Poe. But starting with Eliot (perhaps a bit earlier with some of the symbolists, but at least in English with Eliot) poetry became the purview of the intellectual. "The Waste Land" with its voluminous footnotes, multilingual references and arcane allusions to other poems and structures continues to confound undergraduate literature students who have not been caught in the eddies of the multiculti movement.

However, the real diminution shows up with the concrete poets and the beats who reduced poetry to a few arcane tricks or to a rhythmic, rap-like mostly protest chant (think "Howl" as exemplary of the very worst in the tendency even though the poem is actually rather fine). But I hold the confessional poets most responsible. Where once a Keats could write an ode "To Autumn" or a Wordsworth could gives us "Tintern Abbey" and "Intimations of Immortality" (please forgive the abbreviated titles), all we can get from Sylvia Plath is "Lady Lazarus." Now, understand, Plath is quite an accomplished poet and much of what she wrote is quite beautiful. Anne Sexton perhaps a little less so. To my way of thinking John Berryman is just about unreadable. But these three poets took thriving metaphor and turned the subject matter in to the smallest possible thing--one personal self. Almost every poem is about, you guessed it Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, or John Berryman. Now Robert Frost could give us "The Silken Tent," "On Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," or the magnificent poem that Dylan blogged in part yesterday, "Birches" in which a personal message is couched in a language that allows it to become the possession of all who read it. The confessionals never allow you to touch the poetry. And for the most part, you need to consider that a VERY GOOD THING. If one were to climb inside a confessional poet's poem and take a read, your destination would be less than glorious. Take for example Sylvia Plath's thirtieth or fortieth suicide note "Lady Lazarus" in which she intones deadpan, "Dying/ is an art, like everything else. I do it exceedingly well.// I do it so it feels like hell./I do it so it feels real. I guess you'd say I've a call." I suppose a kind of cheery fodder for a crop of neo-goths, but hardly the kind of poetry that draws you in and makes you want to keep reading.

It is in the intense inward turning, this kind of biography in poetry (which Wordsworth did in "The Prelude" at massive length, but still quite beautifully) or, perhaps more like self-pity in poetry, that we see the ultimate diminution of poetic intent. It has been since the success of these ultimately inward-turning poets that poetry has struggled to be something other than a personal endeavor destined for most people's journals. Sylvia Plath convinced every person with writing ambitions that they could be a poet by sharing their innermost thoughts and secrets. (Which is a shame, because Plath was a skilled artist who could produce some marvelous things--she was not merely a self-indulgent, very depressed young women sharing her innermost feelings.) And if such poetry stays in journals, that is fine and probably therapeutic. But too often it escapes, and we have endless reams of poetry dedicated to telling me things about the poets that I don't really want to know. For a prime example, visit the poetry of James Dickey some time and you'll learn all about what those rural boys get up to in their off-time (believe me, you don't really want to know--just accept my word Deliverance gives you enough of an idea.)

So, what is my point? It is time for poetry to reclaim its audience and its territory. Poetry is the greatest of the writing arts because it requires both the greatest skill at compression and condensation and because it can speak so directly of universals. Certainly there is room now for confessional poetry, but we need more intense, deep, wide-ranging lyrics that reclaim the possibilities of Wordsworth and Keats. Wendell Berry skirts this territory at times, and it is not surprising because he lives in contact with Nature which we try to shut out.

God speaks to individuals in any number of ways. But throughout history many Saints have heard His voice in nature. I always think of two in particular--St. Francis and St. John of the Cross, but there are no doubt many other examples. In the wonders of nature we can see and make seen the hand of God, as easily. or perhaps more easily than in the wonders of human construction. Reclaiming the territory of nature allows us once again to range through the world of metaphor and to make poetry more apt for expressing the larger things that are possible--we can use metaphysical conceits, tame the pantheistic strains of the Romantics and the Transcendentalists, and employ the elaborate correspondences of the symbolists and imagists. We can use the vibrancy and rhythm of the best of the beats, and the intimacy of the confessionals, but we need to break out of the confining, suffocating, and ultimately self-defeating box created by the modernists and nailed shut by the confessionals.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 4, 2002 8:15 AM.

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