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Unconventional Narratives in Confessional Poetry: An Examination of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell

What is Confessional Poetry?

Confessional poetry is a literary school that emerged in the late 1950s and has remained largely controversial (Poetry Foundation). It often uses the trauma and struggles of daily life as the fodder and inspiration for poetic prose. It is unique in its emphasis on less formal language, rhyme, and meter over-complicated literary devices. Often, it portrays a series of deep, complex feelings in simple and everyday language. More eloquently put, confessional poetry can be defined by its “direct, colloquial speech rhythms and used images that reflected intense psychological experiences” (Poetry Foundation). It is conversational, taking a difficult topic and speaking about it in an approachable way, often forgoing a more traditional meter. This contrasts with earlier methods of poetry writing which often use complex and verbose language with complicated patterns and methodology. Many of the most renowned writers of confessional poetry, like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell, discuss profound trauma, struggle, and loss in their works.

More eloquently put, confessional poetry can be defined by its “direct, colloquial speech rhythms and used images that reflected intense psychological experiences” (Poetry Foundation).

Critiques of Confessional Poetry

Many critics, both contemporary and of the later twentieth century, saw confessional poetry as irrelevant or lazy. According to poet and literary critic Alan Williamson, “almost from the moment that unfortunate term was coined, confessionalism has been the whipping boy of half a dozen newer schools” (51). This may be in part due to the nuanced and bold literary techniques employed in confessional poetry that stray from convention. Meter and rhyme are sparse and often absent entirely. Instead, these forms of poetry heavily utilize literary devices such as metaphors, allusions, and other connections to “real-life” circumstances to carry its message. Language is not often “flowered”—instead, the author states the theme of the poem in bold ink, whether it be about suicide and trauma. Many of these themes are also deeply personal to the author and reflect previous trauma and dramatic events in their own lives and lend a strong sense of “I” and the self. Sometimes the images used in confessional poetry can be vivid or even grotesque—dealing with bodily functions, mental illness, suicidal idealizations, or even graphic violence. Because of this, confessional poetry is frequently dark and somber by nature, often dotted with black humor and other language that may be seen as inappropriate by their peers. These are “symbols, which must be understood through biographical, literary, and historical reference, and listened for like footfalls so that we may heal and return to the surface” (Schetrump).

Anne Sexton's "Wanting to Die"

Anne Sexton’s “Wanting to Die” is a poignant example of confessional poetry. It is written as a response to a friend, presumably due to a conversation the pair had about her suicidal thoughts. Topographically, it is comprised of eleven stanzas with no meter or rhythm. It is written in a narrative style, directly replying, and referencing a conversation that the audience doesn’t have access to. She discusses bodily functions and the physical realities of suicide and death to vividly paint a picture for the reader. In this way, “Wanting to Die” is an excellent example of how confessional poetry uses non-traditional elements to make a difficult subject more approachable and real.

The first stanza of “Wanting to Die” seems to be in response to a letter or unfinished conversation, as it is directed at a prompt the audience can only infer is related to why she feels like she wants to kill herself to begin with, or perhaps how long she has felt this way. The narrator seems to be Anne herself, as she has dealt with mental health issues throughout her life and subsequently died because of them in 1974 (Sexton). The poem begins “Since you ask, most days I cannot remember. / I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage. / Then the almost unnameable lust returns” (Sexton 1-3). The writer shares in these lines that her urges to commit suicide are “unnameable” and affect her daily life, even as her clothing is “unmarked by that voyage” of suicidal thoughts. Sexton’s subject matter grows darker with the third stanza: “But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build” (Sexton 7-9). In these lines, she uses strong and direct language—“suicides” leaves little to the imagination. This clear language on such a personal subject matter is at the core of confessional poetry. She also suggests that, like someone given a job, she does not consider why she feels compelled to kill herself, she focuses instead on how she will do it. The narrator continues “Death's a sad Bone; bruised, you'd say, / and yet she waits for me, year after year, / to so delicately undo an old wound, / to empty my breath from its bad prison” (Sexton 23-26). She personifies death in these lines as someone who waits to release her from life and suggests that her own body is a “bad prison.”

Sylvia Plath's "Daddy"

Sylvia Plath was a pillar of the confessional poetry movement and produced several award-winning poetry collections during her career, some being granted posthumously (Kihiss). Her famous poem “Daddy” reflects many of the key elements of confessional poetry: direct language, a connection to a deeply personal topic, and a narrative style. It is composed of sixteen stanzas of five lines each. Much like Anne Sexton’s “Wanting to Die,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is written to an audience that is not the reader. As indicated by the title, “Daddy” discusses Plath’s relationship with her own father and how it affected her suicide attempts as an adult. It is riddled with Nazi imagery and references to the Holocaust, as well as language that is considered offensive today. The juxtaposition of such raw verbiage with a deeply psychological theme is striking and is a hallmark of the literary movement and Plath’s work as a whole.

“Daddy” begins with the narrator explaining how she was always overwhelmed and afraid of her father’s presence. She uses a hyperbolic statement to explain this, saying that she lived “For thirty years, poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” (Plath 4-5). In the second stanza, Plath begins to describe in vivid language the ailment that killed her father—complications from amputation and poorly-maintained diabetes. She states “You died before I had time—— / Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal” (Plath 7-10). She expands on these fears in the fifth stanza, expressing that she was never comfortable with her father and he was an unstable man. These are very intimate thoughts and a representation of the inner self that is essential to confessional poetry. The narrator tells him that “So I never could tell where you / Put your foot, your root, / I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw” (Plath 22-25). These lines are also a reference to the illness that ended her father’s life.

She expands on these feelings of desperation in the seventh stanza, drawing from a traumatic global event: the Holocaust. The narrator shares “An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew. / A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen” (Plath 36-38). The engines are a reference to the trains used to transport Jewish people and other “undesirables” to concentration camps listed in the next lines. She continues describing her desperation to become closer to her father until she discusses her suicide attempt in her early twenties. In the twelfth stanza, she shares: “At twenty I tried to die /And get back, back, back to you. / I thought even the bones would do” (Plath 63-65). These lines share an abrupt confession: she attempted suicide, at least in part, due to unresolved issues with her father. The language Plath uses is straightforward and matter of fact, although the subject matter is very personal and heartfelt. In many previous (and subsequent) poetic schools, such language could be seen as uncreative and lazy. In confessional poetry, however, the focus is on the subject and the realness of emotions with a simple methodology.

Robert Lowell's "Home After Three Months Away"

Like many confessionalism poets, Robert Lowell too suffered from mental illness and tumultuous relationships. His famous poem “Home After Three Months Away” was written after a stay at a psychiatric hospital in which he underwent shock therapy. It captures a very small moment in time—giving his daughter a bath in a “cold Boston winter”—but discusses a much more compelling topic. This poem is comprised of four stanzas with no meter or rhyme scheme. Instead, the author uses a conversational pattern to convey his message. He repeats the phrase “three months” throughout the poem, shocked at both the amount of time he was “away” from home and how little the treatments affected him in a positive way.

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The audience is introduced to Lowell’s departure in the first lines when he describes the nurse that was there to care for his daughter in his absence. The bulk of the poem is dedicated to mundane actions that he describes with great detail. For example, although a common practice, the narrator takes care to describe how she tied “gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze-- / three months they hung like soggy toast” (Lowell 5-6). These lines depict the dismal state of his affairs in both his home and his own mind. He is exasperated by his mental state and berates himself, likely echoing words he has heard from others: “Three months, three months! / Is Richard now himself again” (Lowell 10-11)? These moments of internal stress are punctuated by his daughter’s loud presence as she plays in the tub. The scene changes to Lowell shaving with his daughter in tow. Her cheerfulness punctuates the poem, striking a contrast between his poor health and the weather outside their window. There is a hint of affection in the narrator’s voice as he writes in quiet desperation: “Dearest I cannot loiter here /in lather like a polar bear” (Lowell 26-27). The author suggests that his health has been deteriorating for some time. He writes about the tulips in his garden “imported Dutchmen; now no one need / distinguish them from weed” which is a metaphor for his own state of mind (Lowell 34-35). “Home After Three Months Away” ends with the brutal conclusion that his time away was spent for nothing. In fact, the narrator is likely worse off than he was before his stay: “Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small” (Lowell 40).

Conclusion

Confessional poetry is, at its essence, the spilling of one’s true self onto a page. It removes the mask that the author may otherwise wear and exposes who they are in a raw and true way through colloquial language and approachable methods of writing. Because of this “realness”, confessional poetry is often written and expressed in a different way than other earlier forms of poetry, implementing a more conversational tone and unconventional or even absent rhyme and meter. There is a strong sense of self and individuality that allows the troubling content of the work to set in more strongly.

Works Cited

Kihiss, Peter. "Sessions, Sylvia Plath and Updike Are Among Pulitzer Prize Winners." New York Times 13 April 1982. Website.

Lowell, Robert. "Home After Three Months Away." n.d. Website.

Plath, Sylvia. "Daddy." n.d. Website.

Poetry Foundation. An Introduction to Confessional Poetry. n.d. Website.

Schetrump, Tegan Jane. "Diminished but Never Dismissed: The Confessional Poetry of Sylvia Plath and Bruce Beaver." Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature (2015). PDF.

Sexton, Anne. "Wanting to Die." n.d. Poem.

Williamson, Alan. "Stories about the Self’ after Confession: Poetry as Autobiography." (n.d.).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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