Confession May Be Good for the Soul, But Is It Good For Poetry?

We could argue till the monkeys finally type out Hamlet about whether or not the so-called Confessional Poets--Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, et al--deserve Cover Art: Sylvia Plath: A Critical Studythat title, and whether or not they are to blame for the widespread notion that the writing of poetry is primarily a therapeutic endeavor practiced by angry and/or melancholic adolescents, and those who want “to get in touch with their true feelings.” Don’t get me wrong here --I’m all in favor of folks getting in touch with their feelings (just not before 10am on weekends), and I’m currently working on my third decade as an angry and/or melancholic adolescent. It’s just that even a cursory look at the best poetry of the last fifty years shows that there is a lot more going on out there than endless purging of poets’ wounded psyches
I would argue that the poets we group together as the Confessionals were in part reacting to the modernist tendency to bury the self under layer upon layer of artifice. Lowell, Plath and others were trying to write closer to the bone, to bring an urgency and immediacy into the discourse that had been missing for some time. One of their Cover Art: Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Lettersmethods was to use their own messy personal lives as material. But this was only one of their strategies, and none of their work can be read as straight autobiography. And that, I think, is my point here: in reading the Confessionals, we tend to get bogged down in trying to read the poets’ lives into the poems—especially in the cases of Plath and Sexton who were so seductively and glamorously tragic. When we do this, we miss a lot of what is so brilliant in their art.
These poets may not be your cup of meat, but they are never boring, and they’re all capable of lines that, as my old friend Emily says, make you “feel…like the top of [your] head was taken off.” (and if it’s good enough for Em,’ it’s good enough for me).
Ariel: The Restored Edition - A fairly definitive edition of Plath's second and final collection.
The Colossus and Other Poems - Plath's first collection. Read this after Ariel. These polished, almost pretty poems seem a world away from her later writing.
Sylvia DVD - Gwyneth as Sylvia, the newest James Bond (Daniel Craig) as her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes.
Birthday Letters - Hughes' last collection and the one in which he most forthrightly deals with his relationship with Sylvia.
The Complete Poems / Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton Audiocassette - Sexton reads some of her better known poems.
Collected Poems / Robert Lowell - At almost 1200 pages, it's big enough to stun an ox, but well worth a browse.
As always, if you have any comments, suggestions or bones to pick, drop me a line. (iambic pentameter not necessary)