ABCs of Poetry: C is for Confessional Poetry

Posted by on Apr 25, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: C is for Confessional Poetry

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”  — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

For a writer coming into consciousness in the twenty-first century, time before confessional poetry is murky. Writing the close- and confessional-I, an “I” that looks, sounds, and acts like the poet, feels default for young poets. But as anyone who has white-knuckled their way through another half-baked “how I lost my virginity” workshop poem knows, the genre, while familiar, is not easily tackled.

Of course, the foremother of confessional poets, and the official sponsor of sad-girl poets, is Sylvia Plath. Plath’s poetry drips with emotion, challenging the reader to not look away from this weeping, bleeding, whirling dervish woman speaking of pain and trouble, her memories and relationships. Plath changed the landscape of women’s poetry over half a century ago, and my students (and I) feel her overwhelming influence in literature and formulating our own poetry alike.

Fast forward: read Kathy Acker, listen to Kathleen Hanna, read everything Kate Zambreno has published (start with Heroines). These are not poets, of course. Acker wrote prose, Hanna popularized riot grrl punk, and Zambreno writes prose braiding literary criticism, autobiography, and fiction (with stunning brilliance). Women performing emotional inner-lives, “confessing” to a multi-faceted personhood and humanness, spans genres, and we should embrace these cross-genre confessionals as part of the poetic cannon.

The most common misconception about confessional poetry I encounter is that confessional poetry must be factual. Instead, confessional poetry must be truthful. In my poetry, my lover is a pine tree, a gas stove, the ocean, a stallion, a skyscraper. I am spinning out emotion, blown up past proportions until distorted with the over-sized-ness of feeling and knowing and seeing too much in too many ways. Confessional poetry is true in the deepest sense of the word, a portal to clearer understanding.

I’m firmly of the mind that brutal, truthful reader response birth good confessional poetry. The line between stunning and gross, revealing and uncomfortable, moves for everyone, and by no means should a poet feel compelled to reach every reader on the right side of that line. A trusted writer-friend-turned-reader can let you know when the poem about sex or family or periods or snot or suicide becomes too real; confessional poetry risks falling into an uncanny valley when things are too close to fact without being entirely truthful, a fun-house self-rendering that bothers the reader. A confessional poem should reach something inside the reader that they had not previously known. A confessional poem should show the reader a feeling, experience, emotion, moment that they have never experienced, so embedded in the poem’s skin that it lives that moment again and again. A confessional poem should be self-contained, sterling, keeps itself afloat through tension.

Once, discussing Kate Zambreno’s Heroines in an undergraduate literature course, a male classmate blurted, “Why is she so fucking whiny?” I imagined ripping my skin off in response, shrieking while I stood on his desk waving a machete over my head. That probably would have proven his point. Reading Plath, I’ve seen men hold back yawns, as if no one could appreciate a woman talking about herself (the Beat Generation begs to differ about men, as does David Foster Wallace and, well, pretty much every man you would consider a great writer). Young women’s experiences are seen as inherently isolated from writing about the “man” in mankind or the “great American” anything, despite women making up half the population. Confessional poetry still fights for recognition because of this gendering, even if the writer is a man.

On the flip side to what confessional poetry does for the reader, I argue the confessional poem is an inherently selfish genre. The confessional poem demands you look at me, witness this performance of myself, a picture of a picture of a picture of me dancing buck naked on the countertops, daring you to look away, daring you not to. The confessional poem is all about me, all about how I see things, and why would you not want to know that? The confessional poet (if you want to become one) does not hide behind persona, research, or thesaurus-worthy language; the confessional poet has to be comfortable with just them on stage, screaming and screaming, knowing that someone must gain something from listening.

My confessional poetry is wet, embarrassing, difficult. I write about my ex-girlfriend in ways she wouldn’t appreciate. I write about drinking too much and aftermaths, a practice I inhabited for six years before someone finally, softly, told me enough. I write about sex and sexual things, enough to make me blush at readings. I write about bleeding from my vagina, bleeding from nicks on my legs, from picked-face-scabs, from ripped up fingernails. I write about my disordered eating, an entire decade of hating and loving my body by trembling turns. I write about my multiple instances of rape and sexual assault. I write about not having enough and wanting more, about my mental illness and not knowing if I will ever heal.

I share my published poems on Facebook, where they are seen by previous professors, current acquaintances, and some of my sprawling extended family. Sometimes people “like” these poems, but many times they don’t. Sometimes, women write me privately about how powerful that poem was, how I put words to a thing they had thought or felt. Sometimes I’m called “brave” when I talk about how a boy threatened to rape me through most of sixth grade, or how I fear pregnancy and miscarriage in equal measure. Is it so brave to talk about myself? After Naked Lunch and Portrait of an Alcoholic Floating in Space With Severed Umbilicus, why is it brave to talk openly about my body, what’s been done to it, what I do to it, what I wish and fear it will do one day? I think it’s brave because I’m not supposed to do it, but you could easily call it “shocking” or “strange” or “undignified.” Poetry is brave when people admire it. It’s brave when it’s good art, not just exposing myself but doing so in a meaningful way.

So how do you write confessional poetry? You think about what you would scream off the top of the tallest building in your town if you had the chance. You think about the type of poem that would have benefitted you in a moment of desperate, clawing isolation. More than anything, you must give up the turn-face shame and “I’m not enough”s that have you reading this looking for permission. What the hell do I know, anyway, about your life and what you should say in verse? What does anyone? Write the thing. You’ll know if it’s right or not.

Emily Blair is an Appalachian poet and blue-collar scholar originally from Fort Chiswell, Virginia. She currently teaches English at a community college in North Carolina. Her first chapbook of poetry, WE ARE BIRDS, was released from Dancing Girl Press in 2018. More information about her and recent publications can be found at her website.