Apr 24, 2010

Confessionalism, continued

Left: Torso of a Giant, Jean Arp, 1964, Detroit Institute of Art

In the April 22 visitor comments here, Brenda writes:

“Do/did you ever have your students write essays based on the poetry style you are reading? In this case, the students would write confessional themes?

“Or is that too introspective, for students to reveal that much?

“In high school, our English teacher used to bring in huge photos of street scenes and we had to write an essay of what we thought was going on.”

Brenda, I like your English teacher’s assignment. I’ve done that kind of thing with descriptive essays, but I've only encouraged, not required students to imitate authors’ styles. There’s just never enough time for all good things, so I figured that the really motivated students would try it on their own if I pointed out the possible benefits (some did, some benefited, others not so much).

Sometimes kids have written somewhat confessional stuff, but I’d never ask or require them to; in fact I've cautioned them against it. I've encouraged them to base poems, stories and essays on personal experience and to try to see in their lives what's universally human. But confessional work takes that up several notches, and, as you say, those kinds of revelations can quickly become risky—going too public on too much intimate stuff and regretting it later, or getting into psychologically dangerous territory, or getting me sued.

Here’s my impression, not a fact: kids who want to reveal too much about themselves tend to be histrionic personalities and will do it without my asking or despite my forbidding it. They’re exhibitionists, and that's the heart of confessional work. "Look at me. I'm willing to say anything if you'll just look at me."

Are they honestly inviting me to share important human experience, or more grandiose, abstract pursuits of beauty and truth? Or do they just want readers, including me, to celebrate the wonderfulness of their dirty underwear, their self-indulgent escapades, their mental crucifixions of their parents, teachers, siblings, lost loves?

So I'm wary about such personalities among the professional poets. Anyone who writes for a public has some exhibitionist tendencies (yes, that includes me); but these days we have a convenient new expression for excesses, and we should heed the warning: “TMI: too much information.” Maybe the younger you are, the more you should think about that.

Aren’t there things that reasonable people (shall I call them “normal”?) wouldn’t dream of making public? And despite the voyeur in us all, we usually don’t want to hear it. Confession might be good for the penitent, but it's lousy hard work for the listener. Ask any shrink or priest.

In addition to their skill with language, edging up to, or crossing, that line of audience discomfort is at the heart of the power in Plath, Sexton, and other confessional poets. “Watch me say what others are afraid to say.” However, those professionals can go too far, and adolescents or young adults most certainly can—restraint and judgment are not traits often ascribed to the young.

Of course, the flip side is poetry or fiction so distant, formal, or academic that we feel a robot wrote it. The author didn’t emote, so how can we? I think some readers feel that way about Wallace Stevens and Richard Wilbur, to mention a couple of notables who have appeared on Banjo52 at one time or another.

So, Brenda, maybe that begins to respond to your questions as well as inducing a very fine nap for you and any innocent bystanders. But let me add one more note about confessional matters: in poetry and in life, I think it’s possible that we suffer from too little self-revelation rather than too much. Formality or reserve or custom, or whatever, are forms of artifice, dishonesty, fear, and conventionality that can deaden meaningful communication as much as confessionalism can turn it into a ten-cent carny act.

So where’s the boundary? This is why most (not all) multiple choice exams in English classes are an affront and a cheat.

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Anonymous said...

I wonder if confessional poetry isn't mostly a series of complaints. Pity me poetry. And perhaps that's why it tends to irritate.

It often reminds me of people who think you'll be fascinated to hear about their medical problems -- not the life and death problems -- I mean, infections and the like.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I know what you mean, yet for some reason, Plath often makes me take her complaints seriously--something about the intensity in her language. Do you know her poem, "Cut"? I'll get some Plath up here before long.

But I agree there always seems to be excess. As I said a while ago, I'm just starting to revisit Sexton. Lowell, Berryman, and others I may or may not revisit.

I think Sharon Olds is considered to be in the Plath/Sexton tradition, more or less. At least, I see her that way--it makes me especially uncomfortable when she writes about her children.

I wonder about Kim Addonizio, too.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Hmmm... confessional poetry. Poets working out their demons? I've read a million times that sad/mad/troubled/dieting people should keep journals. So along comes a poet... and makes it into a poem. Let's call it 'Poetry as Confession'. Oh wait, Robert Lowell did that.

Banjomyn, your lists of confessional poets is awesome. I never heard of most of them, and had to look them up - hence, how I found Lowell. There are a lot of sad people out there who want us to know about their sadness. Just like Christmas letters that tell us all about their ills for the past year.

I looked at one of my college freshman year textbooks: Sound & Sense by Laurence Perrine. Each chapter is on a different type of poetry: symbolism, imagery, tone, musical devices, etc. No mention of confessional poetry. Thank goodness- I would have run for the hills!!

"Cut" sounds totally creepy.
Can't wait. I think...

Anonymous said...

You know what? Maybe I know the facts of Plath's life too well to judge her poetry. I had a hs teacher who loved her, more for the drama than for the verse.

I like Berryman, or at least, I once did. Haven't read him for years.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, love your inclusion of dieters as potential confessional poets! Could be somebody's Ph.D. dissertation.

And Sound and Sense! Oh my, yes, know, or knew, it well. And it's still around--come to think of it, the new editor's name might be Arp, like the sculptor.

AH, too much on Plath's life could indeed kill the poetry. Also, I think she makes leaps in thought or imagery that are demanding and maybe unreasonable. But I still like more of the work than I feel I should.

How did your teacher handle the sensational details of her life with impressionable high schoolers?

I gave Berryman and Lowell an honest effort way back when. I'm telling myself that if I'm open to Plath, Sexton and others still living, I don't have to keep re-trying those who bored me.

Have they ever decided whether Hart Crane jumped or fell off the boat? I should probably try him again; some important living poets think he's both good and important, and I didn't give him a real shot.

Did you like my dentist-poet comparison, re: suicide? I thought it was so brilliant that I put an ad in the paper for discount psychotherapy from me at the local Starbuck's (till 4:30, at which time we move to Bailey's pub).

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