Some Problems With Confessionalism

October 19, 2023 Elijah Perseus Blumov
Some Problems With Confessionalism
Show Notes Transcript

Topics discussed in this episode include:


-Autobiographical vs. Confessional 

-"Poetry As Confession" by M.L. Rosenthal

-"Life Studies" and "The Dolphin" by Robert Lowell

-"Genesis" by Delmore Schwartz

-"The Dream Songs" by John Berryman

-Other Confessional pioneers: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass

-Functions of Confessionalism: Therapy and Social Awareness

-Alternatives to Confessionalism

-"The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

-"Min Kamp" by Karl Ove Knausgard

-"Neo-Confessionalism: Whose Commodity Am I, Anyway?" by Virginia Konchan

-The Identitarian Turn 


The 8 Points:

  1. Confessionalism is an exercise in self-absorption.
  2. Confessionalism encourages self-absorption and idol worship in its readers.
  3. Confessionalism, by privileging extremes of feeling, cultivates a culture of hyper-emotionalism.
  4. Confessionalism airs details of the private lives of others without their consent.
  5. Confessionalism restricts the possibilities and expectations of the lyric "I."
  6. A culture of Confessionalism places unfair pressure on aspiring writers to expose and focus on their personal details for popularity and recognition.
  7. Confessionalism, by privileging authenticity above all, makes craftsmanship an afterthought.
  8. Confessionalism, by privileging the particular, makes universal insight an afterthought.

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Some Problems With Confessionalism


In this episode, I will argue that the Confessional mode in literary writing, particularly lyric writing, ultimately does more harm than good to the state of both art and society. I will not argue that writers who compose in this mode are universally bad, nor even that all confessional writing is universally bad. Rather, I merely hope to convince you that the practice of this mode in the literary sphere produces net negative effects, and for this reason ought to be abandoned. Confessionalism is hardly the only decadent trend in the arts, but it is by far the most popular, and is therefore deserving of special attention.

 In order to meaningfully protest against anything of course, we must have a precise idea of what we seek to negate. The crucial first distinction to make is that confessional lyric is not synonymous with autobiographical lyric, but rather a specific variety of it. Autobiographical lyric is a general term which refers merely to lyric in which a particular experience from the writer’s life serves as the inspiration and setting of a work. Much of the best poetry and other lyric written in the past couple hundred years has been autobiographical, and I would like to be very clear that I believe that the practice of drawing on one’s life for artistic material is completely legitimate. Indeed, many of the poems I’ve celebrated on Versecraft have been autobiographical poems: consider the Richard Wilbur poem, the setting of which is Wilbur’s fishing trip with his friends, or the A.E. Stallings poem, the setting of which is Stalling’s fishing trip with her father. Getting into less piscine and more personal territory, consider the Ernest Hilbert poem on watching his son run into his arms, or the Brian Brodeur poem on the lingering guilt over an abortion. None of these poems, however, are confessional. Even the Brodeur, which concerns a subject matter often associated with the Confessional mode, still does not meet the criteria. 

These poems are not confessional because, in each of them, a personal experience serves merely as an occasion for the contemplation of universal themes. These poems are doing what poems have always done—seeking the abstract in the concrete. They’re merely doing so using the explicit material of personal experience. In each case, the experience itself is a means, not an end. We can test this with the question: “Would the poem be just as effective even if the experience described was known to be completely fabricated?” In the case of these poems, the answer is yes, because the communication of personal detail is not the point. In the case of a confessional poem or lyric, the answer is a resounding no. 

This is because the intent behind a confessional lyric is at least as journalistic as it is artistic, and I mean journalistic both in the sense of reportage and the sense of private journaling. The primary appeal of a confessional lyric is not that it is true in a philosophical sense, but that it is true in a literal sense, even if the literal sense, the confession, is being conveyed elliptically; authenticity, not insight, is the primary goal, and in this sense confessional lyric is closer to the spirit of gossip or memoir than what we typically think of as literary art. 

However, let us now move from these preliminary distinctions toward a definition. The term confessional poetry was first coined by the critic M.L. Rosenthal in a 1959 review of Robert Lowell’s landmark collection Life Studies, which, despite having predecessors like Delmore Schwartz’s Genesis, is often considered the first work in the Confessional canon. In reference to Lowell’s work, Rosenthal described the Confessional mode as: “the way the writer brings his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems into the poems…. usually developed in the first person and intended without question to point to the author himself.” Rosenthal here pinpoints two features which have come to be widely accepted as defining qualities of Confessional lyric: a voice which is understood to be identical with the author’s personal “I,” and the candid revelation of intimate, often lurid personal detail through this voice.

There are many critics since who have questioned the possibility of actually achieving an unadulterated personal “I” in a lyric, and furthermore have pointed out the fact that many so-called confessional poems or lyrics make explicit use of artificial personae, such as John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Even granting this ambiguity and variety of presentation however, there is an essence which remains; a similarity among Life Studies, The Dream Songs, and much of the work of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W.D. Snodgrass that allows us to characterize it as Confessional lyric, and to furthermore recognize the Confessional mode in later writers such as Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Kaveh Akbar, and even Taylor Swift. The essence is this: Confessional lyric is a type of autobiographical lyric in which the author, often employing a personal “I,” attempts to truthfully convey personal details and feelings, often of an intimate, painful, and emotionally extreme nature, primarily for the sake of self-expression. We may recognize that confessional lyrics sometimes also strive for other auxiliary goals: spiritual insight, say, or socio-political commentary. But the focal point, the chief object of interest, is always the author’s particular self. 

The question now arises: beyond base motivations like egotism and the desire for attention, why would an author write work that is so literally self-centered? I think there are two main reasons, and if we are to make a fair case against Confessionalism, we must first address these reasons.

The first is that confessionalism serves a therapeutic function, both for the writer and the reader. If one is suffering from deep inner turmoil, whether brought on by illness, abuse, trauma, addiction, injustice, oppression, guilt, grief, or heartbreak, it can be healing and cathartic to directly express one’s feelings in words. Many people who do not consider themselves writers engage in this practice all the time in the form of a diary, and I completely approve of this private practice as a strategy for maintaining mental health. It is when this private practice becomes public that issues can arise, of which I’ll have more to say later.

Leaving those issues aside, it is also true that many readers who struggle with their own inner turmoil find solace, catharsis, and guidance in the writings of others whom they feel understand what they are going through. The writer’s willingness to be vulnerable and reveal themselves to the reader makes the reader feel that they can come to know the writer personally, and this intimate if one-sided relationship increases the reader’s interest in reading and absorbing more writing from that author. Given how many modern people are sick, traumatized, and lonely, it is no wonder that Confessional lyric is as popular as it is. Many writers who write incessantly about themselves defend their practice by claiming that they do not do it for selfish reasons, but for the benefit of others like them. 

On this note, confessionalism is also said to serve a socio-political function. Since its inception, Confessional lyric has sought to raise awareness of and erase stigma surrounding mental illness and personal trauma, and while the mode was originally pioneered by educated Euro-American men like Lowell, Berryman, Schwartz, and Ginsberg, it has since come to be adopted as a popular mode by all sorts of marginalized groups who wish to make their struggles more visible to the public eye. Especially in the last several decades, emphasis has shifted from declaiming one’s feelings in response to unique personal problems to declaiming one’s feelings in response to larger systemic problems. As our culture continues to make an identitarian turn, the line between what is personal and what is societal, what is confessional and what is political, continues to blur. As the poet Cameron Clark has pithily put it, the difference between the old confessionalism and the new confessionalism is that in the former one confessed one’s own sins, in the latter one confesses the sins of others. 

We have now covered the two substantial benefits that confessional lyric may confer: therapy, and social awareness. However, if we consider whether these two benefits are unique to confessional lyric, we will quickly realize that they are not. First of all, there is actual therapy, and there is actual political activism, both of which are far more efficacious than confessional literature at creating lasting positive changes. 

Secondly, the popularity of fiction attests to the fact that people are just as keen to seek out personal connections and relatable experiences with characters as real people, and fiction has also always demonstrated an ability to make visible important and often inadequately understood aspects of the human experience and expand our capacities of empathy accordingly. Especially in recent years, major efforts have been made to write and promote fiction which features the experiences of marginalized groups. 

Thirdly, there are non-fiction books on biography, psychology, sociology, self-help, cultural criticism, and activism, which are capable of offering more thorough and balanced perspectives on any issue than the limited personal experience of any one individual can. 

Finally, if it is truly a personal testament that someone craves, there is the genre of memoir, which fulfills much the same functions as confessional lyric and in much the same way. The difference is that memoir tends to be more nuanced, provide more context, and does not so exclusively privilege violent heights of emotion. Furthermore, it is its own distinct genre, and does not take up any space in the realm of what is usually called poetry.

Of course, the existence of such alternatives does not at all affect the fact that people still can and do derive therapeutic and sociological benefits from confessional lyric, and to understand the appeal which this writing has, these benefits must be duly acknowledged. The purpose of pointing out alternatives is merely to observe that, while confessional lyric may have its particular charms, there is nothing that it accomplishes which is irreplaceable. Therefore, if there is reason to believe that confessional lyric is more harmful than beneficial, we should have no qualms about discarding it as a practice. To my mind, there are at least eight ways in which the practice of Confessionalism is indeed harmful. Let’s go through them together.


1.     Confessionalism is an exercise in self-absorption.


By self-absorption, I do not mean to suggest that every confessional writer is narcissistic or full of themselves. But let’s refresh our view of what a confessional writer is for a moment. First of all, such a writer is someone whose primary creative outlet is to document their own emotions and experiences. Already we see that this is a person who finds themselves more interesting than most other things that one could choose to write about. Not only that, but they believe that their feelings and experiences are of some importance, otherwise they wouldn’t attempt to preserve and explore them. Thus far however, we are still in healthy, normal territory— many people choose to journal their emotions and experiences because they are, understandably, of importance to them, and having a log of one’s memories and emotional life can be a helpful aid in self-growth and self-understanding. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, I have no quarrel with people who keep a private diary. 

The confessional writer of course takes this diaristic inclination a step further by insisting that their self-documentation and exploration is not only of importance to themselves, but to others. Why do they think this? In most cases, I suspect that it comes down to a banal need for validation. In the best cases, it is because they think that their work has the potential to help others through its therapeutic or socio-political value. Sharon Olds, a posterchild for Confessionalism, has remarked that her greatest hope for her poems is that they be useful, and I applaud her for this noble sentiment. This virtuous pretext however does not entirely justify what is ultimately a campaign of aggressive self-advertising. As we have noted, the benefits which Confessional lyric has the potential to confer can be found in numerous places elsewhere. Given this fact, it is hard to escape the suspicion that those who choose to try to make a difference in the world by waxing lyrical about their personal problems are, in addition to their good intentions, exercising an unhealthily self-indulgent impulse, a neurotic desire for others to preoccupy themselves with one’s own life. Ultimately of course, even if one is successful in spreading the gospel of oneself, it does not save: Plath, Sexton, and Berryman all committed suicide. A life in which one sells one’s own soul as a commodity is dehumanizing; a life in which one’s artistic practice encourages one to constantly stew in one’s own emotional turbulence is solipsistic and dangerous. It is not a life I would wish for anyone. 


2.     Confessionalism encourages self-absorption and idol worship in its readers.


I have said that one of the defining features of the Confessional mode is that its goal is not universal insight but self-expression. As such, the Confessional writer does not appeal to a reader through the quality of their thought but through the intrigue of their personality and life story. One of the reasons Confessional writing is so popular is the same reason that tabloids are popular—a large percentage of people have a voyeuristic impulse, and love following the scent of someone else’s dirty laundry, even to the point of obsession. Another related reason is that people have a hunger for intimate human connection, and a confessional writer who bares all is practically inviting their potential reader to become their para-social confidante. If these initial appeals are then deepened and compounded by what is felt to be a profound emotional sympathy, a reader may start to idolize and even emulate the confessional writer whom they love. In my tenure as a bookseller, I have met several young women who have told me that they, quote, “wanted to be Sylvia Plath” or were, quote, “obsessed with Anne Sexton.” The first thing to notice here is that this enthusiasm has very little to do with art, and everything to do with a cult of personality. It may seem ridiculous that anyone would want to be like someone as miserable as Plath, but the alarming truth is that if the sense of glamor is strong enough, the misery itself becomes part of the appeal. 

In 1774, the 24-year-old Wolfgang von Goethe released The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel about a dashing young man who kills himself over unrequited love. The release of this novel caused a sensation throughout Germany known as “Werther fever,” and resulted in a fad of young men dressing up like the lovelorn protagonist and killing themselves. The general phenomenon of copycat suicides has sometimes been called “The Werther effect” for this reason. As far as I know, nothing so extreme has occurred among the admirers of Plath or Sexton, but the fact remains that some readers, young people especially, are easily seduced into aping the unhealthy lifestyles and mind states of media figures whom they look up to as mentors or idols. One recalls that the teenage Rimbaud turned to opiates, alcohol, and delinquency because he thought that to be a poet required a “derangement of the senses.” Because Confessionalism by its very nature fosters a cult of personality, and because it so often deals openly with topics such as suicide, mental illness, trauma, infidelity, and addiction, it carries a large risk of glamorizing and romanticizing these subjects for its readers. 

Beyond this, a love for confessional lyric cannot help but change the way that a reader thinks about their relationship to their own feelings. If a reader comes to deeply admire a confessional writer who wallows in their own emotions and experiences, they are going to be influenced to do the same, and so take on similar level of unhealthy self-absorption. On a larger scale, a culture in which Confessionalism predominates is a culture in which egocentric behavior is normalized, rewarded, and cultivated. This brings me to my next point.


3.     Confessionalism, by privileging extremes of feeling, cultivates a culture of hyper-emotionalism.


I suppose that in theory it could be possible for a very mild-mannered, even-keeled variety of confessional lyric to exist, but not only would this be highly atypical, it would be very boring. Confessionalism is about confession— it relies on the dramatic delivery of salacious personal detail in order to obtain interest. Because its main goal is neither abstract insight, nor beauty, nor even critical provocation, but the expression of the self, it must resort to emotional and thematic extremity in order to attract attention, and this is a natural fit for the Confessional writer, who usually writes in the confessional mode in the first place because they require an outlet for their strong feelings. Confessional writing and reading alike are thus rituals of summoning up violent emotion for the heart’s delectation. 

As with the encouragement of self-absorption, a person or a society immersed in Confessional literature is going to be conditioned to believe that strong, turbulent emotion is the appropriate reaction to the travails of life, and, even worse, that turbulent emotion is the most artistic response. Emotional extremity perpetuates further emotional extremity. How often have we heard the stereotype that a particular culture is fiery and melodramatic, or that a particular time period was frivolous and decadent? Stereotypes are never fully true of course, but they often point to the presence of distinct cultural norms which affect the behavior of the people who were nurtured within them. Do we want our cultural norm, or even one aspect of our cultural norm, to be the morbid ouroboros of trauma-dumping that is Confessionalism? Would we like to live in a society where people are hyper-fixating on either their own emotional baggage or the emotional baggage of others? Do we want to live in a world where, instead of reasoned argument, the verbal equivalent of a primal scream, a Ginsbergian “howl” or a Whitmanian “yawp” is the voice of authority and consolation? I think not. 


4.     Confessionalism airs details of the private lives of others without their consent.


In a radio interview with his first ex-wife, the famous Norwegian memoirist Karl Ove Knausgard admitted that he had made a “Faustian bargain.” He had written a blisteringly honest six-volume account of his life story, provocatively entitled “Min Kamp” and in so doing had become the most famous Norwegian writer since Henrik Ibsen. In the process, he went through a divorce, and became bitterly estranged from multiple friends and family members, all of whom felt betrayed and violated by Knausgard’s decision to describe their personal lives in intimate detail for all the world to read. As Knausgard essentially concedes, what he did was deeply selfish and manipulative, and he was rewarded for it. 

Robert Lowell, the illustrious father of confessionalism, went a step further when he not only incorporated private letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick into his book of poems, The Dolphin, but actually altered the letters without any notification or permission. His former friend Adrienne Rich called the move “cruel and shallow,” while his close confidante Elizabeth Bishop went so far as to say that it was “infinite mischief,” a “violation of trust,” and that “art just isn’t worth that much.” 

While most writers do not go to the borderline psychopathic lengths of Lowell, all confessional writers, to greater or lesser degrees, accepts the same selfish, Faustian bargain of Knausgard. Central to Confessionalism is the imperative to publicly proclaim intimate autobiographical truths. No person exists in a vacuum, and so these truths will necessarily implicate other real people who, guilty or innocent, have no say in how they are represented, and, unless the writer has been particularly conscientious, have not even given consent to having their information broadcast. Before someone decides to write a confessional lyric, they must ask themselves: “is art really worth this much?” It would be one thing if it was Confessional lyric or silence. But there are both other, less public ways to process one’s emotions, and completely different ways of writing which do not involve the violation of real people’s lives. These are options which should be considered. 


5.     Confessionalism restricts the possibilities and expectations of the lyric “I.” 


Within the conventions of Confessional lyric, when the speaker says “I thought X” or “I felt X,” the “I” in that statement is understood to literally refer to the author of the text. If a writer frequently composes in the confessional mode, their readers will quickly come to always identify that writer’s use of the pronoun “I” with the author themselves, and may even assume that if the author writes explicitly from other points of view these must also refer in some way to the author. This state of affairs puts the author in a bit of a bind, because it now becomes nearly impossible for them to write from the perspective of another without being misinterpreted as speaking either directly or covertly about themselves. This in turn severely limits both the imaginative possibilities of their writing and the way in which they will tend to be read. 

Moreover, if we envision a reader whose diet of poetry and lyric is almost entirely confessional in spirit, we can well imagine that this reader will assume that any poetry or lyric where a lyric “I” is present is written from the unadulterated perspective of the author. A reader cultivated in this milieu will not only misread much of the great lyric writing that we possess, but will not understand the full extent of imaginative possibilities available to them if they decide to start writing poetry themselves. 


6.     A culture of Confessionalism places unfair pressure on aspiring writers to expose and focus on their personal details for popularity and recognition.


If you are an impressionable, budding writer seeking fame and glory, and all around you see evidence of the popularity of Confessionalism, it is going to be a profound temptation to write Confessional poetry yourself, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable and compromised. Indeed, I have even heard of professors in creative writing programs urging their students to bring more of their personal lives into their work. Your willingness to do this will probably be labeled “brave”, rather than what it is: exploited. Catering one’s creative work and image to the expectations of a dominant artistic culture is an example of the phenomenon that poet and friend of the show Virginia Konchan has called “market mimesis,” in her essay Neo-Confessionalism: Whose Commodity Am I, Anyway? where she describes Confessionalism as a surrendering of human capital in exchange for cultural capital. Even in the ruthless capitalist system we live in, I can think of few exchanges more potentially degrading than this. 

This phenomenon is further problematized by the identitarian turn in Confessional poetics. If a writer is from a marginalized group, they are often unfairly expected in their capacity as a writer to be a representative of that group. I cannot count the number of times I have seen a writer marketed first and foremost based on their racial, sexual, gender, or cultural identity. Sometimes this is the choice of the writer themselves, but often it is a distinction made by publishers or the press, with a calculated intent to respond to certain market pressures. Even when the intent is genuinely progressive and not simply an exercise in corporate tokenism, in every case it is a reduction and limitation of the artist both as an individual and as a maker, and I would even say that it has the potential to be a form of oppression. No human being can or should be reduced to a label, nor should their work be framed or judged primarily under a label, nor should writers feel pressured to confine their work to the exploration of their identity. If a writer desires to be a spokesperson for an identity, that is their right, but no one should have this expectation thrust upon them. 


7.     Confessionalism, by privileging authenticity above all, makes craftsmanship an afterthought.


This is a topic I touched on before in the first part of my Case For Meter and Rhyme episode, under the heading of “The Argument From Spontaneity.” From the perspective of the typical Confessional writer, authenticity is essential. In order to achieve maximal authenticity, a true journaling of emotions and thoughts in their immediacy, it is necessary to write directly and instinctively, and not spend too much time laboring over how one says something, for to do this is to introduce artificiality and therefore falsehood into one’s writing. As Allen Ginsberg infamously quipped, “first thought, best thought.” In Robert Lowell’s terminology, influenced by Ginsberg, there is “raw” poetry and there is “cooked” poetry, and self-expression demands that poetry be raw. 

As I pointed out in the Meter and Rhyme episode, this philosophy is fundamentally anti-artistic. It is an appeal to documentation rather than an appeal to craft. More than this, it is a blatantly irresponsible approach to communication, in which unconsidered thoughts, distorted by fresh emotion, are broadcast to potential readers as exemplars of poetic wisdom, thereby encouraging the cultivation of irrationality, melodrama, and reactionism in the public. 

Furthermore, a Confessionalist norm in which craft plays a minimal role leads to a crisis in artistic education. Former editor of Poetry magazine Christian Wiman once called the Confessional style “broken prose,” and if prospective poets are taught that this is all poetry is, they will be utterly unable to write in any manner that is not simply broken prose, nor be able to fully appreciate the patterns and figurations of other poetry which distinguish it from prose. Subtleties of form and rhythm, of metaphor and rhetoric will be unavailable to them. Under an anti-artistic philosophy, the art of poetry will die. I wish such a claim were alarmist, but I see the process happening before my eyes, and this is the reason why this show exists. 


8.     Confessionalism, by privileging the particular, makes universal insight an afterthought.


I have already mentioned this point in passing, but I would like to conclude with it because I think it is one of the most important. It is true that, to an extent, one can read universal insight into any accurate utterance about human experience. Yet when the insight in question is not carefully considered and explored, nor consciously striven for, the primary purpose and ambition of art is abandoned. When compared to the grand visions of Homer, Vyasa, Job, Shakespeare, Dante, or George Eliot, in which reality itself is examined beneath the glass of imaginative intelligence, a litany of personal particulars is but a paltry thing. Yes, literature should offer comfort, catharsis, and human connection. Yes, it can offer searing indictments of contemporary society and suggest ways to move forward. More than this though, it can and should be a tool by which we can existentially orient ourselves in the mystery of life, and which illuminates the realms of aesthetic, moral, and spiritual possibility in all their glory and complexity. In order to accomplish this, an artist must serve a muse larger than themselves. 


I understand why people enjoy and admire Confessional writing, and I hope that, notwithstanding my arguments against it, I have made that fact clear. If your reading or writing habits fall often into the Confessional mode, I do not think that you are a bad person. My goal in this episode has merely been to point out what I feel are some serious toxicities inherent in Confessionalist practice, and therefore why alternatives should be considered. If I have at least encouraged you to think twice about this extremely popular and seductive mode of artmaking, I will consider myself successful. For now, I hope that you continue to think deeply, read well, and write seriously, and I’ll see you next time.