Poetry and personal blog – Spilling my guts to strangers

Confessional Poet

Many first-time visitors make mention of the subtitle of this blog with regard to spilling my guts to strangers. And spill I do. I’ve talked about how I’m trying to overcome indoctrination in the code of silence, how race has played a part in my life, and my issues with abandonment. Probably what plagues me most right now are my issues surrounding my marriage, with my latest gut spill taking place right before I began the poem-a-day challenge last month.

When I think about the kind of poet I want to be, I immediately think of the so-called confessional poets, particularly Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Yet I also wonder what that means in terms of updating that model. Writing poetry as a teenager, I saw it as an outlet for my feelings, similar to diary entries, and I did not allow many people to read it. When I discovered Plath, I was pleased to find that this type of expression had a name, so to speak.

Over time, of course, confessional poetry–especially that of Plath and Sexton, the poster children for this genre–has met with criticism for being one dimensional or mawkish. (I find it interesting that I haven’t heard such criticism lodged against men confessional poets–such as Robert Lowell, for instance.) To be fair, though, when reading Sexton’s poetry as a body of work, I have felt it to be narrow in scope with a perspective so specific as to be insular. On the other hand, my thought is that Plath was more generous in her imagery and wordplay, and that she illuminates a broader range of experience. In Sexton’s defense and to the credit of both women, however, they opened the door for women to talk about the totality of their lives and not just that which constitutes polite conversation.

So what does that mean for me? I want my poetry to reflect who I am, what I feel, what I’ve experienced, and what I think. At the same time, I want my poetry to be able to stand on its own regardless of anything that has to do with my personal life. Poetry is not simply an emotional outlet for me, although it is that. As a poet who wants to be heard, I want the reader to either share in the moment as I’ve laid it out or else to live in the moment in their own way using the poem as a guidepost. Many, but not all, of my poems relate directly to what I think and feel on a deeply personal level, and the degree of directness varies.

Off the top of my head, I can think of four poems I wrote during NaPoWriMo last month that, in my mind, related to my marriage separation. Of the four poems, the one that  probably comes closest to expressing my feelings in a direct manner is The Wedding. This poem was written quickly using a type of shorthand for ideas that needs expansion in subsequent rewrites. But my intention was to use the storyline to reveal my actual thoughts about sexual politics as a destructive force in marriage and the idealistic expectations we have in life–all embodied within the wedding ritual. I talk about how divorce affects social relationships outside of the marriage (e.g., the divying up of friends). I tap into my real-life compulsion to warn the naifs that if they must get married, avoid certain pitfalls. Mostly though, it’s about being sad and disappointed that happily ever after either doesn’t exist or simply didn’t work out for my persona. Or for me, either, for that matter …

So should I even consider myself a confessional poet or else maybe I should just recognize that genre as an influence and be what I am, whatever that is? How do you feel about personal accounts in your writing or in other people’s writing?

[This post was included in the February 2013 edition of the Third Sunday Blog Carnival.]

© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2012

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Comments on: "Confessional Poet" (49)

  1. One of the things I enjoy about poetry is that it allows so much freedom for the writer. If you feel like being confessional, you can be and no one is the wiser. After all, it is just a poem and yet… there’s a certain amount of anonymity even if your name is assigned to it.

  2. A- I think you are what you are what you are. Do you need a label? In my opinion, no. You’re a poet who draws upon her life and conjures magic from words, which are sometimes confessional and sometimes based on a feeling or a moment loosely contacted to your life or an emotion we can all relate to. I am a poet on training wheels, and I’m a huge first person narrative writer. Even when I am writing about the collective ‘I’ it’s taken as me talking me, and sometimes I am, but not always. Writing verse or prose on love is stronger in the ‘I’ voice than the she/he voice (my opinion). It took me a long time to work up the nerve to come out of the writer closet and even longer to stop apologizing for my quirky voice. Nowadays, I accept that a reader either likes my style or not. I like my voice and even though I can be something else I won’t nor could you. I focus on the quality of my content, as you clearly do. Have I rambled enough? A side note: I’ve taken enough fiction workshops to know when someone is writing with the ‘I’ word, to automatically assume it’s fiction EVEN if I know it’s not. I don’t comment on someone’s person hardships unless asked, otherwise I focus the words. Even though you had a rough start to the month of April, you wrote some amazing stuff.

    • Not a ramble at all, Brenda, you make some great points. I think nearly everything is stronger in the “I” voice, it’s just the way I lean. ;p And yes, I am so with you in that I was taught and take to heart that the the persona and the poet/writer are not the same. I’m glad I had the meltdown beforehand so I had some of that bad chi out of my system!

  3. I say be you. Leave genres and labels behind. I know everyone places so much emphasis (ugh) on sticking to this or that but, whatever happened to being who we are as a whole? Why must we worry about where we fit in when it’s all irrelevant in the longrun? Keep exploring your poetic abilities and your poems will be what they want to be. Xoxo

  4. I think you write beautifully opening your heart, weaving magic into your poems. It takes a lot of courage to do that. At least we are the lucky ones who have words as an outlet to express our lives, some dont even have that.

  5. From one confessional poet to another…write on!

  6. I believe that the Best writing is the one that comes from the heart, and not dictated by the mind.

  7. I think when people write from their gut that it is most effective. In poetry we can pretty things up, play with the language to hide or reveal personal pain and that is what is fascinating and attractive about it. I love your personal style Sweepy. Keep building on it and don’t change. Not unless of course if you want to.
    🙂

  8. I agree that you have to be you and write from that space. The words have to come from the pain and joy we feel to be genuine.

    I personally have no patience for verse that is contrived, trite or superlative dribble…that is what Hallmark cards [and interns] are for ;).

    You write beautifully, intelligently and from the heart…THAT is verse and literature. Your words inspire me to dig deeper and work harder when I write!

    Be well,
    Ron

  9. (This mostly agrees with Brenda, above.)
    The one time I had a conversation with Audre Lorde she told me vehemently–twice in different words–to write what I know: “If all you know is vomit, write about vomit.” Now that was in 1982, and I still haven’t published. But in my ministry as a teacher, I’ve passed on her advice. It worked to turn out great student poems. I never told them it was “confessional poetry.” Should I have? Audre Lorde didn’t call it that.
    My other point is feminist: The personal is political. Truly. Isolated in our own experiences, we forget how much our life details may rattle in and echo around the lives of our listeners/readers. That’s what CR groups were about. I think the idea/label got a bad name because talking out experience REALLY empowered women by breaking their isolation in their misery and self-doubt. Labeling helps some identify and puts up barriers for others. I say let the critics do the labeling unless you have a political/personal reason for doing it yourself. (LOL)

    I didn’t read your work as “confessional.” I read it and read it as refreshing in imagery and comparisons that only you could find and revealing of truths that you see and dare to reveal. I love it!

    • It’s so funny, Susan, but I have used those exact same words in conversation, that the personal is political. Right? The basic political unit is the individual with his or her own truth. There’s a reason why voices in some demographics are suppressed! 😉 Thanks for your kind words about my poetry.

  10. I always enjoy the intensity of your poems-the vivid imagery, the emotion, the raw honesty of it all. You let experience, in all its many colors and hues, speak through you and I think sometimes, even though you might be describing a certain experience that is specific to you, more peoplethat you might realize can relate.

    I’m not too familiar with labels when it comes to writing, but whatever you call yourself, I think your poetry is great!

    • Thanks so much, Jessica. To your point, I am constantly amazed by how much of individual experience others can relate to. It’s uncanny and I guess I should start believing.

  11. Rather than repeat my thoughts (I’m lazy, I guess) — I wrote on the same topic very recently: http://beeinthebottle.deviantart.com/journal/quot-Personal-poetry-quot-296291933. I’m a “confessional poet,” at least to a large part, but I’d like to consider myself a “personal poet.” Though not everything I write that appears personal is. I’ve always related to Sylvia Plath and am only starting to read Anne Sexton. I relate to the former, at minimum. It’s an interesting conundrum: how personal can you get without alienating the reader? I don’t have the answer yet.

    • My work this month was very much an experiment on trying to balance my proclivity for the personal and making it accessible to others. I find it’s a cross between being very aware that there is an audience and not caring at all that there is an audience. The hardest part, though, is finding the benchmark and identifying who are the arbiters of taste. It’s all so subjective.

      I just visited your link and I hope you were able to get specific criticism from your writing group, then weigh it against your intent and vision. Who’s to say they are right and you and your husband are mistaken?

      • I’d like to figure all that out, too. Being told “write for yourself” is fine — if the only reader you want is yourself. I agree that identifying the arbiters is important, as is separating them out, as necessary, from whatever audience you choose to reach.

  12. “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” – The Little Prince

    I love your poetry, the images (and sometimes olfactory sensations) you evoke with them. Confessional or not, it does not need a label. And it lets you perceive your life from a different angle playing with words and trying to find a concise form.

  13. Thanks for this post! I have strong opinions about “confessional” being a dated term. First, I don’t appreciate the insinuation that writing about my life means I am or should be ashamed, or that I’ve sinned. Second, how exactly do we keep our experiences from entering our art? Even if it could be done, it sounds like boring art to me! Third, readers/critics apply the term “confessional,” not poets. Readers, put down the label-maker and back away slowly…

    • Indeed, Stacia. It doesn’t ring true when people leave themselves out of their writing. Even for myself: If I think my wip is not working, almost always it’s because I’m holding back something that needs to be said, and it all comes together once I overcome that fear and put it in. And I do think there is judgment implied with the term “confessional.” That kind of honesty makes some people uncomfortable. Thanks for your comment.

  14. Ian Stuart said:

    All poetry is confessional. When John Clare writes about birds and the countryside, he’s really writing about himself. When TS Eliot is writing about a London inhabited with zombies- then he’s writing about himself. If poetry isn’t in some way confessional- then it isn’t poetry. What makes a good poem ? Something you, as reader, can identify with- a place, a person- but more often a feeling. It doesn’t matter what you write about because what you’re really writing about is yourself.

  15. […] to admit that when I write I draw heavily from my real life experiences in the tradition of “confessional poets” such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell, and more recently Marie Howe and […]

  16. It takes guts to put it all out there. You sure make good poetry while dealing with life Adriene. Thanks for sharing. Great, informative post here, too.

  17. Don’t worry about what type of poet you are. Just create your poetry and let others figure that out. Write the poetry you want to write. That’s what’s important.

  18. I admit I’ve never heard the term confession poet before, even though I’m familiar with Sylvia Plath. And I’m not much for labels anyhow. Do what feels right and helps you express what you need to.

  19. Great poets wrote from their heart. I don’t think they worried about labels. Just go with what you feel. Thanks for dropping by my blog. love and hugs.

  20. You are what you are. Your experiences, happy or painful, have shaped you. Don’t let a label define you. The sky is the limit!

  21. pagemanuel said:

    Thanks for this post, Adriene. It was very enlightening, the label of confessional poet/ry and also liberating for me. I enjoy writing poems and though I do agree with Bernhard Schlink when he said that all writing is autobiographical to some extent, like you I also want my poems to stand on their own. It’s difficult as most readers assume that what I write is always about me/my life, but it isn’t the case, at least not entirely. But I guess as long as they appreciate it and they find that it echoes something that is also true for them, then my work has been done. I love your poetry, whether it’s based on personal experience or not. Write and write away. Whatever you are called or want to be, your work is a part of you, heart, mind and soul. The labels shouldn’t really matter. 🙂

  22. I have always appreciated the kind of depth you have with your words, Adriene. When it comes to personal accounts, I have always wholeheartedly respected those who are heartbreakingly open and honest… maybe because I know how difficult it is. Please continue writing as you do because we need more poets and writers like you. =)

  23. Lady, what I most admire about poetry is that little thing called “poetic license.” A poet can break all the rules; anything goes. I think poetry is a fantastic way to bring to light personal accounts. Like you mention, poetry is a wonderful emotional outlet but it is also a way for the poet to share his or her feelings with the world. Back in college, I spent a good part of my sophomore year writing what I called “angry chick” poetry. It helped me resolve personal issues, rant, rave, and process. I didn’t share it with anybody but now, I wish I had because it was who I was at the time. It was a part of me that deserved to be seen and shared. Loved this post! 🙂

  24. Thanks for your comment over at my place, Adrienne. This post really grabbed me, because I don’t think writing can be anything but personal. As writers, almost anything we write can be considered a confessional, even writing through other characters. (I’m working on most of my protagonists’ pathological hatred of Easter, because that’s a little too much of me in there…:p ) Write what you like, and use it how you wish.

    Take care,

    Casey

  25. […] D. Joyce presents Confessional Poet posted at Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, saying, “When people think of […]

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