Confessional Poetry – Definition & meaning

Confessional Poetry designates a type of narrative and lyric verse, given impetus by Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), which deals with the facts and intimate mental and physical experiences of the poet’s own life. It differs in subject matter from poems of the Romantic Period about the poet’s own circumstances, experiences, and feelings, such as William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode”, in the candour and detail-and sometimes the psychoanalytic insight-with which the poet reveals private or clinical matters about himself or herself. Confessional poems have been written by Allen Ginsberg. Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and other recent American poets. Following are English confessional poets.

Cecil Day Lewis, after the social fervour and the sometimes defiant realism of his early verse, has developed to quieter tones and themes of a wider scope: Word Over All, 1943; Poems, 1936-47; An Italian Visit, 1953; Collected Poems, 1954; Christmas Eve, 1954; Pegasus and other Poems, 1957. From his rather ample output, it is possible to mark out stages of a progress, not uninterrupted, but establishing his claim to an outstandingly solid achievement. A tone of sincerity and feeling places those poems on the line of descent from Wordsworth. Hardy, and the central tradition of English poetry. Parts of The Magnetic Mountain, Flight to Australia, The Nabara, The Double Vision, sections of An Italian Visit, may illustrate a reflective and meditative art which aims high, and seeks nothing from meretricious ornament. Or the affectations and voluntary obscurities in which many have tried to capture the secret of modernity. His technique is varied and free, showing the rhythmic liberty of an age when the regular cadences of the past strike us as almost inevitably artificial. Altogether, with its pregnant, concentrated expression, that at times will somewhat tax the reader’s ingenuity, this body of verse is one of the most encouraging signs of the refreshed, renovated inspiration which, when all is said, may be the genuine formula of the present In this later work this poet has tended more markedly perhaps towards a form of expression becoming gradually less involved, but in the main he has preserved all the essential qualities of his vigour and nobility. In his translation of The Aeneid of Virgil, 1952, he achieved a tour de force, and by his vital gifts transformed a rendering into a veritable re-creation.

Louis MacNeice (Collected Poems, 1925-1948, 1949; Ten Burnt Offerings, 1952; Autumn Sequel, 1954; The Other Wing, 1954) was regarded in the thirties as an important member of the Leftist group. He has, like others, drifted away, and his place of eminence at present is perhaps not quite so secure. Although he could display facility and versatility, there is no denying the fact that some of his poems are very difficult. One will confess a preference for his description of places, as in ‘Belfast’ and ‘Birmingham’, or feats of verve, as ‘Brother Fire’; or such satirical dialogue as ‘Eclogue for Christmas’.

In his latest work MacNeice has skillfully blended abstract contrasts with pregnant imagery, playing a lively fugue on the conflict of universal myths, which has given scope for a broader treatment of the themes and forms revealing his philosophic outlook.

Edwin Muir (Collected Poems, 1952) holds a distinct and honourable place among contemporary poets. He was one of those who stand resolutely for tradition; his thought is never lax and diffuse, and does not seek subtlety and force at the expense of intelligibility; his language and his verse are not afraid of echoing a long past; what is original in him grows out of his personality. His serious meditation, his awareness of our problems, are those of a modern, while his spiritual intensity reflects the austere influence of the Scottish isle where he was born, and of the biblical education which he received. Upon the theme of Time, and of our desperate struggle against this devouring master, he has written lines which move us because they aptly voice our own deeper feelings. His Prometheus, 1954, is an especially attractive poem with certain touches definitely recalling the Hyperion of Keats.

Edith Sitwell; some twenty years ago it was possible to speak of Miss Sitwell as the gifted sister of two brothers, who on various grounds had been making their mark on literature. She was clever, witty, satirical; she experimented in verse, and rang brilliant changes on themes and methods, writing to amuse herself, and rarely showing that she had any compelling motive to write. These were the mood and the manner, for instance, of Bucolic Comedies and Façade. Then came the dramatic events of the second war, and the genuine ardour that had been lacking awoke under the stress of emotion. Already in 1929 Gold Coast Customs had started readers with the intimation of a new conscience, and of a savage ironical force, roused by the smug hypocrisies of our civilization. More recent collections of verse reveal the free, full development of a singer swayed by pity and indignation (Street Songs, 1942; Green Songs, 1944; The Song of the Cold, 1945; The Canticle of the Rose, 1949: Collected Poems, 1954). A social as well as a humanitarian impulse to which she yields without reserve carries her on. The extremely subtle rhythmic effects which she had first sought for their own sake have now given place to an intense energy of diction, a power of concentration that leaves her meaning fiercely clear, and a music inseparable from the accent of feeling. Such a piece as ‘Still Falls the Rain’ (The Raids, 1940) belongs to an order of poetry comparable with the lyrics of Hardy. She is now a poetess in her own right, and second to none in England.

Osbert Sitwell has much in common with his sister’s fully developed manner. Satire is often his object, and a satire instinct with impassioned, violent emotions of the moral or political kind. The first part of his volume of Collected Poems brings together indictments of many national orthodoxies; he denounces war with outspoken virulence, and assails democracy in a ‘secular oratorio’, Demos the Emperor (1949). There is eloquence in his combative inspiration, but the most striking quality is his talent for expression and formulation, entirely modelled on the older tradition of phrasing. It can display wit and humour, or indulge in poetical fancy; it will call up vivid pictures; still it is decidedly classical, and abstains from all the new-fangled devices of the moderns. The persistence of this vein is an interesting symptom. The example and the memory of Byron are probably at the back of these pugnacious outpourings.

Stephen Spender (Ruins and Visions, 1942; Poems of Dedication, 1946), although he still writes verse (Sirmione Peninsula, 1954, a graceful springtime picture, charming if rather slight; Collected Poems, 1955, chosen by himself from his work, 1928-1953, and partly revised), is now chiefly active in the fields of criticism and journalism. His poems have a neatness and definiteness of phrase that sound a pleasant note of searching reflection and moral clarity. One may cite as instance his Spiritual Explorations, which testify to a gift for the characterization of intellectual values, in language apt and rhythmical.

Dylan Thomas (Collected Poems, 1934-1952, 1952) While T. S. Eliot is generally held to be the uncrowned Laureate of English poetry, most of the poets themselves will keep their homage for Dylan Thomas. The latter is usually labelled a romantic, as classicism is the pole of the former’s principles. The personality of Thomas is highly original and striking. Dim or frankly obscure snatches of song, studded with images of often wild freshness, are instinct with a power of suggestion, that lies mainly in the spell of the music; the movement and the rhythm owe little to proper intellectual communication, as the ideas frequently remain dark, or lack logical organization. The lyrical gift of the whole is certain; and the obviously passive character of the utterance resembles the manner of the French ‘surrealists’. Thomas’s language uses compounds and dialectical forms pretty freely. An influence of Welsh patterns of sound and structure on his compositions has been conjectured. Some of his pieces, for instance, ‘Poem in October,’ are successful attempts at a kind of evocative art, which contrasts happily with the dryness of much contemporary poetry. But many others are uncertain and slightly incoherent, and fail in the carrying out of too vaguely conceived intentions. Even so, the early death of Dylan Thomas cut off at its jetting source one of the most genuine springs of English poetry to-day.

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Contemporary poetry is especially difficult ground for the critic to survey because he severely suffers here, and more than elsewhere, from inability to stand back from the dust-cloud of production. There are, for instance, the poems read in the B.B.C. Third programme (valuable broadcasts by John Lehmann, G. S. Fraser, John Wain, or lan Fletcher and others deserve mention), and also publications due to enterprise at university centres, from sources such as the Fantasy Press at Oxford, or the School of Art of Reading University.

The number of recent poems possessing some merit is indeed so considerable that it is only possible to give a fragmentary list of the writers whose work impresses most; of these some, already known or perhaps celebrated, have reaffirmed their talent in further volumes, while others are younger poets deserving attention.

Alfred Alvarez, also a critic of English and American poetry; Kingsley Amis, poet and prose writer; Roy Campbell (Collected Poems, 1949; Nativity. 1954); Maurice Carpenter (The Tall Interpreter); Alex Comfort (see p. 1387) poet and novelist; Robert Conquest, also editor of useful anthologies: A. P. E. N. Anthology, 1953; New Lines, 1956; Donald Davie, a critic and a poet of definite classical inspiration; Lawrence Durrell, versatile and gifted, who has shone in other fields, remarkable for his distinguished and subtle dilettantism; D. J. Enright, professor and poet, whose work, though based on keen visual observation, often recalls the caustic detachment of Robert Graves; J. P. Fletcher, a miner’s son: his Tally 300, 1956, is an elegy on the lives of men who toil in darkness underground, a poem of unusual and affecting tone; G. S. Fraser, an already outstanding figure, both as the militant poet of Apocalypse and as a remarkably able commentator on current literary trends; Roy Fuller (Counterparts, 1954); W. S. Graham; Thom Gunn; John Heath-Stubbs, known as an editor of anthologies: The Faber Book of 20th Century Verse, 1953. And Images of Tomorrow, An Anthology of Recent Poetry, also 1953, and especially as the author of several volumes of verse, much esteemed by such good judges as Richard Church and Kathleen Raine; personally I would single out A Charm against the Toothache, 1954, in which his treatment of dramatic monologue is even better than in earlier work and recalls Browning: Ted Hughes (The Hawk in the Rain. 1957), vehement and brutal, sufficiently strident to be placed among the ‘angry young men’: James Kirkup (The Descent into the Cave and Other Poems, 1957, with its strange and certainly memorable angle of view): Philip Larkin; Laurie Lee; John Lehmann, one of to-day’s most competent and active editors, also creatively gifted: he has collected the best of his work in The Age of the Dragon, Poems 1930-1951; Jack Lindsay, a poet and prose writer of great talent; Hugh MacDiarmid, promoter of the Scottish renaissance between the two wars (Selected Poems, 1954); Edward Milne (Life Arboreal, 1953), an Irishman, avowedly influenced by Yeats, who has been writing poetry deserving warm praise; Nicholas Moore; Norman Nicholson (The Geranium Pot, 1954), who describes his native Cumberland with much originality: Kathleen Nott, one of the most gifted women writers of her generation; in her second volume, Poems from the North, 1956, she shows striking gifts in her evocations of landscapes that are bare, white, and cold; Kathleen Raine, also admirably intelligent; after passing under the abstract and ‘metaphysical’ influence of William Empson, she has gradually moved away, to sing of mythic spells with a delicate stoicism and a feeling for solitudes (The Year One, 1953; Collected Poems, 1956); Francis Scarfe, poet and historian of poetry; Randolph Stowe, whose first volume Act One, Poems, 1957, revealed an unusually romantic temperament; Henry Treece, who has confirmed gifts manifest at the time of the founding of the ‘Apocalypse’ movement by his intellectual valour and artistic refinement; Meriol Trevor (Midsummer, Midwinter, 1957), whose hymns to life and to the sun, so full of optimism and joy, stand out in contrast to the general gloom of contemporary verse; John Wain, poet, critic, and novelist; Vernon Watkins, silent since 1948, until The Death Bell, Poems and Ballads, 1954, again confirmed a reputation justly founded on affinities with Hopkins, Yeats. And T.S. Eliot, and also on unquestionable originality springing from a painful awareness of the mysteries of faith.



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