|Reinventing the wheel.
||[Tuesday, Mar. 23rd, 2010|12:37 pm]
The richest girl in town.
I fear that term—"confessional"—has cursed us all, and I am amazed by its persistence. It was invented, of course, by M.L. Rosenthal, in a review of Life Studies [by Robert Lowell], and I've never felt it was apt, since Lowell's poems feel less like monologues delivered to a priest, in search of absolution, than they feel like monologues spoken to a psychiatrist, in search of insight. There is a huge difference between the search for insight and the desire to be forgiven. Now, admittedly, there's something deeply paradoxical about writing in public as though one were speaking with the privacy of an analyst, and that deep tug between private and public life is an energizing polarity for Lowell and for the poets he influenced. The term quickly became a handy categorizer for experience that was outside the mainstream; Sexton's illness or Plath's rage were "confessional," whereas reports on more conventionally validated realms of experience were not.
There has been a huge cultural shift since Lowell published Life Studies; the startling stuff of private revelation is now the ho-hum fodder of the daytime talk show, and even they're tired of it. The result is to make us wary of autobiography; we fear that to name the stuff of a life is to make use of the same tired terms. I've had eighteen-year-old students say to me, "I don't want to write confessional poems." And when I said, "What DO you want to do?" the same young poet said, "Well, I want to write about my life."
Obviously I am very influenced by those poets of the Fifties who made the investigation of self a central strand in their work. We are meant, in Berryman, Bishop, Roethke, and Lowell, to name a few, to meet a character who is a version of the poet, a character who's more or less the same person from poem to poem, and to follow that character's path through the difficult realms of experience. I guess I am that sort of poet, but in truth the term "confessional" is hollow and meaningless for me.
-- Mark Doty, in an interview with Poets & Writers in 2003