Confessional poetry is being redefined. The term has always been ambiguous. Sometimes it has been taken to describe the work of the small circle of Robert Lowell and three of his students--Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass--and at other times the poetry of intimacy and crisis famously defined by M. L. Rosenthal in a 1959 article, a delineation which incorporates a wider range of writers, such as Adrienne Rich and John, Berryman, or even more broadly younger writers like Sharon Olds and Mark Doty. But over the last decade the very validity of the name has come into question, and the poets traditionally read through a confessional paradigm are being approached in new ways.
There are two main challenges to the confessional paradigm. One is mounted in works of literary history such as Thomas Travisano's 1999 Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, and the Making of a Postmodern Aesthetic and Adam Kirsch's 2005 The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets. Both Travisano and Kirsch reject the term confessional outright, Travisano rigorously and Kirsch dismissively. "In confession [criticism] found a bad metaphor for what the most gifted of these poets were doing," Kirsch writes, sketching instead a case for the metaphor that gives his book its title, taken from a line by T.S. Eliot--that of the wounded surgeon (2005, x). Travisano devotes an early chapter of his study to an attack on what he names the "confessional paradigm," developing five lines of argument against the term. What Kirsch and Travisano have most clearly in common is their objection to what Travisano identifies in the first of his objections as "how the confessional paradigm has prejudiced, and is still prejudicing, artistic evaluation" (1999, 44). An emphasis on the matter of the confessions of the poetry has obscured, according to this line of argument, its creators' artistic achievements. (1)
A slightly older but still forceful approach has taken what amounts to an opposing stance to this distinction between artistry and autobiography. Participating in the rise of critical histories and theoretical works emphasizing the connections between autobiography and gender, a number of critics have approached the genre of confessional writing more broadly as women's writing, exploring how writing works with and works out issues of women's experience and gender identity. (2) The editors of the recent volume of essays After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, Kate Sontag and David Graham, have counterbalanced a section on "Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations" with a section on "Women and Autobiography." Deborah Nelson's 2002 Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America discusses the representation of domestic space by Sexton and Rich as a response to the gendering of the home as a masculine enclosure, arguing that both poets "redefine the home, the location of autonomy, adulthood, and citizenship, as the womb" (2002, 111). And in a 2006 essay on confessional poetry and "the gendered poetics of the 'real,'" Elizabeth Gregory argues that the ambitious American poets of the 1950s can be seen as "embracing the 'feminine' confessional position," so that Berryman and Lowell, as well as Plath and Sexton, ought to be understood as exploring new terrain of feminine writing (2006, 37).
The argument I would like to make in this essay is that we can also revisit confessional poetry as men's autobiographical writing. Neither rushing to make evaluative judgments about the poetry on the one hand, nor following a critical tendency to feminize autobiographical writing on the other, I suggest here that we read important poems of this now canonical body of work for the light that they cast on the experience of masculinity in the period. This is hardly an eccentric suggestion. Critical studies of masculinity have abounded over the last decade, and various shapes of homosocialism in the poetry of the period--though not in the confessional school itself--have been explored in Michael Davidson's Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics. Though conversation has been started, there remains a good deal to be said on this subject.
I take my lead in this respect from Diane Wood Middlebrook's remark in her 1993 essay, "What Was Confessional Poetry?," that among the characteristics uniting the four indisputably confessional poets is the fact that "all four poets had become parents--of daughters, as it happens--not long before writing their confessional poems" (1993, 636). We have in Snodgrass and Lowell a pair of poets writing with a truly unaccustomed level of personal candor and detail about the experience of being a father generally and of being the father of a daughter more specifically. No critical work has been done at this particular intersection of gender and autobiographical or life writing.
There are a number of interesting questions raised by this confluence, and this essay will not be an attempt to answer them all. My focus is on what confessional poets reveal about the experience of fatherhood--specifically of fathering daughters--in their historical period. And the argument that I will make is that despite the similarity of their work with earlier poetry of fatherhood, these poets are remarkable for being consistently attuned to the quality of the relationship between themselves and their daughters, and that they experience through this attunement a sense of loneliness. What they show, in a way that the plays and movies of the period do not capture as pointedly, is that for the men committed to writing about the experience of fathering in postwar America fathering a daughter meant sustaining a relationship that made their own masculinity into an occasion of loneliness. (3)
The essay makes this argument in three parts. In the first, I briefly discuss the conception of "the new fatherhood," which describes a change in the role of the father in middle class American families beginning in the 1920s. From this changed conception, I suggest, we can see how fathers of daughters may often have come to experience a tension between their identities as fathers and their identities as men, a tension that could result in the sense of loneliness I discuss in the poets of the third section. Before moving to those readings, however, I read in the second section an earlier--and enormously influential--poem about fathering a daughter, William Butler Yeats's "A Prayer for My Daughter." This reading serves to establish a sense of the challenge facing modern fathers; I identify an introspective-didactic pattern of writing as a response to this challenge. And then I read in the third section some confessional poems of fatherhood by Snodgrass and Lowell, noting how in their quite distinct ways the two poets not only reproduce an introspective-didactic pattern but modify it through their emphasis on their relationship with their daughters, and further suggest that fathering their daughters entailed a sense of loneliness.
(1) Deborah Forbes's 2004 Sincerity's Shadow: Self-Consciousness in British Romantic and Mid-Twentieth-Century American Poetry similarly uses the concept of sincerity to attempt to hold confessional writing up to standards of artistic success which Forbes articulates in terms of "form." For instance, discussing what Lowell had called a breakthrough back into life in his confessional writing, Forbes argues that there "are real differences between the early and late phases of Lowell's career that can be generalized, but ... these differences are not adequately explained in terms of the abandonment of certain kinds of formal control in preference for liberated self-expression. Instead, form ... takes on different meanings in each phase" (2004, 63). In her choice of the concept of sincerity to negotiate the tension between artistic and autobiographical dimensions of confessional writing, Forbes is perhaps influenced by Lawrence Lerner's 1987 essay," What Is Confessional Poetry?"
(2) A significant portion of the writing of the last two decades focusing on autobiographical writing has linked the genre of confessional writing to femininity and women's experience. Irene Gammel's introduction to the 1999 Confessional Politics: Women's Sexual Self-Representations in Life Writing and Popular Media makes broad and specific claims in this respect: "Women encode boundaries and warnings, signaling their desire to create their own safe space in which to articulate their personal and sexual lives, while defying confessional entrapments" (1999, 2). Similar connections are made in Leigh Gilmore's Autobiographics (1994; see her discussion of confession in Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, 121-27), and Rita Felski's " On Confession."
(3) For an interesting discussion of Hollywood's representation of fathers of daughters as weak and inept in the postwar period, see Stella Bruzzi (2005). Rachel Devlin (2005), discussed elsewhere in this essay, treats a similar theme in popular fiction and plays of the period.
Boose, Lynda E. 1989. "The Father's House and the Daughter in It." In Daughters and Fathers, ed. Lynda E. Boose and Betty S. Flowers. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bruzzi, Stella. 2005. Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Post-War Hollywood. London: BFI.
Ciuraru, Carmela, ed. 2007. Fatherhood: Poems About Fathers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Devlin, Rachel. 2005. Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Fields, Suzanne. 1983. Like Father, Like Daughter. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Forbes, Deborah. 2004. Sincerity's Shadow: Self-Consciousness in British Romantic and Mid-Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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