Confessional Poetry Amplifies Everyday Resistance
written by KARA LEWIS
“You have to realize that you are not endlessly fascinating.”
This comment came from a visiting poet at my university junior year. The surprised crowd – made up of mostly creative writing students – laughed awkwardly. The poet had been addressing “confessional poetry,” which the Academy of American Poets calls “the poetry of the personal.” It’s often the most common genre for new and emerging poets, based on the familiar advice to “write what you know.”
Yet an essay from Literary Hub describes the style as a “whipping boy,” meaning that it came to be ridiculed, replaced by other ideas of what poetry should be. In my internship at a literary journal that same year, the editor often rejected confessional poems on principle – particularly ones by women. I recently listened to a poetry podcast where a writer reluctantly admitted that she did write confessional poetry – but not in a way that felt “typical,” she hastily added.
“I wonder about that being a gendered comment,” my poetry professor said.
She’s right: Voices that led the genre include Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. For both women, poetry became a vehicle to speak about mental health and stifling gender norms.
For instance, in Plath’s poem “Tulips,” she writes,
“The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me. / Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe.”
Here, Plath takes a simple, unremarkable image from her daily life and turns it on its head. The tulips become a lens through which she explores depression, anxiety, and instability.
With diary-like Instagram poetry and viral slam poetry videos that rely on emotional performances, poetry only seems to be getting more personal. From Halsey reacting to the #MeToo movement at the Women’s March with a poem, to Beyoncé sampling verse from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on her feminist anthem “Flawless,” poetry’s role in the pop culture landscape has resurged: namely, through confessional poetry that spotlights social issues, intersectional identities, and how they shape our daily realities.
This can be seen in the work of Srestha Sen, a queer, South Asian poet. In “The Brunette on TV Says All You Do Is Leave,” published in Split Lip Magazine, she writes,
“and I have never | wanted so instantly | so much
as to be this heterosexual | doctor who scoops
her chin | into his hand | as big as my want to be | him when he says
You just don’t understand | how many women | have I whispered that to”
Through this poem, the everyday act of binge-watching becomes a powerful meditation on LGBTQ identity and the need for representation. The intimate, detailed setting lets us into the poet’s yearning and pain, which – when brought from the private to public sphere – act as powerful forces for revolution.
Black feminist poet Yrsa Daley-Ward also uses confessional poetry and its close, unflinching perspective to challenge social issues. In “bone,” she writes about the lingering, intensely specific memories tied to sexual assault: the smell of tobacco, a rapist who “pays for your breakfast / and a cab home / and your mother’s rent.” This focus on the personal prepares readers to ask an urgent, universal question by the poem’s end: “How else do you sew up the tears? / How else can the body survive?”
In Iranian-American poet Solmaz Sharif’s “Personal Effects,” personal experiences like looking at old family pictures, rereading letters, and even driving over potholes carry the violence and vocabulary of war – as well as an invitation to resist its prejudice and brutality. She writes of “rolling little ears of pasta off my thumb like helmets” and “Anthrax in salt and pepper shakers.”
“Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language” Sharif sums up. The role of confessional poetry in the polarizing, tumultuous 21st century seems to be taking this language back – and finding unexpected, sharp, and, occasionally, even joyful resistance in the mundane.
It just might be “endlessly fascinating” to a whole new generation of readers.