The Confessional Poems
Confessional poetry is an intensely emotional, direct approach to autobiographical content in which the poet removes the mask of impersonality and candidly discusses a personal event or issue. The time period of Confessional poetry is said to be from 1955 – 1975, but you can find confessional poetry today. The main poets of the Confessional School of poetry are W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath. All six poets wrote, although not exclusively, poems that “confessed” an autobiographical situation or emotion directly to the reader. Confessional poetry is typically chatty in tone – conversational. Many of the students in my school, when attempting to write poetry, write confessional poetry unaware.
We’ll start with W.D. Snodgrass’s “Heart’s Needle” - the first poem to be coined confessional. This poem was written for his daughter after a divorce. It is ten sections long, so I will abbreviate by using sections 1, 2, and 10 in class. This poem is also great because many of the students’ parents are divorced, and they can relate to the speaker. All of my students know someone who has divorced parents. “Mementos,1” is also a good confessional poem to teach. This poem is about the speaker finding a picture of his ex-wife while sorting through old files. He is shocked at first, but then begins to reminisce about the good times, “before we got married.” He then decides to keep the picture. It’s a very hopeful poem that has great examples of imagery. This poem also lends itself to teaching how syntax can help create a rhythm and tone.
Next, we’ll study Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, which “thinly conceal her estrangement as a woman, a lesbian, an orphan, a geographical rootless traveler, a frequently hospitalized asthmatic, and a sufferer of depression and alcoholism” (Lensing). We’ll begin by analyzing Bishop’s poem “Sestina,” which might have actually been used on the AP exam. Students will examine the use of “tears” and personification. Students can also look at the relationship between the grandmother and the grandchildren. We will also look at “The Armadillo,” a poem about animals’ suffering due to human use of fire balloons. First, I’ll ask students what the poem is about, always reinforcing the importance of using the text to support answers. Hopefully after an in-depth conversation, students will see that this is told from the voice of a spectator who is overwhelmed by pathos of the undeserved suffering of the animals. According to literary critic Paul Fry, the animals come in like a medieval pageant. There are antisocial gestures here. The last stanza is an apostrophe to the fire, creating a more direct and real experience by the spectator. This poem’s narrative is like the Chicken Little tale where the sky is falling. Students will later read Robert Lowell’s response to this “Skunk Hour.” Students will later be able to see that Bishop’s problems are the mirror inverse of Lowell’s, for she keeps her distance emotionally, and maybe she feels guilty about this because her demons are bottled up. We will also read Bishop’s “Sandpiper.” After students are familiar with her work, they will compare her “At the Fishhouses” with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and then read Roger Gilbert’s article doing this, comparing their own thoughts with his. My hope is that the students will feel validated if Gilbert reinforces any of their ideas. They can also see what they may have overlooked. To do this they will create a They Say I Say chart (see lesson plans).
Robert Lowell’s work from 1959 on was confessional. We’ll start with his answer to Bishop’s “Armadillo” – “Skunk Hour”. Robert Lowell was a manic-depressive whose depression would become severe around Christmas, when he was often hospitalized. He had profound religious and moral guilt, so his poems are confessional, as if he’s going to a priest to whom he tells everything bad about himself. I tell the kids the autobiographical information, because in Lowell’s case, we can really understand his poetry better. Lowell feels miserable about his compulsion when he “…watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,/ they lay together, hull to hull,/ where the graveyard shelves on the town…./ My mind’s not right.” Students should know that Lowell’s testing the boundaries of propriety of what we tell the world about ourselves. In the following stanza, students will see that he has a great deal of self-pity. They will not see, but I’ll tell them that “I myself am hell” is from a speech of Satan’s in
. He says he’s empty in that last line. The skunk shows us an alternate model of what it’s like to be in the world. Lowell does an excellent job making the personification plausibly human and retaining its original animal nature. The skunk is eating and doesn’t care that Lowell is there. Its way of being self-absorbed is harmless and honorable, as opposed to Lowell’s. Students should clearly see that the skunk that is determined to live on; it doesn’t torment itself with self-pity, unlike Lowell. The personification of the animal is a self-transcendence to realize the skunk’s spirit in the face of adversity is tougher than that of the self-absorbed poet. Students will then look at both “The Armadillo” and “Skunk Hour” and compare and contrast them in an in-class essay. Lowell says in his essay on “Skunk Hour” that both poems “use short line stanzas, start with drifting description and end with a single animal” (Parkinson). We’ll continue on with “Home After Three Months Away,” which is an account of returning home after being sick. Then we will look at a more political poem, “For the Union Dead” about the Civil War, which is a great poem to focus on for tone. According to Brooks and Warren, the Latin epigraph can mean, “They gave up everything to serve the republic” (157). The poet criticizes modern America, and students will decide what the tone of the poem is. We will also look at Lowell’s use of the two mementos of war.
Anne Sexton’s confessional poetry is more political at times. She was highly criticized for writing about feminist and gynecological subject matters. She suffered numerous emotional breakdowns, due to postpartum depression. In fact, she tried to commit suicide and then later in her life did commit suicide. We see her emotional struggle in her poems. Students often write of their emotional struggles in their poetry. She also writes of the struggles to conform to society’s view of women. We’ll start with “Double Image” and then look at “Her Kind”. We’ll finish with “The Abortion”. If we have time we will also read “For My Lover, Returning to his Wife.” Besides simply analyzing the author’s craft, students can discuss the themes in these poems and see if they are still current.
John Berryman’s “The Dream Songs” has many parts to it, and I will teach 1 and 40. 1 is about Henry, the protagonist of these poems, and the students may have trouble understanding what this poem means. 40 is a great example of the creative syntax. Berryman rearranges the order of sentences and even leaves out some words. Berryman uses spacing in both parts uniquely. He’ll insert multiple spaces in between words.
Anne Sexton inspired Sylvia Plath. Plath’s “Daddy” is an attack on her father, comparing him to a Nazi. I’ll start with the ethical question of what kinds of cards are being played if the object of hatred is being Naziized. With what degree of irony do we need to compare a person to probably one of world’s greatest, if not the greatest, tragedies? I’m sure students will feel strongly about this. We can also look at Seinfeld’s “The Soup Nazi” and other such sayings. I’ll give students background so they can see that this is a self-exorcism of demons. Some older poetry, as can be read in Brooks and Warren’s
, came in the form of incantantory exorcism, getting rid of a spell or curse in order to free oneself of the offense and of the ambivalence of the situation. Plath is going against the Golden Rule; she is clearly saying what is not nice. After reading the poem a number of times and discussing it, we’ll see how Plath’s tone allows us to see the irony of comparing great things and small, and we’ll look at the ethical project of liberating ourselves from that evil that goes unrecognized because of societal standard (loyalty to family). Further, students will recognize how terrific Plath is with the hard “a” sound, as in the word “Daddy.” The abrasiveness of the hard “a” cultivates the harshness of what could be mellow. A lot of anger comes through this sound; there’s an overwhelming compulsion driving the rhythmic sense that is really pushing the poem forward. After we’re done, we’ll then read “Lady Lazarus” about a 30-year-old woman’s struggle to be reborn after many suicide attempts.
To show students the history of the Socio-Political poem, I will have them read William Blake’s “London.” Blake basically writes that without the power to dream and the possibility to discover independence, we’re doomed to be administered or “charter’d.” If we can’t free ourselves from adminstrations, our minds will be handcuffed – “mind-forg’d manacles.” Many kids feel this way about education and sometimes the media too. Blake calls attention to the hypocrisy of religion, as a band-aid for poverty. Students feel very strong about this subject. This poem is powerful in its political message and its use of figurative language to convey this message.
Gwendolyn Brooks writes of black pride and the problems facing Blacks in this country. She uses free verse, which I’ll address with the students, but since she’s so political, I’ve placed her here. We will look at “We Real Cool” and “Kitchenette Building”. Students have studied syntax before, so we’ll look at “We Real Cool” for the effect the syntax produces. By ending each line with a punctuation mark followed by “We” and then an enjambment, Brooks takes the emphasis off the subject and puts it on the verb clause. In her “Kitchenette Building” Brooks discusses how we are so immersed in the deadening routine of everyday life that we cannot realize our dreams. Brooks begins with an allusion to T.S. Eliot with “We are things of dry hours” beginning a not so friendly dialogue. In “Preludes,” Eliot wants to claim the tawdriness of urban life as a burden for menial white-collar workers. Brooks wants to claim it for those who live according to necessity rather than dreaming. Students respond well to this poem; they get very emotionally involved either agreeing with the speaker or refuting the speaker. We can compare this life to that of the movie The Matrix. The “involuntary plan” of society and of politicians is that of the Matrix where machines manipulate people, programming us into a mass. This poem is a protest against this programming by society, by politics. Brooks does not specifically place blame, though, for the offender is left ambiguous. My AP students often relate this poem to the feeling of being programmed by society and their parents to go to college, sometimes even which specific college to go to. These poems often give voice to their own feelings, motivating them to analyze them fully.
Adrienne Rich is a well-known feminist writer. “She has become one of the most eloquent, provocative voices on the politics of sexuality, race, language, power, and women's culture” (Pope). The students will be familiar with her since we will have already compared her “Diving into the Wreck” with Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.” “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is about Aunt Jennifer watching the masculine tigers, a woman’s conflict with society. Next, we will analyze “Living in Sin.”
Philip Larkin is a British poet who is political. We’ll analyze “MCMXIV” and “The Explosion” and “Home is Sad.” Students will compare his “Home is Sad” to Adrienne Rich’s “Living in Sin.” In “The Explosion” Larkin continues a trend in many of his poems for “the event that occasioned the poem provokes the poet to move from an almost casual reflection on the details of the event to a final a deeper empathy with our common human destiny; suffering and death (the mining catastrophe) but also love and beauty (the vision of the wives)” (www.leavingcertsolutions.com). Larkin is known for his scepticism and nostalgia for days past.
Simply put, free verse is poetry that does not have regular, patterned rhythm and meter. I’ll tell the students that the accents follow no pattern and the syllables can’t be measured regularly. Because of this, syntax and word choice create the rhythm and are important to notice. To learn the history of free verse, we will look at some of Walt Whitman’s poetry from
Leaves of Grass
. One of his most famous pieces, “Song of Myself” is an excellent example of what makes Whitman so great. We’ll read numbers 1 and 6. Not only will we look at his style, we’ll look at his message. Walt Whitman was ahead of his time in his inclusion of appreciation for all people. This celebration of people is something I like to reinforce in class whenever I can.
William Carlos Williams’ imagist poetry is written in free verse. “The Red Wheelbarrow” may be his most famous piece, and we will begin with this. There’s a great explanation of the images in Brooks and Warren’s
beginning on page 73. Students will read from this section. There is a single image on which to focus. “The very arbitrariness of the slashing across the prose sentence may be important: the sentence is denied its own structure, and the reader is, as it were, left staring at the image” (Brooks and Warren 73). I’ll lead students to notice the interpretation is in the first line. William’s “Poem” is also clearly explained in
on pages 570 – 571. After students analyze “Poem,” they will read this analysis and see how they fared.
We will officially end the study of free verse with W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen,” which has also been on the AP exam. Auden is commenting on the impersonality of society to its citizens and heroes. Brooks and Warren analyze this poem on pages 290 and 291. This is a great poem to focus on for creating theme.
A Sonnet is a fourteen-line poem. The sonnet follows two basic patterns. The English or Shakespearean sonnet consists of three quatrains and a couplet with the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg. Traditional English sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, which has five feet of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An Italian or Petrarchan sonnet has an octave, or eight-line stanza, followed by a sestet or a six-line stanza. The first octave asks a question and the sestet provides the answer. I will tell students, after I’ve given them the definition of the sonnet, that there are many variables in they way poets write them. For instance, rhymes can vary, and some sonnets don’t resolve a theme.
For students to fully understand the sonnet, we will start with a Shakespearean sonnet, number 73. I will begin by asking the students what this poem is about, which is simultaneously an evocation of old age and underlying touches of self-advertisement. In the first quatrain, a conceit, the leaves are a metaphor for hair, losing it. Shakespeare then moves on to discuss the “boughs which shake” like the tremor or palsy of older hands. His voice has also aged. The students should notice a shift in the second quatrain when the speaker refers to his younger self, adding poignancy to his wanting to be young again. The “night doth take away” creates a tone of aggressiveness, because night is the absence of day, it does not take it away. Shakespeare implies that death steals life, but with “all in rest” Shakespeare creates an immediate anticlimactic moment of just sleeping; he moves back into acceptance of his age. The last quatrain is also a conceit; the spark will be consumed by all previous expenditures of energy, “ashes,” which is a metaphor for the speaker’s enormous amount of energy and liveliness in his youth that has been used up so his current state is the result. The three quatrains force us to think in terms of shorter and shorter time units: a year, a day, the duration of a fire. Life is short. The last couplet says that the very fact of his age makes him more lovable because he knows the love won’t last. The poignancy lay in the fact that he was someone worth knowing. Hopefully students will realize on their own that this is a slightly immodest self-portraiture. There’s a glimpse of bitterness and resentment along with a desire to be desired. This poem is taken generally as one of the homosexual poems Shakespeare wrote to a younger boy he was infatuated with.
We will also read Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son” which illustrates how form helps construct meaning. Jonson writes this sonnet for his son who passed away on his seventh birthday. He begins calling his son “child of my right hand,” which is an allusion to the Geneva Bible where Beniamin is the son of the right hand, providing a way of naming the son indirectly. Since the father’s name is also Ben, there’s a cross-identification between both father and son. This phrase also alludes to the Creed, where the son sits on the right hand of the Father Almighty. The father reproaches himself, but later accepts his loss with the acknowledgement that Gd has lent the son to him. Students will look at when Jonson writes “just day” he means the son dies on his birthday, the day he paid his debt to Gd, and the judgment day for the son. Further, it could indicate that the son died justly, while still innocent. He reinforces this idea when he writes that the son “’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,” (line 7). Since the son died so young, maybe he skips judgment and is immediately redeemed. The three enemies of man are the devil, the world, and flesh, but since the son is innocent, Jonson does not need to name the devil. The last four lines read as an epitaph, which I might need to define for the students. While his son is the elder Jonson’s best piece of poetry, he’s not being arrogant, but admitting rather the superior importance of life to art. Hopefully students will notice on their own that having only 12 lines stunts the sonnet, as his son’s life was also stunted by his untimely death.
We will return to Gwendolyn Brooks and look at her series of soldier sonnets including “Gay Chaps at Bar” and “Dear Defiance.” These sonnets focus on the Black man as a soldier fighting against oppression not only from their enemy, but also from their own country. They voice soldier disgust. “Gay Chaps at Bar” is written in off rhyme to reinforce the situation. Brooks took the phrase from a letter she received from a soldier.
William Meredith’s “The Illiterate” is a Petrarchan sonnet. This sonnet is a part of a long sequence called Modern Love. I’ll ask students what’s going on in the octave and in the sestet. Students will then discuss the poet’s use of simile and the importance of the letter.
A villanelle is a fixed-form that rhymes and repeats lines in a predetermined patter. It is typically 19 lines and is comprised of six stanzas: five tercets, three-lined stanzas, and a final quatrain. The first and third lines of the first stanza alternate as the last line of the next four stanzas and then form the final couplet in the quatrain.
Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into That Goodnight” is a famous example of a villanelle. Students may already have heard of this poem. After we read and analyze it, we will discuss why this poem has remained so heavily in our society’s consciousness.
“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop was used for the AP poetry essay question in 1980 (see lesson plan III). After explicating the poem, we will look at an anchor set of students’ essays. Using different color highlighters, we will break the essays into parts. A different color will be used for thesis, analysis, summary, and support/examples. Students will be able to visually see the difference between essays that scored a 9 and one that scored a 4. Students realize they need to support their analysis and keep summary to a minimum. Everything we’ve learned to date can be brought together in this exercise.
“The Dramatic Monologue is a single speech by a fictional character or an historical figure relating a situation or important moment to a silent audience. The speaker usually reveals aspects of his personality of which he is unaware” (Rozakis 189). The tone of the dramatic monologue is conversational, and we get a real understanding of character. The character speaks, but is controlled by the constraints of the poem.
To understand the history of the dramatic monologue, we will first look at Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” The first question I’ll ask students is whether or not they like Ulysses, the speaker. We will create a T-chart of his virtues and fallibilities. Students are then likely to notice the length of the poem, which goes against the notion of poetry as a means of economy. We will focus on character and how the poem subtly communicates character. Incidentally, this poem was a kind of theme song for the Kennedy Clan, and students would have already studied modern history, so we will explore why. Students should notice there’s a comparison of the epic past of two things: 1 – the pathos of today is what makes the epic pretentiousness seem silly. 2 – largeness of epic is what makes the smallness of today seem silly. The comparison cuts both ways. The speaker starts of by saying we don’t know how great he is. He continues by trying to give his son his due, but is incapable of concealing his condescension toward common life. The Ulysses Tennyson writes about is not only the one from Homer, but the one from Dante’s Inferno XXVI where Ulysses tried to explore the unknown region of the world, and in Homer it is predicted he’d be carrying an oar on his shoulder. When he was asked what the oar was, he’d know he went far enough. Dante’s punishment for Ulysses was that he was swallowed up, and he ends up in hell. The reason the students need to know this is because in Homer’s work, Ulysses or Odysseus is known as a man of great rhetoric. In Dante’s work, Ulysses repeats a long speech that he said to his men. Tennyson is picking up on this reputation by making the monologue grandly elegant and verbose.
Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” is a dramatic monologue written in rhyming pentameter couplets. We hear the Duke speaking about his dead wife, and we quickly learn the overbearing nature of the Duke. In the first two lines, the speaker is addressing the unidentified audience. “Last” implies that the Duke may have had more wives and also indicates that she is a possession, like the painting itself. We also know that she is dead. The students probably won’t know this fact – when the curtain covers a painting, it means the person in the portrait has done something terrible. So the question to the students is, what kind of man is the Duke? What was the Duchess actually like? What can we infer? And of course how did Browning create these answers with his words?
A modern-day version of the dramatic monologue can be found in John Hollander’s “Mad Potter.” Hollander writes of the unrealized potential of the potter and of his pottery. Students will like this poem.