The Poetry of I: Crash Course on Confessional Poetry

What’s Happening In The Late 1950s-60s?

Amid such cultural revelations as the Hula Hoop, LEGOs, color television, and Hitchcock’s Psycho, the Confessional poets were pioneering a new writing style during a time of change. From the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” Speech, to the first televised Presidential debates, big movements were afoot in America. The image of the American family and the American Dream was also undergoing a radical change with the first waves of counterculture.

The Poets:

  1. Robert Lowell
    • Now considered a founding member of the Confessional movement, Lowell started out as a rigorously formal poet exploring religion and politics. His personal life was full of emotional turmoil, and this played into his transition from traditional poetry to the more free-form poetry of personal experience. The result was his collection Life Studies (1959), an extraordinary book that changed modern poetry and paved the way for the younger Confessional poets.
  2. Sylvia Plath
    • Arguably the most famous Confessional poet, Plath actively wrote and published poetry in her youth, achieved academic excellence in her college years, and accepted a Fulbright Scholarship in Cambridge after graduation. After studying with Robert Lowell, her first collection, Colossus, was published. Her most famous collection, Ariel soon followed. She was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Distinguished from her fellows for her intense imagery alongside her musicality, Plath’s vivid and memorable work still captivates and enthralls.
  3. Anne Sexton
    • Like most Confessional poets, Sexton’s poems offer a window into her emotional pain—and, like most Confessional poets, Sexton suffered from a history of mental illness. At the suggestion of her doctor, she channeled her experience and began writing poetry, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Live or Die (1967). Her womanhood was a central theme in her poetry, and in a time when topics like menstruation, abortion, and addiction were considered private topics, Sexton addressed them head on.
  4. D. Snodgrass
    • Snodgrass published his first collection of poetry, Hearts Needle, in 1959, and won the Pulitzer Prize the year after. He has since published numerous volumes of poetry. Often credited as one of the founders of the Confessional movement, he does not consider his poems a part of the movement, although his work matches thematically. He, like Plath, also studied under Robert Lowell.
  5. John Berryman
    • Berryman is a technically gifted poet who, like Lowell, got his start in the poetic conventions of the time. Later in life, he won acclaim as an innovator, culminating in his famous Pulitzer Prize winning collection 77 Dream Songs (1964). By 1969, he had added to this collection of almost four hundred sonnet-like poems in this sequence that was renamed The Dream Songs.


The Fundamentals:

  1. Poetry of Persona:

    The Confessional Poets wrote from their own perspective and experiences using the pronoun “” This one perspective shift changes the way we think about poetry today by opening the realm of thematic possibilities. Previously, only ‘elevated subjects’ were considered fit for poetry.

  2. Privacy:

    This movement emphasized talking about what was considered “improper” or “impolite” at the time. They unabashedly tackled topics —such as mental illness— that were considered private and unfit for conversation outside the home.

  3. Vivid Self-Revelations:

    The Confessional Poets took their pain, personal growth, and emotions and worked through them on paper.

  4. Imagery Laid Bare:

    The intensity of Confessional poetry’s imagery is a key stylistic marker. The powerful emotions that these poets worked with as a topic manifested itself in intense and raw figurative language.

The Reading List:

  1. Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell

          “I myself am hell;

           nobody’s here—

            only skunks, that search

            in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

            They march on their soles up Main Street:

            white stripes, moonstruck eyesred fire

            under the chalk-dry and spar spire

            of the Trinitarian Church.”

  1. Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath


            Is an art, like everything else.   

            I do it exceptionally well.”

  1. The Truth the Dead Know” by Anne Sexton

            “My darling, the wind falls in like stones

            from the whitehearted water and when we touch

            we enter touch entirely.”

  1. April Inventory” by W.D. Snodgrass

            “I taught myself to name my name,

            To bark back, loosen love and crying;   

            To ease my woman so she came,   

            To ease an old man who was dying.”

  1. Dream Song 14” by John Berryman

          “After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, 

           we ourselves flash and yearn…”

Lasting Effects:

The confessional poets changed the landscape of modern American poetry. In fact, the widely held view of poetry as “confession”—baring your soul, exposing truth or emotions, etc.—stems from this movement’s perspective shift. Essentially, the confessional poets asserted that all angles of the human experience are worthy poetic material. The poetry of “I” still reigns today.



-Alexandria Petrassi

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