Confessionalism Birthed from Feminism

adrienne rich

Confessionalism Birthed from Feminism

by Melinda Wilson

In her 1971 essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” Adrienne Rich refers to formalism as “asbestos gloves, it allowed [her] to handle materials [she] couldn’t otherwise pick up bare-handed.” Indeed, poets of the 1950s and 1960s struggled to write personal poetry and poetry that could address socially restricted subjects. Male poets in this position, Robert Lowell, for example, yearned to break free from the constraints of New Criticism, a school of criticism prominent in the 1940s and 50s that effectively detached the author from his or her work. Other male poets who belonged to the Confessional movement, namely W.D. Snodgrass and John Berryman, wrote autobiographical poetry that departed considerably from the predominant impersonality that existed in poetry, perhaps residue of the Modernist period. These poets wrote poems that they felt characterized the circumstances of their time.

This task was especially difficult for female poets, as women were largely blocked from public discourse. In the 1950s and prior, gender roles severely limited a woman’s position in the world as well as her understanding of selfhood. Women’s careers consisted of supporting their husbands, child rearing, household maintenance and other domestic duties. The family unit became a central facet of American life post-World War II, and as Rich points out, women were often isolated, and “life was extremely private.” During World War II, many women had joined the work force, filling in for those men that had been pulled away by the war. They got their first real taste of a truly social life. However, after the War, many found themselves thrown back into their previous lifestyle, one dominated by traditionally “female” duties, and one in which a woman’s identity and success was determined by her ability to marry and have children.

For Rich, the traditional domestic goals of a woman’s life conflicted with the life of the imagination. The isolation that women experienced prompted a bolder and more personal poetry that often dealt with the female body and complications of female existence. Poets like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich utilized the confessional approach to address taboo subjects and social limitations that plagued American women. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, in which she identifies “the problem that had no name” or the dissatisfaction that American women often found in their domestic roles despite the promise that American culture attempted to sell them, the promise that marriage and children equaled success, happiness and true womanhood.

Anne Sexton’s “Her Kind,” published in 1960 in her first collection To Bedlam and Part Way Back, addresses female alienation and proclaims:

I have gone out a possessed witch
haunting the black air, braver at night.
Dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

Furthermore, it reveals moments of deeply intimate pain and suicidal thoughts: “A woman like that is not ashamed to die. / I have been her kind.” Rich points out that “Much of woman’s poetry has been of the nature of the blues song: a cry of pain, of victimization.” “Her Kind” fits into this category.

By her third book Live or Die (1966) Sexton’s voice had become stronger, more direct, less timid. Her poem “Menstruation at Forty” unabashedly tackles the subject of the female body and “That red disease.” By 1966, second-wave feminism had begun to make its impact, as it focused much of its effort on sexuality, reproductive rights, and marital rape laws. The birth control pill was approved by the FDA in 1960, and the female body became a battleground.

The Confessional movement began to construct a literary environment in which other voices of difference could write about their experiences. Black female poets like Lucille Clifton borrowed from the Confessionals and moved toward a poetry located in identity. Like Sexton and Plath, Clifton took up issues related to the female body, but she extended her poetic voice to cover her sociocultural experience as an African American woman. Rich notes the importance of African American female voices: “without the sharpening of a black feminist consciousness, black women’s writing would have been left in limbo between misogynist black male critics and white feminists still struggling to unearth a white woman’s tradition.” In 1980, with second-wave feminism drawing to a close, Clifton celebrated the female body with her poem “homage to my hips.” And later, in 1991, Clifton wrote “to my last period,” eulogizing her final menstruation as though saying one last goodbye to an old friend:

well, girl, goodbye
after thirty eight years
thirty eight years and you
never arrived,
splendid in your red dress,
without trouble for me
somewhere, somehow.

now it is done,
and I feel just like the
grandmothers who
after the hussy has gone,
sit holding her photograph
and sighing, wasn’t she
beautiful, wasn’t she beautiful?

In “When We Dead Awaken,” Rich also comments on the importance of addressing the difficult position of the lesbian writer. She states, “without an articulate lesbian/feminist movement, lesbian writing would still be lying in that closet.” Contemporary poet Eileen Myles has become a strong voice for just such a movement, and her poetics seem to follow the intensely personal poetics of the Confessional movement.

Some poems of other contemporary poets–Noelle Kocot, for instance–criticize standards of beauty that women are held to and those that uphold those standards. In a poem called “Oasis,” Kocot writes:

When a beautiful woman cuts herself
In a movie, tinsel falls from the universe.
And when you ask someone if I am beautiful,
You don’t ask to affirm me, but to affirm
Your own conjecture that I might be
As beautiful as you once thought.

Kocot’s speaker comments on the very predicament that Rich discusses in “When We Dead Awaken”: women are not the determiners of their own beauty and importance. Rich notes, “it seemed to be a given that men wrote poems and women frequently inhabited them. These women were almost always beautiful, but threatened with the loss of beauty, the loss of youth—the fate worse than death.”

Undoubtedly, the American Confessional movement has its origins in the sociohistorical and protofeminist conditions of the 1950s and 60s. Although the landscape of contemporary American poetry is complex and fragmented with many different schools and movements intermingling and, in some ways, competing, the deeply intimate poetry that came out of the Confessional movement continues to influence the creative output of America’s poets. And our poets remain concerned with a poetry that reflects the specific conditions of the present moment. Therefore, we can expect to continue to see poetry that addresses feminist issues, poems that react to the politicizing of the female body and female oppression more generally. We need only look to Patricia Lockwood’s recent poem “Rape Joke” or Danielle Pafunda’s new collection from Bloof Books National History Rape Museum to see the continued interest in and demand for feminist work.