On Poetry

Confessional poetry and The Twilight Zone.

A still from “The Masks.”

Who wants to be a confessional poet?

Those we’ve saddled with the label—Lowell, Berryman, Snodgrass, Sexton, et cetera—usually react to it with frustration, if not outright hatred. That should come as no surprise. Most poetic movements are met by some degree of disapproval, or at least discomfort. Writers are practically obliged to deny this critical tendency: how dare we readers, critics, English students, reduce entire books, careers, or generations to a singular term. Maybe writers resent words like confessional, imagist, or even Romantic because they inevitably blur a poet’s individual edges into something bland, familiar, and more easily shared. Or maybe the anxiety stems from the fact that labels like this often hover over living writers like tombstones, as critics prepare to title their chapter in literary history.

For whatever reason, confessional poets really hate being called confessional poets. Several of them have unleashed their outrage in the pages of The Paris Review. For example, Berryman:


You, along with Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and several others, have been called a confessional poet. How do you react to that label?


With rage and contempt! Next question.


Are the sonnets “confessional”?


Well, they’re about her and me. I don’t know. The word doesn’t mean anything. I understand the confessional to be a place where you go and talk with a priest. I personally haven’t been to confession since I was twelve years old.

Or W. D. Snodgrass:


You wrote Heart’s Needle before Robert Lowell, who was one of your teachers at Iowa, wrote Life Studies. This makes you the first of what M. L. Rosenthal termed the confessional poets.


I never cared for the term confessional in the least. Without any disrespect to M. L. Rosenthal, I think it’s a journalistic tag, not very accurate. It sounds either like you’re some kind of religious poet, which I am not, or as if you write bedroom memoirs, and I hope I don’t come under that heading.

The group disdain appears to be directed, at least in part, at the unflattering, reverent valences of the word confession. The names of poetry movements usually denote a common location (the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance) or they’re derived from a particularly elucidating metaphor—the Elliptical poets, the Objectivists, the Projectivists, the Misty poets, the Beats, et cetera.

As a coinage, confessional poetry is a bit different. The term comes from M. L. Rosenthal’s article “Poetry as Confession,” which does invoke the religious and psychoanalytic extension of the word, but not as a main focus. Although Rosenthal does use the term “soul’s therapy” to describe Robert Lowell’s verse, a much more central image in his essay is this one: “Lowell removes the mask. His speaker is unequivocally himself, and it is hard not to think of Life Studies as a series of personal confidences, rather shameful, that one is honor-bound not to reveal.”

It seems an intuitive choice, at first, but a strange one upon further consideration. Confession, for most of us, comes as a part of the healing process. We can only confess what we keep hidden—our secrets, our guilt—and we hide what we find shameful. So if Rosenthal has Lowell “remov[ing] the mask,” what is he confessing? That he does, in fact, have a face? It’s something of a mixed metaphor, and in suggesting that Lowell’s face is something to be ashamed of, Rosenthal strips confessional poetry of all artifice, license, and control. He equates nudity and confession. At the time and still today, the two might go hand in hand; certainly they do more so in Life Studies than most works we consider “confessional.”

Still, I can see where someone like Berryman might take issue with it. Where on one’s naked body is there room for art, for artifice? And hadn’t poets been taking their clothes off, in some sense, for centuries before confessionalism? Like the Whitmans and the Wheatleys, and others so radical in their nakedness, we don’t remember their names? Not to mention religious poets like Herbert, Donne, Bradstreet—who were literally using the space of their poems to “confess” in the full glory of the word.

But looking back years later on the word’s full legacy, confessional’s greatest shortcoming is in its implication not for the poets of the past but for those to come. If all of us have taken our clothes off, where do we go from here?


One way of thinking about so-called confessional poetry suggests itself in (of all places) The Twilight Zone. In the spring of 1964, around the same time Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs was published, Rod Serling debuted an episode of the series called “The Masks.”

Emily is a coward, but more importantly she’s selfish. She spends her days worrying. She’s had brushes with every life-threatening disease out there. Maybe her cowardice comes from her selfishness, or vice versa. She marries Wilfred, a greedy man, and they have two kids whose flaws are so self-evident they might as well be named Vanity and Sloth. With that, the trap has been set. We don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into, but it’s too late. The deep voice and the cigarette smoke have already ambled onto the screen, intoning, “This is New Orleans, Mardi Gras time. It is also The Twilight Zone.”

Emily’s father, Mr. Jason Foster, is about to die, so Emily and her family must come to say goodbye and to secure their place in his will. Foster uses the opportunity to force his ungrateful heirs to face their inner ugliness. He asks each to don a mask that solidifies and displays the particular grotesqueness of his or her character—avarice, anxiety, lethargy, egotism. The guests resist; they consent. Foster himself puts on a skeleton mask.

The clock strikes midnight.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 9.20.44 PM

And yes, as you may have guessed, their faces have melded permanently to the masks they adorn—the private hideousness of each is exposed, with the grandfather, who was wearing the mask of Death, dead.

Each episode of The Twilight Zone works toward a moral climax, so we can identity, revisit, and savor that moment when things became weird: in one unequivocal moment, we break the seal of realism and cross over into that imagined territory, that “land of both shadows and substance, of things and ideas.” But the denouement in “The Masks” is a deception, using a surreal mask to disguise an equally surreal face. Serling flattens his characters past the point of caricature and two-dimensionality, until they are just straight lines of laziness, materialism, and so on. Before the unveiling, before the masks themselves, these poets, too, have carved something everyday out of the extreme, something essential out of grotesque. Like Serling, they make a mask of the face. They give expression to the ugly, occasionally dangerous details of inner life, forcing the reader to recognize these details as something central, dynamic, and profoundly felt.

To claim this intense exploration and exposition as a form of nakedness, as Rosenthal did, undermines the project of these poets. It misses the seamless, yet immense artifice required in their work. It ignores the amazing and apparently painful transformation that turns Berryman into his famous avatar, Henry, and Henry into his company of hideous characters. Of course, there are inevitable and immediate differences separating the lyric “I” from the living, breathing poet. “Henry pays no income tax… Henry doesn’t have any bats.” But part of what we find exhilarating and new about this moment is the elegance that renders extremity and grotesqueness as “naked” expression. As if underneath all of us there were a book of confessional poetry, waiting to be exhumed; as if the emotion that these poems track down and lay bare were not those same ones our subconscious spends all day and night avoiding.

Alas, there’s not much left to do for the confessionalists. Nearly all are dead, many by suicide. We are left only with masks—intricately detailed, extraordinarily faithful masks, but masks nevertheless. Short of the banner falling down over their heads, not much can happen to shake the poets from this label. But maybe there’s room to adjust our mental image: let the mask of their poetics not fall off so easily; let it fuse to the naked skin of the poems, future writers, and readers. Let yourself look in the mirror and find that your face appears more severe, and that ridge stronger, more defined than it used to be. And, as Serling drones, “you’ll wear it for the rest of your life, now to be spent in the shadow. Tonight’s tale of men, the macabre, and masks—in the Twilight Zone.”

Jake Orbison is an intern at The Paris Review