Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Textual Confessions: Narcissism in Anne Sexton's Early Poetry

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Textual Confessions: Narcissism in Anne Sexton's Early Poetry

Article excerpt

Confessional poetry, a mode that was prominent in the United States in the 1960s and early 70s, has, over time, come to be regarded as a regrettable, aberrant, and momentary spasm in the development of that nation's literature. It is habitually, if a little inaccurately, consigned to a specific and distant time and place: Robert Phillips, the author of the first and indeed only full-length account of the mode, situates it in "Post-Christian, post-Kennedy, post-Pill America" (xiii). Its chief impact is now understood as providing a foil against which to measure the sophistication and achievements of postconfessional writing--Language poetry, the New York school, and various other avant-garde and postmodern forms. As Alan Williamson suggests, "confessional poetry--almost from the moment that unfortunate term was coined--has been the whipping boy of half a dozen newer schools, New Surrealism, New Formalism, Language poetry" ("Stories" 51).

Marjorie Perloff defines the exciting "radical poetries" that dominate contemporary American poetry by distinguishing them from an earlier tradition of personal lyricism:

        The more radical poetries of the past few decades, whatever
        their particular differences, have come to reconceive the
        "opening of the field," not as an entrance into authenticity
        but, on the contrary, as a turn toward artifice, toward poetry
        as making or praxis rather than poetry as impassioned speech, as
        self-expression. ("Changing Face" 93)

Similarly, Michael Davidson characterizes the interests of current Language poetry by reference to its difference from the "expressive" poetry that preceded it:

       Language writing bases its analysis of authority not on the
       author's particular politics but in the verbal means by which any
       statement claims its status as truth. Moreover, by foregrounding
       the abstract features of the speech act rather than the
       authenticity of the expressive moment, the poet acknowledges the
       contingency of utterances in social interchange. (74)

Both Perloff and Davidson define postmodern poetry by reference to its other--confessional or self-expressive poetry. Yet paradoxically, as the argument below demonstrates, what fundamentally characterizes this other and thus gives definition to "radical poetries" is the same deeply embedded interest in "artifice," in "poetry as making or praxis," and in the "verbal means by which any statement claims its status as truth" as is thought to characterize postconfessional writing alone. "Authenticity," "artifice," "praxis," and "truth" are the crucial and contested terms here.

The implication that contemporary avant-garde poetry is "radical" while the confessional poetry that preceded it is reactionary and conservative itself merits scrutiny. In its own time confessional poetry was perceived to be a profoundly radical movement. It represented a startling departure from--and offered powerful and potentially fatal resistance to--the conventions of the high academic poetry that it succeeded, a literature that Irving Howe describes as "responsible and moderate. And tame" (qtd. in Gray 216). For A. Alvarez, one of the form's earliest champions and commentators, confessional or "extremist" (229) poetry had apocalyptic potential. Its function--indeed its responsibility--was to break the mould of what he termed "the accepted Academic-Modern style."

It is apparent from any survey of the criticism of confessional poetry that the mode is habitually and negatively associated with an authorial self-absorption verging on narcissism. Elizabeth Bruss, for example, refers to the "narcissistic indulgence of the confessional tradition" (18). Edward Lucie-Smith, writing in 1964 in Critical Quarterly, argues that in contemporary "personal" poetry "introversion seems to have triumphed over experiment. The poet gazes with obsessive narcissism at his own reflection in the mirror of art" (357). …

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