Last month, one of my colleagues commented, “I would love to hear your thoughts on the genre of confessional poetry. What is it, do you think that distinguishes the work of Sexton and Plath (for example) from the less-than-satisfying confessional poetry often encountered in writing workshops? Does producing good confessional poetry have more to do with depth of life experience or a careful study of the formal conventions of poetry (before making the conscious decision to break them)?”
Well, having sat down to reacquaint myself with Anne Sexton’s poetry (Sylvia Plath is harder to forget), I would say that my first answer is, Yes! We are teaching undergraduates students for the most part, who mostly have not had, as she says, depth of life experience, although some have (I include the woman asking this, as we first met when I was teaching creative writing). Formal conventions are helpful of course, but I think what may be even more important is a Really Good Vocabulary and a Musical Ear. These are things most people are not born with, but must learn, add to, hone, etc. over the years.
But reading contemporary literary criticism of Sexton’s poetry also brings up the issue of the time confessional poetry sprang from, the post World War II 1950s with a society that was desperately trying to put the genie of women back into the partriarchal bottle and beginning to use Freudian therapy for mental illness. Also it was happening in an academic/literary scene that was still predominantly made up of white males who saw the personal/political themes of women writers as problematic. Some of what made confessional poets interesting, if not notorious, was the shock value of actually talking about mental illness and sex and addiction a) at all and b) in poetry. Today, especially since the 1960s cultural shift, a lot of things that might have been confessed are now simply discussed. That normalcy also, I suspect, changes the kind of images people choose to express their feelings about it, and the use of more normal words can also leave us feeling as though what we are reading is really more just prose.
So there you go. That is my 2¢.