Impersonal Personalism_The Making of a Confessional Poetic___Steven K. HoffmanSourc

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  Impersonal Personalism: The Making of a Confessional PoeticAuthor(s): Steven K. HoffmanSource: ELH, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Winter, 1978), pp. 687-709Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 06/11/2014 07:31 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  .  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact  . The Johns Hopkins University Press  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to  ELH. This content downloaded from on Thu, 6 Nov 2014 07:31:34 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  IMPERSONAL PERSONALISM: THE MAKING OF A CONFESSIONAL POETIC BY STEVEN K. HOFFMAN When M. L. Rosenthal first sed the term confessional poetry in reviewing Robert Lowell's Life Studies, he did so as a matter f critical convenience to reflect both the autobiographical subject matter of the poetry and its connection, however undefined, to a similar impulse in the literary tradition from Augustine to Wordsworth nd Whitman. Rosenthal's doubts about the suitability of the term, mplicit even in this initial statement, surfaced in an expanded discussion of the phenomenon in The New Poets: It was a term both helpful and too limited, and very possibly the concep- tion of a confessional school has by now done a certain amount of damage. ' Unfortunately, is fears have been fully ustified, for he label is now a major stumbling block. To those who have chosen to attack the mode on fundamental grounds, the term conjured visions of the kind of solipsistic self-advertisement isparaged by Eliot and his heirs, and has therefore become a token of derision or outright contempt. Equally burdened by an all too literal application, even the movement's defenders have been forced nto a quandary: either to glorify he courageousness of self-exploration n the face of grave psychic risks, and its potentially therapeutic value, or to rise to the righteous defense of a particular favored poet against the ominous taint of the label.2 The poets themselves have had to resort to un- necessarily elaborate defenses when, in point of fact, none of the major confessionals-Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, Ginsberg, Snod- grass, Sexton, Plath, and the srcinator of the mode, Delmore Schwartz-are solely confessional in the limited and generally pejorative sense that has gained such wide currency.3 An inevitable counterattack gainst earlier formulations, egun in the mid 1960's, has centered on the quest for new but no more adequate labels, including Alvarez's extremist poetry, Monroe Spears' open poetry, and Marjorie Perloff's documentary verse.4 It is not the purpose of this essay, however, to enlist in the dubi- ous pursuit of less offensive terminology but to delve beneath im- precation to consider confessional poetry as poetry; indeed, as a 687 ELH 45 (1978) 687-709 0013-8304/78/0454-0687 $01 00 ? 1978 by The Johns Hopkins University ress This content downloaded from on Thu, 6 Nov 2014 07:31:34 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  definable poetic. Without underestimating he wide range of indi- vidual styles and talents represented, it is still possible to abstract certain characteristics fundamental to all of their work. If they do not properly comprise a literary chool, with all the qualifications attendant to that designation, they do make up a distinct historical movement firmly ooted in both the Romantic and modern tradi- tions. Contemporary confessional poetry is a phenomenon that synthesizes the inclination to personalism and consciousness build- ing of the nineteenth century with the elaborate masking techniques and objectifications of the twentieth, a phenomenon which, under the veneer of self-absorption unprecedented even among the Romantics, makes notable inroads into myth and ar- chetype, as well as social, political, and cultural historiography characteristic of high modernism. Finally, the movement is very much a product of its own age, the troubled war years-both hot and cold extending from the late 1930's when Schwartz pub- lished In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1938) through the Viet- nam era that forms the backdrop for the last major confessional opus, Lowell's Notebook (1970), a period typified y a deficiency n shared public values and manifest threats to the very concept of individuality comparable to that which accompanied the violent turn of the French Revolution and the Waste Land period follow- ing World War I. The poetic climate created by these conditions is precisely the subject of Schwartz's influential The Isolation of Modern Poetry, an essay that provided the theoretical ustification for the confessional movement: It became ncreasingly mpossible or he poet to write bout he lives of other men; for ot only was he removed rom heir ives, but, bove all, the culture nd the sensibility hich made him poet could not be employed when the proposed ubject was the lives of human beings n whom culture nd sensibility ad no organic function. . . Since the only life available to the poet as a man of ulture as been the ultivation f his own sensibility, hat is the only ubject vailable to him, f we may ssume that poet can only write bout ubjects f which he has an absorbing xperi- ence in every way.5 From a broad historical standpoint, the roots of the confessional mode are in the great Romantic lyrics and personal epics- Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey and The Prelude, Coleridge's Dejection Ode, Whitman's Song of Myself, much of Shelley and Byron, and even such heavily mythologized works as Keats' 688 The Making of a Confessional Poetic This content downloaded from on Thu, 6 Nov 2014 07:31:34 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  Fall of Hyperion -which M. H. Abrams has variously termed the Greater Romantic Lyric and the crisis autobiography and, highlighting the continuity with earlier meditative/descriptive verse, Robert Langbaum, the poetry of experience. 6 Common to all are three basic attributes, he first f which is the prevalence of a dramatic element in what is essentially a lyric utterance. The poetry of experience, for instance, involves a character in a dramatic action, a character who has been endowed by the poet with the qualities necessary to make the poem happen to him (The Poetry of Experience, p. 52). The second unifying feature, quite obviously, is the rather explicit autobiographical connection, due less to the use of the first erson than the apparent convergence of the poetic action with the externally documented life of the poet, with primary emphasis placed on moments of emotional and philosophical crisis. Yet as Abrams convincingly argues in Natural Supernaturalism, the Romantics were well within clearly marked traditions, predominantly aesthetic and eschatological in nature, which, often to a greater extent than purely factual considerations, determined overall structure as well as the placement, even the choice of specific dramatic ncidents designed for he highest emo- tional impact. The entire poeticized experience, then, serves ul- timately as both the epitome of a broader cultural experience and an essentially evangelical paradigm for uccessful personal adapta- tion to, and usually transcendence of the circumstances of the age, which is offered to the reader for his edification and profitable emulation: In other words, the theodicy of the private life ... belongs to the distinctive genre of the Bildungsgeschichte, which translates the painful process of Christian conversion and redemp- tion into a painful process of self-formation, crisis, and self- recognition, which culminates in a stage of self-coherence, self- awareness, and assured power that is its own reward (Natural Supernaturalism, p. 96). As will be demonstrated below, all of these Romantic attributes are important spects of the confessional poem. But it would be a serious mistake to envision an unbroken line connecting them. De- spite the radical personalism of Wordsworth's The Prelude and virtually the entire Whitman canon, neither poet approaches the minute autobiographical particularity f the confessionals, the al- most numbing rehearsal of family conflict, severe emotional im- balance, and the difficulties n everyday living; neither so consis- tently or in such copious detail affords us entry nto the marriage Steven K. Hoffman 689 This content downloaded from on Thu, 6 Nov 2014 07:31:34 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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