I’m thinking about Rachel’s recent post and the intersection between experience and art. Some of the most powerful poems I know seem to be, if not drenched in, then at least tinged with experience and have that born-out-of-necessity feel. These poems, a number of which might be called “confessional”, seem to have something at stake emotionally, but for this sort of poem to work, there needs to be something happening on the artistic end as well, something sonically, or metaphorically, or syntactically, that pushes the poem beyond a mere transcription of experience. Even Carolyn Forche’s poem, “The Colonel”, which seems to embrace journalistic techniques (delivered in a block of prose, told in very straightforward, methodical language), has a metaphorical leap at the end as some of the severed ears “caught this scrap of his voice”.

Incidentally there’s an excellent essay on confessional poetry by Regan Good that appeared in Fence magazine a while ago.
I’m interested in poems that are emotionally complex, that don’t have easy answers, that ask the reader to occupy conflicting emotional spaces simultaneously. For instance, “My Papa’s Waltz” by Roethke, or “My Father’s Love Letters” by Yusef Komunyakaa. “My Father’s Love Letters” is rich with emotional ambiguity. The speaker doesn’t feel just one way about the father; there are competing emotions at work. The poem feels very autobiographical, deals with a broken family and domestic abuse from a child’s perspective, and it shares “private” information, but would we call it “confessional” or “post-confessional”? Are those pejorative terms? Has there ever been an African-American poet who has been called “confessional” or even half-confessional? What about some of Etheridge Knight's poems that seem covered in guts? (I realize the terms “confessional” or “post-confessional” are muddied and mean different things to different people, but they still get bandied about, so must be reckoned with.) I wonder if these terms get applied more to women than men. In Rachel’s recent post, she mentions how people ask her if her writing is “therapeutic”. Do male poets get asked that question as much as female poets? How is it different when Sylvia Plath writes about her father than when Roethke or Komunyakaa does it? Or Nick Flynn? In Some Ether, (a book that I would call post-confessional), Flynn writes with an enchanting mixture of heat and coolness; the surfaces of his poems are smooth and cool to the touch, but between each line we feel the smoldering emotional core.
I guess I’m interested in how intense personal experience gets filtered into art, and also the way different terms (like “confessional” or “political”) get used to describe (and box in?) the work of writers of different genders and ethnic backgrounds.
Of course, having an intense feeling about something doesn’t mean that I can suddenly translate that into a poem; sometimes the things we care the most about, that are the most emotionally raw, are the hardest to coax into language. Sometimes the pain is too great, or the situation too confusing to locate an authentic entry point. Certain situations simply resist being cast into language.
The danger about one’s personal life being the mine (as in an iron mine) for art is that the artistic potential of a situation might begin to dictate one’s life choices. For instance, I heard Berryman stayed in an adulterous relationship after his desire ran out because the sonnet cycle he was writing was not yet complete, so he kept the affair going so he could find his way out of the sequence, to fulfill the poem’s emotional arc. That might be an extreme example, but am I the only one who, while having an intense experience, stepped out of it for a moment mentally, and began to imagine it as a poem, and then tried to jump back into the moment, with suddenly ulterior motives?
I guess for me, “post-confessional” would apply to poems that enter into a place of psychic fracture, often involving family, and elaborate on or develop techniques used by the confessional poets. Maybe I’d also include approaching family or psychic trauma from an original angle or perspective. So a partial list of really strong post-confessional books might include Some Ether by Nick Flynn; The Balloonists by Eula Biss (which looks at her parents’ break-up in a very analytical angle); just maybe several of the poems from the first section of Terrance Hayes’ third book Wind in a Box (other poems by Hayes would be very far from post-confessional, which is just one of the reasons that he is a very interesting writer); both of Olena Kalytiak Davis’ books (though in very different ways); Joe Wenderoth’s Letters To Wendy’s, (for how they play off of Berryman’s Dream Songs, utilizing a fractured persona to go to dark places normally off-limits); Rachel Zucker’s Eating in the Underworld (for the way it filters an intense mother-daughter relationship through mythological characters); some of Eminem’s songs from the Real Slim Shady; Paisley Rekdal’s new book The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (for its potent mixture of immense vulnerability and artistry). I’ve only heard him read from it several times, but I’m tempted to include Richard Siken’s Crash. Maybe I would include this visceral poem by Joel Dias-Porter, aka DJ Renegade (Washington DC), that deals with a relationship between a father and son, marred by heroin abuse.
We meet only

in the alleys of memory.

Our broken smiles

glitter on the ground.

Although we bear the same name,

identical scars,

you can't remember

what day I was born.

Anger spills

down the side

of my face.

This is what you have taught me:

needles are as hollow as lies,

collapse more families

than veins.

Now a prisoner in death's camp,

you grow thinner every day
until I can count your T-cells

on one hand.

The phone rings,

Mama pleads

Please buy a dark suit to wear.
I tell her

I wear black every day,

all day,


Originally Published: June 17th, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...

  1. June 18, 2007
     Rachel Zucker

    You got me thinkin' Jeffrey. So much here of interest to me, confessional/post-confessional slut that I am. Here's a question (such a minor one compared to the larger issues you raise): considering that there isn't really a "good" reason to stay in an adulturous relationship, maybe finishing a sonnet sequence is a better reason than most? I'm almost entirely serious. I think there are dangers inherent in confessional art (chief among them how we make other autonomous individuals into "subject matter" or how we sometimes lose the ability to experience our lives because we are narrating them almost simultaneously) but the anxiety that one will chose experiences or to stay in experiences because of our art -- for some reason I don't share that fear with you. My book, The Bad Wife Handbook, which comes out in the Fall deals with monogamy and the urge to "roam." I didn't have these experiences or feelings because I needed something to write about. I wrote poems about it all because that's what I do.
    Not sure that makes sense...

  2. June 20, 2007

    Hi Rachel,
    Thanks for your words. Great point about there never being a good reason to stay in an adulterous relationship. Is the person who cheats on his or her spouse with a person they enjoy being with any better morally than someone who cheats with someone that they aren't that interested in and also deceiving for the sake of art? That is an interesting question. Can one be more of a liar? Are there gradations of lying?
    Your book sounds really interesting. How did it feel to wade into such charged, potentially uncomfortable, territory? Is "wade" the right verb?
    Have you heard of I Love Dick by Chris Kraus? I believe the main character of the book (delivered in the first person, as if it is autobiographical) explores adulterous feelings for an art world colleague, for the sake of writing about it.
    The way you are going about it sounds more natural to me than Berryman: having the authentic feeling first and then writing about it.
    One more question: do you feel like you are moving into taboo territory with the new book? (It is hard for me to know what it will be like exactly; I thought the title originally was just clever and catchy, but it sounds like you are saying that it also represents the subject of the book.)