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In the Age of Memoir, What’s the Legacy of the Confessional Mode?

Thursday 1 October 2015

SEPT. 29, 2015

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Leslie Jamison and Charles McGrath discuss whether, 50 years after Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” was published, the confessional mode has been co-opted by the memoir.

By Leslie Jamison

Writing that has been dismissed as simply “confessional” is actually full of innovation and artistry.

I still remember the afternoon when my older cousin, a sixth-grade teacher, raised her arms in a circle above her head to show me the new sign she’d seen her students flashing: Overshare. (I was just shy of double digits but was already someone who had staged a funeral for my hamster in order to “process my feelings” about his death more fully.) I didn’t know the word, but I felt its jab in my gut immediately, how shameful it would be to tell people more than they wanted to hear — to impose these revelations in hopes of getting affirmation or attention.

These days, American literary culture features both a glut of so-called “confessional” work and an increasingly familiar knee-jerk backlash against it: This writing is called solipsistic or narcissistic; it gets accused of lacking discretion or craft. Its heritage is often traced to women writers, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and its critiques are insidiously — and subcutaneously — gendered. So many of the attacks against the confessional mode come back to the language of the body: An author is spilling her guts or bleeding on the page. Her writing whores itself out, exposing private trauma for public fame. (Or a four-figure advance and an adjunct job.)

There’s a dismissive quality in these attacks that I find hardhearted, cynical and simplistic, and their persistent bodily metaphors point to an important misunderstanding about how so-called “confessional” writing works: It’s often seen as straight exposure, selfhood offered without craft and artifice, while so much of the writing that has been dismissed as simply “confessional” is actually full of technical innovation and artistry, formal play and micro-mythologies.

This is certainly true for Plath’s ­“Ariel”: It’s hardly just exposure. Her life shows up in flashes and slivers — often in tonally devious and conceptually complicated ways. I often wonder how many people who poke fun at Plath’s confessional mode have actually read her work seriously. The fact that “Ariel” has become shorthand for “confessional” reflects a misunderstanding of the ambitions of the book itself, and testifies to the broader misunderstandings by which the “confessional” mode has become a kind of literary straw man and punching bag.

Because people have grown so obsessed with the drama of Plath’s life, they read the poems solely as reflections of its traumas: her father’s death, her broken marriage, her suicide. People see in her work their own fixation on her life. The poems in “Ariel,” however, are formally and tonally diverse, full of elaborately echoing image systems. Plath cobbles together a mythology from whatever she pleases — a system both fierce and frail, at once howling and riddled with holes, constantly calling attention to the sense of desperation fueling its own construction. The myths testify to the hungers driving their invocation: She is Lady Lazarus; she is Lady Godiva; she is Prospero’s spirit, Ariel; she is a bee­keeper and also his daughter. “Daddy” — so often misread as an earnest and obnoxiously self-inflating parallel between her own life and the Holocaust — is actually a slippery dramatic monologue, often deeply ironic, that plays quite consciously with how we deform our lives into melodrama.

“Out of the ash,” she writes in “Lady Lazarus,” “I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” At once she threatens death, calls dibs on resurrection and forces her anger into the eerie cadences of a child’s rhyme. It’s tricky work, balancing dead seriousness with singsong, and the play only makes her voice more chilling.

“Ariel” closes with a vision of her own disappearance, riding naked into the great circle of the sun: “Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.” The naked woman is not an exposed object — pleading for sympathy by way of her self-exposure — but an agent of force and motion. I picture this rider with her arms up, stretched into an O — the red eye — the self not so much confessed but remade in service of its song.

Leslie Jamison is the author of an essay collection, “The Empathy Exams,” winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Her first novel, “The Gin Closet,” was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; and her essays and stories have been published in numerous publications, including Harper’s, The Oxford American, A Public Space and The Believer.

By Charles McGrath

Almost every page of “Ariel” suggests Plath would have become a great poet had she only let herself live.

To one degree or another, almost all poetry is confession. What is the lyric, after all, but an expression of one’s innermost thoughts and feelings? And what we call, or used to call, the confessional movement in poetry now seems a particular moment so highly strung that it burnt itself out in a decade or so. It was less a movement, in the end, than a collection of individuals — pre-­eminently Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman and Randall Jarrell, who had in common a history of heavy drinking, mental illness, vaulting ambition and suicidal self-destruction. And their poetry was autobiographical without really being memoiristic in the way that, say, Wordsworth’s “Prelude” is. There is an actual memoir, “91 Revere Street,” embedded in Lowell’s breakthrough volume, “Life Studies,” and it couldn’t be more different from the poems that follow: They give you the breakdowns, the hangovers, the anxiety attacks pure and undiluted, without any of the prosy stuff.

Plath gets lumped in with these other, mostly older poets because of her suicide, which in retrospect looks less and less like a great career move, as Sexton sardonically joked it was, than a kind of reputational hijacking. She is now remembered for the wrong reasons — for being a victim or a monster, depending on whether you take her side or that of her husband, Ted Hughes — and celebrated for show-offy, seemingly autobiographical poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” which don’t display her real gifts. The best poems in “Ariel” are in that more traditional lyric mode, in which experience isn’t so much confessed as transformed; in the great title poem, an early-morning horseback ride turns into an evocation of inspiration itself.

If there’s a connection here to the poetry of Lowell, Sexton, et al., it’s less the glimpses of Plath’s anger and depressions than her burning conviction that poetry was a matter of life and death. Plath was only 30 when she died, and “Ariel” is the book of a very young writer in love with her own powers and trying to squeeze everything out of them. Some of the poems are so overblown you feel she must have written them with a thesaurus propped up in front of her, and yet her technical mastery is already complete, or nearly so, and the best of the poems have an urgency that’s infectious. They leave the reader, too, feeling that poetry really does matter. “Ariel” is not a great book, perhaps, but almost every page suggests its author would have become a great poet had she only let herself live.

An interesting parallel is the very long career of Louise Glück, now 72. Her early work — edgy, hyper, full of wordplay — was often said to be Plathian. She even got started in the pages of Mademoiselle, just as Plath did, and her famous poem “The Egg” could almost have been written by Plath. But over time Glück’s work has become starker, sparer, all the mundane details — which are what animates Lowell’s brand of confession — rubbed away until what’s left is just the impulse, dread or guilt or anxiety, that makes us want to confess in the first place. At times she seems to want to rub away her very self:

Long ago, I was wounded.
I learned
to exist, in reaction,
out of touch
with the world: I’ll tell you
what I meant to be —
a device that listened.
Not inert: still.
A piece of wood. A stone.

Instead of youthful promise, Glück’s work now comes with a certain sense of fatefulness. The poems aren’t flashy anymore, but they have a deep, riveting beauty that comes from just having endured. Could Plath have wound up in such a place? Maybe not. She was more word-drunk than Glück, and rather than go minimal, she might just have piled it on.

Charles McGrath was the editor of the Book Review from 1995 to 2004, and is now a contributing writer for The Times. Earlier he was the deputy editor and the head of the fiction department of The New Yorker. Besides The Times, he has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic and Outside. He is the editor of two golf books — “The Ultimate Golf Book” and “Golf Stories” — and is currently working on an edition of John O’Hara’s stories for the Library of America.

A version of this article appears in print on October 4, 2015, on page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review.

See online: In the Age of Memoir, What’s the Legacy of the Confessional Mode?