The disservice of the term “Confessional Poetry,” coined by M.L. Rosenthal in 1957 to describe not only Robert Lowell’s poetry, but the poetry of his rising contemporaries, was soon observed; but the damage of the term was not done to Lowell’s poetry, but to the poets who read Lowell’s poetry through a misapprehension of what the term distorted. Lowell was, like many of the poets of his generation, an heir to Eliot first and foremost; he had imbibed the ideal of the impersonal in poetry, and his poems of Life Studies and For the Union Dead might be thought to reject that ideal.
“Confessional” on such an account describes usefully what is different about Lowell’s poetry: their intense and vulnerable exposure of the personal. The trouble with the term—the same account runs—is that Lowell altered crucial details, and wrote from his life without necessarily writing with accuracy of it. The term’s trouble is that it falsely aligns life and poem, doing an injustice to the nature of authenticity of poetic utterance (as if authenticity and biography are the same thing).
The objection to the term is itself well-founded; but what the objection does not challenge is the implication that the poetry was both the product of and venue for confession: poetry becomes, alongside the couch of the analyst and the closet in the church, a site of self-avowal and self-exposure.Lowell of course was familiar with both; his biography charges the word with their associations even more than it already is. As couch and closet, the composition of the poem, and the poem itself, becomes a process necessary for the self; it is not the self that is necessary for the poem. Understood as a means and product of confession, Lowell’s poetry is displaced from its modernist heritage, in which the poem is an object, a sculpture, alien to, resistant to the poet: as the poet writes the poem, the question of “what is necessary” shifts from “what is needed for me” to “what is needed for the poem?”
What is surprising is how much poetry still being written–and not just on Tumblr–still is written either along or against the grain of the “confessional” scaffolding: an ironic distancing from an authentic self supposes just as much as an affirmation of an authentic self that there poetry and an authentic self have something to do with each other. Lowell’s successes come, on the other hand, when he seems aware that, even when the poem is in the first person, he is creating something that is not him, a thing set apart.
To bristle at the “authentic” (or its older sibling, as Trilling tells us, “sincere”) is hardly new; but these terms are not easily abandoned. What can be authentic in poetry is, Lowell and his forebears knew, the language itself: authentic not to a particular person, but authentic to the imagined occasion, the imagined life, the context inherent in the imagined object; it needs to fit. That is all that can be said of it. When Lowell started writing confessional poetry, he did limit himself, but not because he became limited to himself; even History and Notebooks are not really limited by Lowell’s experience per se. They are limited by the vantage point that he chose to adopt; they are limited by his rhetoric.
Whatever else rhetoric can do, it can shift a poet to a new vantage point on a situation; it is itself a form of poetic perspective. And if rhetoric is also, the Yeats line,a quarrel with others, then rhetoric in the service of poetry needs to be in the service of the poet’s quarrel with himself; not the quarrel of self-diagnosis or of self-scrutiny—except in so far as those terms refer to the self that comes into being in the poem; the alien self that the poet makes. Rhetoric is essential to a poetry, provided we feel that it used as a means for the poet, the guiding intelligence behind the work, to quarrel with the work itself. Poetry is founded on getting something right; poets are often implicitly squirming in discomfort with what they have done with language, gritting their teeth and muttering “no, this is not right at all.”
But where rhetorical gestures–apostrophe, questions, the elevated dramatized poses of classical poets–are effective, it is in trying to assume a new position of antagonism not towards themselves as they struggle to get the work right, but towards the matter, the subject, of the work. When Baudelaire exclaims, “Andromaque, je pense a vous,” at the start of “Le Cygne,” he offers a touchstone of rhetoric in modern poetry, but it the quarrel is really with the modernity of Paris itself, as he forces himself to wrest itself into new forms. Pope and Dryden similarly, and above all in the most satirical moments where their rhetoric is pitched with poisonous intent, quarrel with the subject matter itself.
Lowell in the confessional poetry does something peculiar: he, with each successive collection, reduces the quarrel with the subject matter through rhetoric. The earlier poetry was bolstered by all sorts of high rhetorical maneuvers, shifts of voice and elevation of address; but in the poems of mid-life, the “confessional” poetry, the quarrel is most often felt to be with himself, the poet turning against the conditions and circumstances of the act of creation, even as he creates. But in For the Union Dead and Life-Studies, the rhetoric remains potent. Lowell is still willing to hazard the rhetorical. The close, for instance, of “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow”:
Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.
However, by Notebooks and History, the hazarding diminishes, and the poems diminish as a result; and it is a hazard, because it is not easy to ensure that the rhetoric is not with others or objects outside of the poems. Perhaps in the later verses, those to his wife, Lowell did not want to risk the confusion in his readers. The poems in History are not without life, but they do not rise and crest; they occasionally splash up.
Near the Ocean offers the final gasp of Lowell’s willingness to write rhetorical verse, but even there, the formal patterning, the tetrameter, feels at times a life-jacket rather than a vessel. Where the achievement of the middle years, of Life Studies and For the Union Dead lies is in the moments where the sense that the poem is breaking beneath a weight of the author’s disappointment becomes, in itself, an occasion for rhetoric—or rather, when it takes on the color of rhetoric.
The essential mark of such moments lies not in the language alone, but also in the punctuation, and above all in a device of punctuation that sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from the question-mark: ellipses.