How Poetry Paved the Way for Today’s Confessional Culture

Described as the poetry of ‘I’, confessional poetry emerged in the late 1950s and early 60s. Associated with writers like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell, the genre grappled with personal subjects such as death, depression and relationships.

It was at the suggestion of her therapist that Anne Sexton began to write. Despite being the first poet to be called ‘confessional’, Sexton famously removed herself from the personal experience of writing. In her essay, ‘Anne Sexton and Confessional Poetics’, Professor Jo Gill looks at this disassociation. She writes, “The notion of the therapeutic or cathartic potential of this particular literary form (…) underpins much subsequent writing about confessionalism, this nonwith-standing Sexton’s own ambivalence about such ends.” So – Sexton herself wasn’t too sure about the label.

When I asked Gill what she thought the importance of confessional writing was, she replied, “It’s a tricky one, this, because my take on ‘confessional’ writing is that it is an artful form – in the best sense of the word – and that it functions by constructing and mediating meaning, rather than by revealing it. In other words, I don’t see it as having any straightforwardly cathartic or therapeutic effect – either for the author or for the reader, although I can see that there is sometimes a productive relationship between the two.

Sylvia Plath

I’m interested in the ambiguity of confessional writing,” Gill continued, “and the way in which it hides as much as it reveals. To take one notable recent example, Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters is full of questions, full of uncertainty. Hughes isn’t so much revealing hidden truths, as showing us how difficult it is to record and to make sense of past experience. This seems to me to be at the heart of most confession.”

The list of contemporary poets drawing from personal experience is huge – pop along to a show, and you’re met with performers willing to pour their hearts out. But what about other forms of confession? Within months of its launch in 2005, Youtube boasted millions of daily visitors. Its slogan, ‘Broadcast Yourself’, is exactly what people did. Today, some Youtubers have become celebrities, such as Jenna Marbles, IISuperwomanII, and Nigahiga. In 2011, the ‘Draw My Life’ videos began, with Youtubers narrating their life story. One scroll through the comment section of these videos, and you can see the positive impact these creators have on audiences.

Social networking sites have created a sort of digital autobiography. We record our day-to-day experiences and opinions on sites like Twitter and Facebook. However, not everyone would agree that this is all positive. Following her research in 2007, Professor Jean Twenge called millenials ‘Generation Me’. Twenge found that narcissistic personality traits were on the rise, rising even faster at the turn of the century. Many point to social media. For example, it’s become normal for celebrities to share (arguably) irrelevant parts of their lives with us. Each time we post a photo of our organic almond milk lattes, we’re doing the same.

In his essay, ‘YouTube: Where Cultural Memory and Copyright Converge’, Lucas Hilderbrand affirmed that the platform creates a place of community. However, he also wrote, “YouTube fosters exhibitionistic and narcissistic amateur video streams; it is tempting to suggest that user-generated content on YouTube is more about promoting oneself than about exchanging ideas with others.”

Of course, social media is not evil – far from it. To state the blaringly obvious, it helps us to make millions of connections with people all over the world. For me, Channon Rose was one such person. A lifestyle Youtuber, Channon speaks candidly about her past in the adult entertainment industry, and the difficulty of her teen years. When I asked Channon what the importance of sharing such stories was, she quoted Kurt Cobain: “I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.”

Recently, I went to see comedian Sofie Hagen, at the recommendation of actor and theatre producer, Torran McEwan. Hagen’s set was unexpected. It was as funny and witty as it was dark and challenging. She told us about her childhood, and took us through the abuse she had experienced. As Torran and I clambered back into our coats at the end of the set, a man next to us pointed out how intense the evening had been. Full of praise for Hagen, he hadn’t expected to experience something quite so real from a night of comedy.

As we walked through our rainy little city, I asked Torran what she thought the importance of confessional performance was. To quote Jo Gill again, confessional writing constructs and mediates meaning. So how is Hagen’s performance different to the cherry-picked, crafted revelations we see on social media?

Torran pointed out that Hagen was willing to confess something that most people never would – something that was truthful, jarring, and human. “It all shows us we’re not alone,” Torran finished. And I must say, I quite agree.

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