Life Studies, Heart's Needle, To Bedlam and Part of the Way Back
written principally by Americans during the 1960s, is characterized by great candour in the treatment of intimately autobiographical experiences and attitudes. The term was adopted by critics rather than by the poets to whose work it applied. The traditions of confessional literature extend back to St Augustine, and Donne, Hopkins, and others produced poetry notable for its revealingly personal content; confessional poetry is most specifically of the twentieth century in its affinities with psychoanalysis as a means of confronting painful or otherwise difficult emotional and mental states. The designation was first applied to Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959) because of the directness with which he wrote of his marital troubles, psychiatric difficulties, and often deeply ambivalent feelings towards his family. Lowell, however, stated his indebtedness in adopting such a forthright idiom to W. D. Snodgrass, who had once been his student; Snodgrass's Heart's Needle (1960) used conventionally accomplished verse to present anguished accounts of his divorce and separation from his daughter. Anne Sexton's To Bedlam and Part of the Way Back (1960) consolidated the impression of a confessional movement through the harrowing immediacy with which she described her depressive illness. John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs (1964) and Sylvia Plath's Ariel (1965) also contain notable examples of the mode in numerous poems exposing their authors in states of affective disorder. Adrienne Rich and Anthony Hecht are among the other writers to have been labelled ‘confessional’ during the 1960s. Most of the poetry thus described exhibits a high degree of formal control. Although adversely criticized for its emphasis on pathological conditions and a narcissistic preoccupation with selfhood, confessional poetry led to an increased frankness in the more personal work of many American and British poets.