The Confessional Poet

When I lived near Newcastle I loved kicking my weekends off with breakfast at my favourite café, where Tony knew how I liked my coffee and my eggs, and where often there was allegedly a whale to be seen out the window (by everyone but me usually, I most often missed out on a sighting, my visual acuity clearly excludes whales). More coffee and the crosswords would follow.

But I noticed something strange started to happen in the last year I was living at Twin Gables. As I inhabited the clues I’d find my mood changing, turning blue, for no apparent reason. It still happens sometimes. Appropriately, I’ve puzzled over it!

Doing the crossword for me has long been my time out of life. Where I free myself of obligations, the never ending to do list, the pressures I used to put on myself through my workaholic years. It creates space and reminds me that downtime is important in sustaining myself.

The blues would feel like growing “things” peering over my shoulder. Monsters from under the bed, or large splashes of colour, or faceless people who have been sneaking up behind my back. What are my towering installations that are freed by the crossword puzzle? Those emotions that grow while I’m not looking and then topple, burying my feet in rubble?

Today when it happened again I asked myself some questions. What is my mood responding too? What am I subconsciously brooding on? And why is crosswording the clue? If my brain is busy can my heart be better heard? Maybe it’s the act of being tangled in a crossword that gives the heart the chance to gather language and cut across the flow of my concentration, which is deliberately allowed to wander in search of answers.

Today I stopped doing the crossword. I gave myself permission to confess. I thought about what might be true…if there’s something worrying me it’s probably the things that are important and looming, like will I achieve my personal goals before I go back to working? What will I do about work? When will I make decisions about what I want and need from work? How will I maintain this improved looking after me and fit in the things I want to do around earning an income?

Truth is, I want to continue what I have been doing in terms of work…not worrying yet…and trusting with faith that things will be as they should.

So a more useful outcome from my musing today is to explore questions such as how do I tear down my towers and step out from their shadows? How do I stop building them and instead remain in touch with how I’m feeling before those concerns turn into things of the night or cityscapes impinging on the landscape of my inner self? Back to meditation and prayer…and being prepared to confess.

“Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or “I.” This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass. Lowell’s book Life Studies was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties and had a significant impact on American poetry….The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner.”

(There’s more information here if you’re interested)

Poetry is a great vehicle for confession. It’s the painting of threads of communication about what we see or feel or do. It’s the bold statement of intention. Its patterning perception in words and stanzas and spaces. You’ll find in confessional poetry a frankness, true references, the emotive self.

It’s the power of language to emote, to not just tell stories but to bring you into them. But don’t be fooled into thinking the confessions of this poet are always her own! Confessions make good fodder. As do secrets.

Back in 2005 a group art project called PostSecret began. People would write their secret on a postcard and mail it in. At first there might be only 10 postcards a week. Now there are about 200 a day and there is a website and facebook page where secrets find the light. People have really taken to offloading their secret in a public but anonymous way. Here are some examples:

  1. “No stressful job or rush hour traffic – no medical bills or family responsibilities – I want to break into prison.

  2. When I was 16 I poured chocolate syrup into the snow boots of an old woman. I still remember the pained-squirrel look on her face when she discovered what I’d done. She’s dead now. Sorry Margaret – wherever you are.

  3. I want to be an artist.”

Unlike with those secrets scrawled on postcards, confessional poetry requires that the writer remove their mask and show their actual face. There is no room for reticence or embarrassment. In a review of Robert Lowell’s book Life Studies, reviewer John Thompson wrote, “For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest: what they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry.”

And so we return to the personal landscape and its place in the territory of poetry. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by how you’re feeling, try the power of the pen. You don’t have to publish, and if you need to, practice confessing for others on the page…or let me do it for you…the confessional is always open…your secret is safe with me.


(Sylvia Plath)

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue

Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,

How one we grow,

Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to

The brown arc

Of the neck I cannot catch,


Berries cast dark


Black sweet blood mouthfuls,


Something else

Hauls me through air—

Thighs, hair;

Flakes from my heels.


Godiva, I unpeel—

Dead hands, dead stringencies.

And now I

Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.

The child’s cry

Melts in the wall.

And I

Am the arrow,

The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive

Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.


3 thoughts on “The Confessional Poet

  1. I can so relate to this … sometimes I know I would feel better if I put my thoughts down on a page … but I can’t face them. Doing something indirect with words and writing or my hands seems to flick the switch … like your crossword example.

    Liked by 1 person

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