An examination of the work of six so-called “confessional” poets—Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, and Sylvia Plath—all schooled in modernism and poised to break the rules.
New York Sun book critic Kirsch calls these poets “rebellious heirs” of T.S. Eliot, who famously dictated that poetry should not be “the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Indeed, Lowell et al. were trained variously by New Critics, yet all transcended the heroic strictures of modernism by artfully working into their poetry the inner demons of their personal lives, which often involved mental illness, alcoholism, or suicide. Kirsch proposes a “brief biography of their poetry” by dropping in a few details from their lives only to show how brilliantly they reworked the material for effect. Beginning with Lowell, Kirsch quotes Allen Tate’s appalled warning—after reading Life Studies in manuscript, he declared, “the poems are composed of unassimilated details, terribly intimate, and coldly noted . . . of interest only to you”—then proceeds to analyze Lowell’s masterly manipulation of the material. Bishop’s “experiments in control” are set against Schwartz’s “pedestrian” attempts at reconciling art and life through artful spontaneity and innovation. By juxtaposing his childhood as a Brooklyn Jewish immigrant with that of the children of Tsar Nicholas II, for example, in the poem “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar,” Schwartz was the first who dared to dignify (and elevate) an intimate, shameful experience. Kirsch admirably works through Berryman’s “harrowingly intimate” poetry, which emerged despite his zealous apprenticeship under Yeats, contrasting him with Jarrell, who responded to the “burden” of breaking from Modernism by “respectful, self-protective evasion.” The essay on Plath sheds no new light, but demonstrates a perceptive restraint when comparing her “juvenilia” with the ferocious, mature style of later work that transformed her experience “beyond recognition.”
Thoughtful studies by an evenhanded critic that will no doubt urge readers back to the original texts.