(Un)Conscious Configurations: The Poetics of Identity Performance in Female Confessional Poetry

Confessional Poetry, as we all know, is a school (or style) of poetry that focuses on the personal “I” and works to reveal, and therefore make readers witness to, the transgressions of the author’s life. These transgressions are extremely personal experiences that deal with the author’s psyche, personal trauma, and social taboos, such as being sexually promiscuous and/or non-heteronormative, or having a mental illness. Though confessional poetry has been categorized as belonging to a post-WW2 era—emerging in the 50s and declining in the 70s—with a set of poets who have all since passed away—Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, etc.—confessional poetics continue to be as relevant today. 

Popular culture (i.e. reality TV, social media) has made confession not only deeply integrated in the American psyche, but also an asset to the individual. Since confessing can lead to social, and even monetary, currency—being monetized as entertainment to the masses—the compulsion to confess is higher than it has ever been. The performativity of confession, the fact that it must be performed through a medium and format, interests me. Since confessional poetry is about self-revelation, what does it mean then that the self is engaging in performance? What does it mean that the self is performing in its own configuration? 

To answer these questions, I intend to write confessional poetry of my own, engaging in my own performance of “self.” I will focus my research on Sylvia Plath, looking at how she uses the confessional format to (re)configure her identity. I will investigate the ways in which she uses metaphor, metonymy, and defamiliarization in order to perform, and ultimately control, the narrative of her “self.” I will also investigate the ways in which Plath constructs the space within her poetic performances to “set the stage” of her identity. I will look at Plath’s poetry in relation to more contemporary confessional poets such as Patricia Lockwood. Though Lockwood may not take directly from Plath, I will look at the ways in which both poets perform themselves on page and how Lockwood takes the confessional format and experiments with the reader/writer relationship as well as the narrator/author/character relationship. I will investigate how Lockwood examines and occupies the “I” as well as the “you” in her poetry. I also will take ideas from the book, “The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self From Robert Lowell To Reality TV,” as I am fascinated by the ways in which 21st century technology (i.e. forums, social media) permits and encourages the self-revelation of our private lives onto a very public, and very permanent, digital sphere we call the Internet. I am interested in this idea of public intimacy, and unlike the book’s author, I am wary of this performance of our private lives for the consumption of others on the web; I am wary of (online) public intimacy and the idea that the confessions/acts we see online are our “real” selves made transparent.  

I intend for my poems to join and extend the ongoing form of confessional poetry. I will investigate how identity is continually (re)configured through the format’s inherent performative appeal, understanding how the writer plays the part of both narrator and narratee, as well as the ways in which the writer attaches herself to objects, image, voice, form and character, constructing multiple identities of self within a series of poems. I hope to incorporate my research learnings into my own poetry, consciously utilizing what the critics discuss while giving room for the free association that comes with investigating memory and feeling. 

Ultimately, my goal for this project is to fully immerse myself in confessional poetics and create a series of poems that showcase the ways in which (my) identity is configured and performed. Alongside my poems, I will detail, through reflection, the research that informed my poems and how they relate to and extend Plath and Lockwood’s work.  

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