American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 716-736
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Public Dreams: Berryman, Celebrity, and the Culture of Confession
David Haven Blake
In a 1992 commentary in the Partisan Review, William Phillips reflected on the many questions raised by Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography of Anne Sexton. Although much of the press had focused on Middlebrook’s use of the audiotapes Sexton made of sessions with her therapist, Phillips chose to bypass that particular controversy, calling instead for a sterner, more critical account of the poet’s life. Without a sense of judgment, the book had created a "sense of adulation of poets and poetry" that Phillips found disappointing. "Poets become gods and goddesses," he explained, "not just writers, like those who pursue fiction and criticism. The atmosphere becomes one of burning incense to poetry" (341). Phillips found much to condemn in Sexton’s behavior—the exploitation of her madness, the abuse of her daughters, the love affair she and a therapist had for over two years—but among the issues he felt Middlebrook neglected the most was Sexton’s hunger for fame. In Phillips’s eyes, "Sexton’s unappeasable ambition, and her relishing of her status as celebrity" surely warranted a more evaluative treatment than Middlebrook had provided. Sexton’s "pursuit of her ‘career’" had vexed the reviewer, and in its exhaustive approach to her life, the biography had perpetuated—not scrutinized—the poet’s image as a "star" (341).
Although Phillips’s moralizing would not belong in an objective life history, his sense of frustration is quite just. Biographies of Sexton, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell have regularly reminded us of fame’s importance to each poet’s life, but scholars have nonetheless been reluctant to examine the subject in any depth. To a certain extent, such resistance makes sense. Nothing on first glance could seem more antithetical, more irreconcilable, than the worlds of celebrity and confessional poetry. Celebrities—unlike poems—are forged less by individual imaginations [End Page 716] than by teams of marketing and public relations specialists. As both commodities and advertisements, celebrities are ubiquitous in the cultural landscape, a fact that plainly distinguishes them from poets. However, in an age that was marked by a dramatic increase in popular culture, confessional poets attracted an extensive audience, and bolstered by their notorious behavior, they drew significant media attention as well. With its intense concern for tragedy, pathology, and the unconscious, confessional poetry developed into an unusually participatory form of verse, one in which readers became fans and writers became stars. Sexton lovingly recalled the devotion of one New Yorker who yelled from the audience as she struggled through a difficult performance: "Whatever you do, Annie, baby, we’re with you" (35). Such anecdotes invite us to look more closely at the intersection of the poet and the star, to examine not simply how celebrity culture influenced the careers of these poets, but how it shaped the public dimensions of their art.
At the center of this fascination with fame was Berryman, who, more than any of his contemporaries, came to associate the celebrity persona with public forms of verse. Although he was not as persistent a political writer as Lowell, nor as ardently celebrated as Sexton, Berryman was keenly interested in the public aspects of the confessional poem, dwelling extensively on the poet’s reputation in a media-centered world. With the rising prominence of advertising and publicity in the postwar US, Berryman grew increasingly attracted to the legitimacy of poetic voices that had been celebrated in the public sphere. Understanding the significance of celebrity in The Dream Songs (1969) and Love & Fame (1970) can provide a solid foundation for asking some broader questions about both the creation and reception of the confessional poem.
Critics have usually applied the term confessional to a loosely defined group of poets who in the 1950s and 1960s began to mine their own lives and psyches as the basis of their art. The term’s meaning, however, has always been vague and has raised a number of...