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  • The Postmodern Postconfessional Lyric
  • Marta Ferguson (bio)

The authors of the books treated in this review—Paisley Rekdal, Bryan Dietrich, Laura Kasischke, Denise Duhamel and Timothy Liu—are heirs of both Boston and New York, the confessional writers of the late 1950s and the early postmoderns, the New York School writers getting their start in the same period.

They balance autobiographical material against a skepticism about the nature and limits of the self. Most of them aren't "confessional" according to any current understanding of the term; nor are they generally experimental enough to be classified wholesale as postmodern. They have in common the self as subject. These poets wrestle with the self in both its postmodern, culturally overdetermined incarnation and its romantic, inherently soulful manifestation.

But let's talk terms. Certainly "the postconfessional lyric" could use an introduction. As for "confessional," well, as Joan Aleshire has so eloquently said, "To say that a poem is confessional is to signal a breakdown in judgment and craft" (16). Meanwhile, "the postconfessional lyric" is a contribution to the discourse by poet and critic Gregory Orr.

In comparing the postmodern and confessional modes, Paul Hoover's recent essay in The American Poetry Review is extremely useful. He points lucidly to both Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams as influences on the early New York School writers: Stein for her sensibility about the limits of language, Williams for his embrace of the physicality of plain language. In an analysis of Alice Notley's work, Hoover says, "While confessionalism presses toward the heroic and mythic, Notley's approach to the [End Page 173] personal lyric sets importance within the frame of actuality; that is, within the counter tendency of smallness" (28). In discussing Notley, Hoover could easily have been describing any of several New York School writers, including O'Hara. The five writers we will examine in this review balance between those poles—Lowell and O'Hara, the mythic and the small, the romantic and the postmodern. That is, the romantic in its postwar American garb: the confessional.

In their essays from the 1993 volume The Columbia History of American Poetry, Diane Wood Middlebrook and Gregory Orr offer definitions of "the confessional poets" and "the postconfessional lyric." With the authority of someone who truly knows her subject, Middlebrook expertly delineates who counts as confessional and who doesn't. The only confessional poets, according to Middlebrook, are Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass. She argues for limiting the confessional label to these four writers based on the enormous number of commonalities among the group:

What they had in common were several definitive social conditions. First, they had developed close personal affiliations. Lowell was the teacher and mentor of Snodgrass, Sexton, and Plath, who also knew each other's work very well. Second, they had all been through early psychological breakdowns and treatment, following rather early marriages. Third, all four poets had become parents—of daughters, as it happens—not long before writing their confessional poems. Finally, they understood the dynamics of family life in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis.


By Middlebrook's reasoning, other poets frequently regarded as confessional, from Roethke and Berryman to Levine and Olds, are more correctly seen as influencing or as influenced by the confessional poets.

To distinguish those contemporary poems that make use of apparently autobiographical material from the confessional work of the big four from Boston, Gregory Orr proposes the thoughtful though not widely adopted term "the postconfessional lyric" in his essay of the same name. Though Orr fails to offer a direct definition of "the postconfessional lyric" beyond "the poem of the self in American poetry" (651), his essay makes it clear that he regards the postconfessional lyric as a poem that incorporates the confessional belief in the self as a worthy subject for exploration while at the same time admitting, in the larger perspective, the relative unimportance [End Page 174] of that self in the world. Orr proceeds to list established practitioners of the postconfessional lyric (including himself) at the time of the essay's writing: Randall Jarrell, Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Frank Bidart, Louise Gluck, Gregory Orr...


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