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Characteristics of Confessional Poetry


As the name implies, confessional poetry is poetry of self-revelation. Brought to light in the 1950s and ‘60s by poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and W.D. Snodgrass, confessional poetry serves to reveal an author’s repressed anguish or deepest emotions through verses about the most personal of subjects. Although feelings and emotions have long been considered a core thematic element of poetry, the risqué content conveyed in confessional poetry sets it far apart from more traditional genres.

Intimate Subject Matter

The most defining characteristic of confessional poetry is that it focuses on subject matter once considered taboo. Issues like drug abuse, sexual guilt, alcoholism, suicide and depression, which were typically considered shameful or embarrassing, were discussed openly. For example, in her poem “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath writes about how much she hates her father: “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” and later, “I have always been scared of you.”

First-Person Narration

According to Poets.org, confessional poetry is the poetry of the “I.” In other words, all confessional poems are written from a first-person point of view, allowing the reader to delve closely into the thoughts and feelings of the author. According to Edward Byrne, a published poet and English professor at Valparaiso University, confessional poets use first-person narration to “widen the scope of the poem” and as a “tool to increase a reader’s emotional identification with the writer.” In essence, confessional poems invite the reader to live vicariously through the poem.

Autobiographical by Design

By nature, confessional poems are autobiographical, meant to record the sometimes sordid and often dismal personal lives of their authors, a now-common practice found in countless autobiographies, memoirs and essays. However, unlike other “I” poems, in confessional poems, the speaker doesn’t just represent the poet; rather, the poet and the speaker are one in the same and interchangeable, and the speaker draws upon his or her own life as the sole form of reference.

Lyrical Craftsmanship

It may be easy to assume that confessional poets simply put pen to paper and poured out their feelings in a free-flowing, nondescript manner. However, quite the opposite is true. According to Poets.org, the original confessional poets maintained a “high level of craftsmanship” and paid careful attention to the use of rhythm and intonation in their poems. W.D. Snodgrass in particular, long considered a “father” of confessional poetry, was a master of literary technique, incorporating everything from metaphor to allusion to aphorism in his works.

About the Author

As a mother, wife and recovering English teacher, Jennifer Brozak is passionate about all things parenting and education. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and St. Vincent College, Jennifer writes features for the IN Community magazine network and shares her daily escapades on her blog, One Committed Mama.

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