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Writing Your Life: Some Thoughts on Confessionalism in Poetry and Prose

Poetry SlamA Guest Post by Phillip A. Ellis – something quite different for this site.

You may not know enough about poetry to know what confessional poetry is. Simply put, it is poetry about the poet’s life, naming names, and telling the truths of that life, along with the messy details. The same sort of writing happens elsewhere. In prose we may have autobiographical fiction; or, at a step removed, we may have the roman a clef, where names are disguised. And there are autobiography, autobiographical essays, and other forms of life writing.

I have an aversion to confessional poetry. Too much relies on an intimate knowledge of the poet’s life for it to be truly effective.

And poetry should not rely on such a knowledge for its close readings: it has to stand on its own, rather than rely on something external. In the same way that we may prefer our infants to learn to stand, eventually, without a couch or a chair for support.
This stance strikes me as a common sense approach. And with all such approaches, it reveals more about my assumptions than about the reality in which I live. It is, simply, reliant on unstated and assumed biases.

But I have been thinking, regarding confessional poetry, that if I will attempt it that I will need a skilled close reader for feedback.

That is, I will need someone skilled at close reading without the knowledge of my life that would distort their reading process. If I can get such a reader, it makes it easier to ask “Does this work as a poem?” And if it doesn’t I should be able to rework it until it does.

But I am open to change: I can change my stance. Should I reassess my antipathy to confessional poetry, I would be open to writing it. After all, I write from my life. I use details as images, and as the cores of poems. And there are aspects of my experiences which have given me insights into the world, insights that I might have never had. And, by writing from my life, I come to understand myself even more.

I grow as a person and as a poet.

In the same way, I sometimes challenge myself as a poet, to grow as a writer. I have, for example, attempted to write at least one poem a day over a year; and I can do it. I’ve also attempted a verse novel for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month; and I can do that as well.
And as a result of attempting to write 600 sonnets for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I have come to rely a lot on my life for the poems. And I’m realising that confessionalism is a reliable strategy for my poetry.

Since what matters is that I write poetry that works, rather than a bare recitation of my life and its events. An account of a life must be shaped, rather than unfinished, understood rather than emoted. Like anything, that is, like the horrors of the world and its beauties, the raw material must be shaped and processed; it needs to stand without an intimate knowledge of my life.

So, then, if you write from your life, where do you see this need in relation to your practice? And to what extent do you think about, and challenge, your assumptions implicit in your forms of autobiographical and life writing?

Phillip A. Ellis is a freelance critic, poet and scholar, and his poetry collection, The Flayed Man, has been published by Gothic Press; Gothic Press will also edit a collection of essays on Ramsey Campbell, that he is editing with Gary William Crawford. He is working on another collection, to appear through Diminuendo Press. Another collection has been accepted by Hippocampus Press, which has also published his concordance to the poetry of Donald Wandrei. He is the editor of Melaleuca. He has recently had Symptoms Positive and Negative, a chapbook of poetry about his experiences with schizophrenia, published by Picaro Press.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • jorgekafkazar

    In my opinion, poetry and prose are supposed to reflect universal experiences–they express feelings in common with the reader: love, perplexity, sorrow, wonder, insegreviousness, and whatnot. The more specific the detail, the less universal the work. If the result becomes just a spewing of personal misery, the work is “catharsissism” — perhaps personally helpful, but not universal, similar to journaling.

  • Lola T.

    I think I may not be able to write this kind of poetry as I am introvert and would not like anyone to know about my personal life. But, yes to grow as a writer I intend to write one poem and show it someone who is very close to me. Speaking about what you wrote about challenging yourself for improving as a writer, what are the challenges that you take?
    Lola T. recently posted..Te de alpisteMy Profile

    • Of course much poetry is written without it ever being made public… many find the act of writing poetry self-affirming.

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