Posts Tagged ‘confessional poetry

12
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Allen Ginsberg

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Allen GinsbergAllen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) is an American poet, who is usually associated with the Beats. His major book is Howl & Other Poems (1956), and when he read the poem “Howl” at The Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco on October 7, 1955, some say the Beat Generation began.

On one of the walls at The University of Southern Mississippi’s English Department is the following quote from Ezra Pound, which I am currently looking at: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” With Ginsberg, in Howl & Other Poems (1955), we don’t get that. We don’t get formal poems of self-contained meanings, meters, rhetorical poetic devices, all of which is designed for close reading. We get a series of images that leap around paratactically. We get images provoking ideas and emotions. We get open form poems, often with long lines. We get long lines filled with a big breath, which seems to recall Olson’s “Projective Verse.” These long lines allow for Ginsberg to more accurately trace his mind in action. Philip Whalen says something like, “Poetry is a graph of the mind moving,” and that is how most of Ginsberg’s poems appear to operate in Howl & Other Poems. In addition, according to David Perkins:

Ginsberg absorbed [W. C.] Williams’ belief that poetry must reflect contemporary social reality, present images rather than ideas, and base its idiom on immediate speech rather than a poetic tradition. (547)

The open form also allows Ginsberg a larger space in which to confess. (I think Ginsberg is a type of Confessional poet, but whereas Lowell, Plath, and Snodgrass confess within the worlds of suburban families, Ginsberg confesses among the drug addicts, hobos, artists, outcasts, patients in mental asylums (like Carl Solomon and his mother).) With the long poetic line, he is able to confess “out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head” (“Howl” 131). He confesses his homosexuality, he confesses to being a Communist, he confesses to being a poet, and he confesses to the value of work.

Some concerns in these poems are work and value and nostalgia. For instance, “America” opens: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. / America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956” (146). Ginsberg is saying he’s given it his all, but despite that, despite capitalism’s promise that working hard will make one rich, Ginsberg feels nearly valueless ($2.27). This poem shows the effects of capitalism on the American worker, who is a hero in many of Ginsberg’s poems. By the end of the poem, he announces, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel” (148). In essence, he’s announcing he’s getting back to the old ways of working. The capitalist’s “machinery is too much for” him (146). The capitalist working conditions create homogenized products and make people too serious – “Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me” (147). So like an independent smith (pre-capitalism), he’s going to put his shoulder to the wheel stone and make his own products his own way. His value will come from his self-worth, his own industry. And he will sell his poems, his “strophes $2500 apiece.” He will be able to buy supermarket food with his own “good looks” (146). He is his own worth. His genius and good looks should be more than enough to survive.

We can even see some of this in the closing poem “In back of the real” (113), where the “hay flower” acts allegorically as the working person. This flower – with a “brittle black stem,” “dirty spikes” (though appearing crown-like and one of three crowns in Howl & Other Poems (one is the skyscrapers in “Howl” and one is in the flower in “Sunflower Sutra”)), and as worn down as an old hair brush “that’s been lying under / the garage for a year” – is the “flower of industry.” It is an “ugly flower” in appearance having grown in the environment of industry by a tank factory and railway station and tracks, but within it is the “great yellow / Rose in your brain! / This is the flower of the World.” This might be the underlying theme of the whole book – no matter who you are, how beaten down you’ve been, how much electroshock therapy you’ve had, there’s beauty in you and your madness.

Ginsberg poems are very accessible and in a simple language, but prompting complicated issues of economics, religion, sexuality, politics, drugs, and war. Some have claimed that Howl was the second most influential poem of the 20th century, with The Waste Land being the most influential.

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Works Cited

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems: 1947-1980. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984. Print.

Perkins, David. “Allen Ginsberg.” A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. Print.

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Here’s where you can find the poems in Howl & Other Poems as they appear in the Collected Poems: 1947-1980.

Howl, 126-133

Footnote to Howl, 134

A Supermarket in California, 136-37

Transcription of Organ Music, 140-41

Sunflower Sutra, 138-39

America, 146-48

In the Baggage Room at Greyhound, 153-54

An Asphodel, 88

Song, 111-12

Wild Orphan, 78-79

In the back of the real, 113

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27
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Sylvia Plath

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Sylvia PlathSylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American poet, who studied under Robert Lowell and with Anne Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass, all of whom are considered the four main Confessional poets. Others also sometimes included among the Confessionals “John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Weldon Kees, Richard Hugo, James Merrill, and [. . .] Theodore Roethke (Middlebrook 636). I will be focusing on Plath’s collection of poems Ariel.

Ariel opens with the poem “Morning Song,” which is about a mother who just gave birth to a child and a short time after that. The baby asserts its own existence with its “bald cry,” and takes “its place among the elements.” That is, it becomes a unique being or individual, like an element is unique in the world of matter. Later the mother listens to the baby’s “moth-breath,” and after that one night, the baby cries again, and as if by instinct, the mother rises to attend to the baby. When she does, the baby creates its own language – its “handful of notes; / the clear vowels rise like balloons.” The importance of opening Ariel with this poem is that the “poem makes of motherhood not a biological relation but a social relation engaged first through the body but crucially renegotiated in the realm of language” (645). Plath is breaking the decorum of post-World War II conventions of how of a woman is portrayed and what a woman can write about. During this time, the woman was objectified and often considered not mentally competent enough to write (641), but Plath is asserting her body (as well as the baby’s) and showing her skills as a writer. A result of a Confessional poem is breaking those taboos of decorum and writing honestly and personally about one’s own unique experience. It’s a reaction to Modernism and the New Critics, where the poem is authorless, impersonal, and the “I” is universal, and where often the woman serves as inspiration for a poem, or male poet, or as a conduit to nature. Plath, along with Anne Sexton, rally against these culturally defined conventions of gender.

Additionally, besides the personal nature of Confessional poetry and confronting the convention of “allowed” poetic content and cultural conventions of gender, the confessional poet deals with the interactions within a family, including their children. Often I, and others, think the confrontation is just with the parents, but it’s not. Plath shows one side of a mother-child relation in the just mentioned poem, but she also shows another side of her relation with her child in “Lesbos,” and in this relation, it is not a loving one, or it seems as if the baby is a bother to her. These topics certainly went against the grain of acceptable things to say about one’s child. Her confession, then, rubs up against the norms that gained “representations of the vicissitudes of family life [in tv shows like . . .]: “Father Knows Best” (645) or “Leave It To Beaver” or any other black and white sitcom of the family at the time. Plath writes:

     And my child – look at her, face down on the floor,
     Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear –
     Why she is schizophrenic,
     Her face red and white a panic.

Plath essentially is calling her child crazy. Later in the poem:

     Meanwhile there’s a stink of fat and baby crap.
     I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
     The smog of cooking, the smog of hell.

Here, she removes the innocence and purity from the baby by equating it with feces. At the same time she is showing the unpleasantness of domestic life – there’s “smog” (not steam from cooking a meal) and it’s like “hell,” and the only way she can deal with it is by being “doped,” which is contrary to the blissful images of the time that perpetuated the housewife delighting in her domestic chores. Plath is confessing an unspoken truth – a baby sometimes gets in the way of doing things of desire, or just living.

Plath also shows the commodification of women in “The Applicant,” where the potential wife becomes a possible product for a man to purchase, and the salesperson is doing their best to pitch it because “it [not her] can sew, it can cook / It can talk, talk, talk.”

I’m pointing out things that may be obvious to you, but what I’m learning is that confessional poetry is more than writing in the first-person, exposing shameful or humiliating things about oneself, or writing about going crazy, or about suicide, or being in a mental hospital, or writing as a means of therapy, which was usually how I thought about Confessional poetry, which I have read very little of. I also think that is a common assumption of confessional poetry, along with the strained relationship with the parents. But with Plath I’m seeing a poetry of politics or cultural rebellion. She’s giving a voice to women, where one wasn’t before. She’s making public the “unmentionables,” and many of these unmentionables were probably true for many women of the time, though they weren’t allowed to say so.

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Works Cited

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. “What Was Confessional Poetry?” The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 632-649. Print.

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24
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Robert Lowell

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Robert LowellRobert Lowell (1917 – 1977) was an American poet, who taught both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. His book Lord’s Weary Castle (1946) won the Pulitzer prize in 1947 and Life Studies (1959) won the National Book Award in 1960. He was influenced by Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom (who he studied under), and New Criticism, as well as W. C. Williams. His poetry is complex, has allusions, and imagery. At times in his early poetry, it feels like he is channeling T. S. Eliot in technique, such as recurring images to create symbols and even in rhythms. His craftsmanship is top notched and sometimes I get lost in its mastery and forget what’s going on in the poem. His poetry is considered the beginnings of confessional poetry, and despite the mastery of technique, confessional poetry is a reaction against the New Critics as it brings in the personal full force.

In Life Studies, Lowell provides a history of his family to show where he came from and to suggest, perhaps, that this past is part of who he is, while at the same time trying to determine if he has any control over who he is. He is a divided soul trying to find and/or portray his identity. In doing so, in recounting various histories (both familial and personal), “the work frequently takes the reader by surprise as seemingly random images and memories collide and spark into meaning, the coherence that underlies the poems only apparent in retrospect” (Parini 141). The poems in Life Studies according to M. L. Rosenthal “invoked ‘the most naked kind of confession.’ Rosenthal considered the word confessional appropriate, and later said, ‘because of the way Lowell brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems’ into his poems, which were thus ‘one culmination of the Romantic and modern tendency to place the literal Self more and more at the center” (Hirsch 125). This culmination arrives in “Part Four: Life Studies,” where it most autobiographical. Many of the poems in Life Studies have a casual and prosaic feel, but sometimes in the midst of the prosy style, they rise up like song. Despite the prosy style, Lowell will chime sounds within lines to give it a more traditional sense of poetry. His main issues or confessions are his relationship with his parents (and which is the better role model) and his time spent in a mental hospital. I’m not sure Lowell finds any cures but maybe he finds hope in the skunks in “Skunk Hour,” the book’s closing poem. These skunks, who, after he states, “I myself am hell; / nobody’s here,” “will not scare” walking around the empty streets under the moonlight and a church, do just fine eating from the garbage. Prior to this book during Modernism, if a poet used the “I” it wasn’t necessarily in reference to the poet and was often the universal “I,” but here the “I,” the speaker of the poem, and the poet are the same. There is no modernist mask wearing. The poet is exposed willingly and deliberately.

In “For the Union Dead,” the final poem in The Union Dead (1964), Lowell will again move between histories, but this time between personal history and political/cultural history. However, in this case it’s mostly to make a political statement about racism and war and how materialism is undermining long-established values. The poems in this book are more rhythmic and with more definite rhymes – the rhythm and rhymes linger in the head long after reading them. Maybe this is how he reaches out into the world, because this book, on some level, seems to be about him trying to interact with the world he can barely see because of his myopia, a theme of many of the poems. The main confessions in this collection are about his weak eyes, finding meaning, his concerns with lack of sexual drive, and trying to connect with a romantic past that evades him.

In his later books, he writes poems that are scaffolded on the sonnet structure.

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Works Cited

Hirsch, Edward. “confessional poetry.” A Poet’s Glossary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 125. Print.

Parini, Jay. “Robert Lowell In Retrospect.” Salmagundi 141/142 (Winter-Spring 2004): 138-144. JSTOR. Database. 21 Aug 2015. PDF.

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The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

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Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

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After Malagueña

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