Confessionalism in Disability Poetry and Poetry of Madness

Term Paper, 2014

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Confessionalism

2. A Comparison of Confessionalism in Poetry
2.1 in “What You Mourn” by Sheila Black
2.2 in “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton

3. Conclusion


A Comparison of Confessionalism in Disability Poetry and Poetry of Madness

1. Introduction

The term „disability“ has only existed, since the definition of the “norm” has been established. This definition became popular in 1855, containing the idea of a perfect, godlike and ideal body, which fits the physical average.1 With the popularization of statistics in the 1830s, examinations of the human body increased, assuming that a body is only normal, if it does not fall victim of the extremes of a bell curve. Since such a definition of the norm has arisen, the concept of the disabled body has been created.2 All extremes were perceived as disadvantages and rejected, and therefore disabled people, alcoholics, depressed or homosexuals were considered abnormal. Since all of them showed in some way an abnormality, they were simply regarded as “the disease of the nation.”.3 This was mainly the idea of the so called “eugenics”, a theoretical concept which aims to reduce negative hereditary factors.4

Therefore, for a very long time disability was treated as a taboo subject. Although it was mentioned in novels, in the end, the disability would always be gotten rid of because it implied imperfection.5 This changed through the emergence of the so called Confessionalism.

1.1 Confessionalism

The term was first heard of during the 1950s and harbors the idea of revealing intimate biographical facts about the poets own life. In other words, topics that had until this time not been commonly written about were made public. Confessional poems appear to be autobiographical writings; however it is important to keep in mind that such poems do not always necessarily contain the truth. Confessionalism is more likely to combine truth with fiction and as a result, the reader cannot always trust the speaker. Confessional poems stand out from other poetry in form and content. The form is marked by directness, relaxation of the meter and rhyme scheme, informal style, sometimes a tone of fury and the existence of a first-person narrator using the personal pronoun I.6 The content depicts, as already explained, taboos like heterosexuality, abortion, mental illness, body, alcoholism and recently disability. Another characteristic is the openness of the author, from which an intimacy with the reader ensues.7 Confessional Poetry has attracted a lot of criticism. It has been accused of being artless, embarrassing and of depicting taboos.8 To better understand the criticism and emergence of Confessionalism better, it is important to briefly mention the historical background prevalent in the 20th century in America. During the goings on of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movements or the Cold War, revealing some facts about your private life, seemed very trivial.9 However at the same time, the Cold War in particular led to a more profound establishment of Confessional Poetry because of the lack of privacy people had to endure due to “spike mikes” and other measures of control by the state.10 Therefore, Confessional Poetry established itself as a greatly welcomed method of writing poems comprising self-exposure, privacy and taboos.

Some poets asserted themselves against those critiques: Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and Anne Saxton, for instance. Saxton is one of the best known representatives of Confessional Poetry and published a collection of confessional poems in 1960 in her book To Bedlam and Part Way Back.11 The movement of Confessionalism weakened in the mid-1970s but it nevertheless influenced later generations in regards to self-revelation through poetry and writing.12 Because of that, Confessionalism can also be found in the contemporary genre of Disability Poetry. Although Disability Poetry has emerged as a genre in its own right in today’s society13 and even though the society of the 21st century is modern, disability is still in some ways banned from being explored in public. Sheila Black however, a writer of Disability Poetry and composer of “Beauty is a Verb”, deals with her disability by employing Confessionalism in her poetry.

As there has always been a strong connection between the disabled, the depressed, criminals and the sexual differently oriented in literature, it would be interesting to proof that the disability poem by Sheila Black “What You Mourn” and the poem dealing with madness by Anne Sexton “Her Kind” consult Confessionalism, and which stylistic devices are used to express parts of their purportedly real life. A comparison will try to establish whether differences between the two poems regarding Confessionalism exist and how they could be explained.

2. A Comparison of Confessionalism in Poetry

2.1 in “What You Mourn” by Sheila Black

The Poem “What You Mourn” by Sheila Black can be classified as a confessional poem because of several characteristics found in the interaction between content and form. The poem shows many parallels with Black’s life from youth to adulthood, which is marked by certain complications and troubles due to her disability. She lives with XHL, a disease which is known as X-linked hypophosphatemia. It is noticeable in her bowed legs and short stature.14

Firstly, the topic of the poem which deals with disability and the body is still a sort of taboo and reflects a lot of intimacy, which is typical for Confessionalism. Another characteristic of Confessionalism is the first person-narrator using the personal pronoun I. The fact, that the I is used repetitiously, as in line 6-7: “I would arch back and wonder / about that body I had before I was changed”, is very conspicuous. It gives the impression of wanting to emphasize the personal relation Sheila Black has with this story, her own life story in fact. Nevertheless, it is important not to read the poem as the complete truth. In Beauty Is a Verb Sheila Black points out that she is attracted “to the unruly and confrontational elements of the confessional (…) that makes the audience continually question whether the speaker is to be trusted or not.”15 When considering this quotation, it becomes obvious that Black combines some true facts of her life with fiction and that she allows her own experiences to flow into the poem. Also, the frequent use of possessive pronouns like my and mine, “on my wedding day” (5), may show the personal relation of the author to the content of this poem. This offers the reader a certain degree of autobiographical writing, while always considering the equally existing fiction in the poem. Other characteristics of Confessional Poetry are a relaxation of the rhyme scheme and the meter, which can both be found in this poem. The fact that Confessional Poetry should not completely abandon the rhyme scheme,16 which in this poem is actually the case, is however interesting. This abandonment and also the enjambments lead to an informal style, which builds up an intimacy with the reader, a typical feature of Confessional Poetry. Because of the still maintained intimacy with the reader, the fact that “What You Mourn” has an abandonment of rhyme scheme, does not lead to a rejection of the confessional characteristics of the poem. Free verse is common in American poetry to emphasize skewed social conventions.17 Therefore, the use of free verse could be explained by the fact that Black wanted to illustrate the wrong social opinion towards disability. Another reason for free verse could be the creation of informality,18 as already explained above. Because it diminishes the distance to the reader, which is one of the main aims of Confessional Poetry.

Another fact which creates intimacy is the way in which the reader is addressed directly in form of you “and I loved it as you love your own country” (27).19 This creates the impression that the reader is pulled more deeply into the life and feelings of the lyrical I. Another notion establishing this poem as belonging to the genre of Confessionalism is the tone. In line 10, it becomes evident that the mood of this poem shows fury and rage20: “when I wished to stir up my native anger”. In Beauty Is a Verb, Black reveals her emotions towards her childhood experiences regarding disability: “(…) that very hatred transformed me into someone who hated.”21 These feelings were induced by the very same society that had constructed and perpetuated the idea of “normalcy” in their mind and that had therefore developed the idea of disability as something negative. To stress this mental construct of society, italics have been deployed in the poem marking out what other persons are saying: “Now you will walk straight on your wedding day(…)” (3-4) or “Crippled they called us when I was young” (16). In these lines of the poem and also in the following quotation by Black: “As a child, I don’t believe I truly conceived of myself as disabled or different […] until I started school (…)” it becomes clear that society defines normalcy, and only because of that, the author and the lyrical I consider themselves disabled.

“What You Mourn” also contains other stylistic devices which can be interpreted as constituting Confessionalism in parts: for example, similes and parallelism, as we can see in line 12-13: “I was, imprisoned in a foreign body / like a person imprisoned in a foreign land”. These stylistic devices cause sensibility towards disability in the reader because disability is compared to a normal topic, like staying in a foreign land, something the reader can identify with.

The reason why Sheila Black uses Confessionalism in her poems have to do with the shame surrounding her disability and anger directed at the societies mental construct of disability. Also the opportunity to express feelings and opinions without rules or denial, because the reader does not know if “the speaker is to be trusted”, attract Black to Confessionalism.22

2.2 in “Her Kind” by Anne Sexton

Anne Saxton, who was diagnosed with postpartum depression and who was famous for writing about taboos, published poems about abortion, female sexuality, her madness and feelings of depression.23 She wrote in a revealing way about topics which had not found any acceptance in society yet and that dealt with the taboos that existed in her own life: “(…) Sexton[‘s] deeply rooted conviction that poems not only could, but had to be, made out of the detritus of her life.”.24

The Poem “Her Kind”, which was published in her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 196025, shows several characteristics of Confessionalism in style and content as well. As a depressed woman, Anne Sexton often discussed madness and depression in her poems. This is also the case for “Her Kind”, in which mental illness and being “(…) out of mind” (5) is discussed. Not only her own personal perception of madness by the lyrical I is reflected, but also the way in which society reacts to it, as we can see in line 6: “A woman like that is not a woman, quite”. From that it is clear that the chosen topic for the poem, madness, was still a taboo at the time for society, above all because it was seen as a triviality in times of war. By considering Sexton’s biography, her reasons for writing about topics such as madness become evident: Anne Sexton had to live with returning depressions and anxiety. She was treated by several psychologists who could not help her, a fact that led to several suicide attempts.26 This madness, which prevented her often from participating in the public life, can therefore also be considered as a certain degree of disability, although not physically but mentally. In her poem, Sexton couches her madness in symbols and metaphors of physical disability, which is also called disability poetics. The metaphor of being “twelve-fingered” (5) for example, expresses that instances of disability exist in the life of the lyrical I and, whether physically or mentally, every abnormality is rejected by society. Similar to Sheila Black, Sexton translates her own experiences into the poem through Confessionalism and the reader is presented with an autobiographical poem to a certain degree. The fact that probably true aspects of Sexton’s life were included in the poem, made the shock for society regarding that topic even bigger. Women were still expected to fulfill their role as mothers and being a representative. Despite those expectations, some authors started to examine gender roles and as a result, they began to rebel against traditional attitudes.27 This is the same for Anne Sexton writing Confessional Poetry about mainly feminine taboos, like menstruation, masturbation, abortion and, especially in the discussed poem, about female madness.28 In “Her Kind” Confessionalism is discernible through the first person-narrator using the personal pronoun I: “I have gone out, a possessed witch” (1). This is the so called autobiographical or confessional I29 which works its way through the entire poem. It is conspicuous that the autobiographical I occurs especially repetitious in one phrase: “I have been her kind” (7, 14, 21) with which the poem also closes. When considering Confessionalism as the inclusion of personal experiences, it could be claimed that Anne Sexton wanted to stress that she really is this person of the poem with this line. Just as in “What You Mourn”, there is less distance to the reader merely by choosing this particular form of the narrative.30 Regarding the form of the poem, the relaxation of the rhyme scheme and meter is less apparent than in “What You Mourn”. The rhyme scheme in the first and third stanzas consists of a cross rhyme a b a b in the first 4 lines, followed by c b d in the last 3 lines. Only the second stanza shows a different pattern: a b a b c a d. This causes an accentuation of line 13: “A woman like that is misunderstood.” (13), which implicates again the expectations of women in society, but which one the lyrical I cannot fulfil. In comparison to “What You Mourn” it has a meter, although it is not constant. The majority of the lines display a trochaic meter, but sometimes it is interrupted, above all in the last two lines of every stanza. This leads to the assumption that a certain form and tradition were important to Anne Sexton in her Confessional Poetry, although it is more typical for this type of poetry to have less traditional rhyme schemes. Sexton answered the question which topics she is more likely to write about within a certain form, as follows: “Probably madness. I’ve noticed that Robert Lowell felt freer to write about madness in free verse, whereas it was the opposite for me.”.31 The main characteristic of Confessional Poetry is a relaxation of form, but it also emphasizes that no complete lack of form should occur.32 Therefore, Anne Sexton’s form can still be considered as falling into the confessional concept. She simply rejects a blank verse for topics like madness. This fact can be explained by her “hunting for the truth”33: Sexton can understand and find out the truth about herself more easily, if she puts the poem in a certain form. Another proof for this poem being confessional, is the tone: raw, but also calm. A certain grade of fury or anger seems to have vanished. In contrast to Sheila Black, the lyrical I already seems to put up with the fact that society has established a mental construct of “normalcy” here and therefore expects perfect and normal women that show no kind of depression or problems.


1 Cf. Davis, Lennard J. 2013: 1-2

2 Cf. Davis, Lennard J. 2013: 3

3 Davis, Lennard J. 2013: 6

4 Cf. Davis, Lennard J. 2013: 6

5 Cf. Davis, Lennard J. 2013: 9

6 Cf. Steffen, Jorge 2009: 82 und Nelson 2013: 34

7 Cf. Neolson 2013: 34

8 Cf. Nelson 2013: 35

9 Cf. Nelson 2013: 35

10 Cf. Nelson 2013: 35-39

11 Cf. Sexton Gray; Conant 1981: I

12 Cf. Nelson 2013: 32

13 Cf. Northen, Micheal 2011: 24

14 Cf. Black 2011: 205

15 Black 2011: 208

16 Cf. Nelson 2013: 34

17 Kirby-Smith 1998: x

18 Kirby-Smith 1998: x

19 Cf.. Nelson 2013: 34

20 Cf. Nelson 2013: 34

21 Cf. Black 2011: 208

22 Cf. Black 2011: 206-210, Black 2011: 208

23 Cf. Kumin, Maxine: „How it was“ In: Sexton, Anne: The Complete Poems. Boston 1981, xxii.

24 Kumin, Maxine: „How it was“ In: Sexton, Anne: The Complete Poems. Boston 1981, xxx.

25 Cf. Sexton Gray; Conant 1981: xxxi

26 Cf. Sexton Gray; Conant 1981: xxxiii

27 Cf. Zilboorg 2000: 11

28 Cf. Sexton Gray; Conant 1981: xxxiv

29 Cf. George Hume 1987: 97

30 Cf. George Hume 1987: 92

31 Arbor 1985: 95

32 Cf. Nelson 2013: 34what

33 Arbor 1985: 74

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Confessionalism in Disability Poetry and Poetry of Madness
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Amerikanistik)
Disability Poetry
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Poetry analysis, disability poetry, comparison, poetry of madness, Anne Sexton, Sheila Black
Quote paper
Sarah Antonia Gallegos García (Author), 2014, Confessionalism in Disability Poetry and Poetry of Madness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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