By Tom Kelly
When does confessional poetry become unwarranted? When does it slip into indulgence and melodrama rather than the divulging of a secret worth sharing? Of course, the answers to these question are subjective and likely contingent on the bias of the reader. Some critics find great merit in a well-crafted confessional poem. Others would have you think that the age of confessional poetry is outright dead. Either way, this approach to writing poems is provocative insofar as most readers have formed opinions about it. Many of them are quite polarizing.
Amid all the loud voices blaring diehard stances for and against confessional verse, I try to approach poetry somewhat sympathetic to the reader, yet still aware of my more critical duty as an audience. Part of my struggle with confessional poems involves the sheer amount of bias with which I so often approach them. Admittedly, if I read a tell-all poem by an author I’ve never been exposed to, no matter how well-crafted it is, finding adequate appreciation for it becomes difficult. A lack of familiarity with the author forces me into an automatic state of disinterest when approaching their “personal” poems. The sheer act of writing the poem in the first place seems a bit pretentious of the author—as if their life is so important they believe people should be compelled to read about it. This is exactly where my bias and hypocrisy enter.
Give me a poem that tells a personal secret by an author of merit—someone who’s published several books that I deem moving and/or entertaining—and my attitude changes completely. I’m with the established poet’s confessional work through cancer and divorce. The unknown poet’s work may be just as craft savvy. It may cover the same sort of content in a manner that’s just as entertaining. But I cannot find the same appreciation for it, as the author’s personal life has failed to pique my interest.
The idealist may hope the language in a confessional poem is strong enough to make the reader care. The more optimistic part of me believes that it can. Yet, speaking as someone who reads large volumes of poetry daily, so often by authors unknown to me, confessional poems remind me of the stranger at the party who introduces him or herself with a tear spattered, hour-long recap of their traumatizing high school experience. I want to empathize, but I’m too taken aback by the gesture.
On the other hand, if an author I’m familiar with spills their guts to me in a poignant manner, I’m appreciative. For better or worse, I feel that as a reader I establish relationships with authors. I can be moved by an author who divulges a deeply personal secret to me. But it’s probably not happening upon introduction. Is this problematic? Absolutely.
Familiarity with a writer and authorial merit should not affect my interest in their work, nor should it make me more receptive to their confessional poems. But, again, I read with bias. We all do, to various degrees. In an ideal literary community, one would never have to earn a more welcoming reception to their confessional poetry through means beyond the page which contains it. But there are many readers like myself and quite a few of them edit lit magazines.
Tom Kelly loves brunch just as much as the next jaded post-millennial. When he isn’t busy with MFA grad school business, he enjoys playing Tinder, OkCupid, Instagram, and Dragon Age Inquisition. He lives on a steady diet of pizza, black coffee, and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. He is a Libra, INFP, and counter-phobic loyalist. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 94Creations, FreezeRay Poetry, and SplitLip Press’ Utter Foolery: Best Global Literary Humor 2015.