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Poetry Guide: Confessionalism

Confessionalism is a label formally applied to a style of American poetry that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. The label continues to be applied, though usually in a derogatory sense, to poetry about personal experience, particularly when that poetry is written carelessly or thoughtlessly.

Confessionalist poets draw on personal history for their inspiration. Often well schooled in verse traditions, they choose to mine their own lives for subject matter, often using personal trauma as fuel for literary or dramatic effect. Of the poets emerging in the late 1950s, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are most commonly identified as Confessionalists. Much of John Berryman's work is considered Confessionalist, and Robert Lowell is widely regarded as the most accomplished in the Confessionalist movement. There are strong Confessionalist elements in the work of the Beat poets in the 1950s and 1960s, notably in Allen Ginsberg.

Many Confessionalist writers explore themes of madness in their poetry. Although most Confessionalist poets of the 1950s and 1960s met and knew each other, they did not seek to identify themselves as part of a distinct literary movement. The label was developed and applied to the movement in the 1970s.