A confessional poet is one who writes poems about intimate and sometimes unflattering, information about him or herself, often exploring such deeply personal subjects as illness, sexuality and depression without modesty or discretion. This form of poetry became popular in the 1950s and 1960s with poets like Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton and Plath is sometimes, and with some justification, called a confessional poet.
Confessional poets often write using the pronoun ‘I’ and are often interpreted as speaking directly about themselves rather than creating a persona through which to tell the story of the poem. The poems not only talk, therefore, about issues common in everyday life that previous, more ‘artistic’ poetry, would have thought too trivial or coarse to deal with, but they also act as a means of developing the self awareness of the poet as the process of writing about personal issues allows the poet to wrestle with their ‘inner demons’ and come to a greater knowledge of himself.
One advantage of confessional poetry is that it can allow us a unique glimpse into the mind and soul of another human being as it is laid bare before us on the page. However, disadvantageously, the intensely personal nature of confessional poetry may mean that it is irrelevant to everyone except the poet. Critics such as Matthew Arnold (writing at the end of the 19th Century) saw the value of poetry in its ability to ‘interpret life for us’ by revealing the fundamentals of human nature, by tackling the problems of modern society, by giving us hope and direction as a community. Needless to say, confessional poetry, with its focus on the individual, can do none of these things.
There is also uncertainty over whether any poem can actually offer anything more than a personal and limited perspective on the world. As Thoreau says even though a writer may be writing in third person we should ‘remember that it is, after all, always the first person speaking.’ As such, confessional poetry, it may be argued, is no different to any other form of poetry except in that the personal issues it discusses are often more vulgar than those discussed by other poets.