MARCH 19, 2019
IS CONFESSIONAL POETRY still interesting in our age of oversharing? Is it even confessional? If my students are any indication, readers immersed in multiple platforms of never-ending self-disclosure might not find the poetry of Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton particularly exhibitionist. Lowell’s Life Studies is personal, certainly, but not nearly as personal as your average Instagram story, not as revealing as the anecdotes my students are apt to volunteer in and after class, maybe not as real as the Real Housewives. Lowell famously described his turn toward the personal as a movement away from a rarefied and bloodless commitment to craft, “a breakthrough back into life” that promised to reenergize the writers of an entire generation. A half-century on, the subversions of their self-exposure can be harder to recognize. In the full thrall of TMI, it might be that the strangeness of confessional poetry has more to do these days with its being poetry than its being confessional. This development is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, I often try to highlight something like this dynamic by playing for my classes a recording of Sylvia Plath reading “Daddy” a few months before her death. It is an electrifying performance that completely reconfigures the way my students approach her poems. Plath brings to the text a theatrical intensity far flung from the rhetoric of therapeutic unburdening that the “confessional” label seems to suggest. As Plath declaims it, “Daddy” sounds more like the soliloquy of an Elizabethan villain than a straightforward exercise in self-expression. It is not so clear that such words unearth any sort of inner truth about the speaker, but they are certainly dramatic.
In The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV, Christopher Grobe makes a powerful case that this connection between confession and performance is no coincidence. A confession is always a performance — a complex interplay of audience and artifice, media and meaning — a fact that artists and audiences have always recognized to some extent. The inseparability of performance and confession is true in a rather literal way for the confessional poets in particular. Grobe explains that the rise of confessional poetry is shaped by the contemporary emergence of the business of poetry recording by record labels like Caedmon Records and, even more importantly, by a kind of craze for the poetry reading, which demanded of poets not only a relatively novel form of public performance but also a new relation to their work. Plath, Lowell, and Sexton came to write their poems under the pressure of an expectation that they would be performed, a pressure that helps explain why the kind of modernist impersonality, which insisted on the division between poet and the poem, came to feel stifling and inadequate. It is one thing to insist that a speaker’s words are not your own when they are closed off in the pages of a book and another when you are saying them in front of a crowd of eager listeners, to keep your distance when you find your own voice breaking with emotion as you read them out loud. In this light, the fame of confessional poets — and even the all-consuming mythologies that surround them — should not be considered an unfortunate and distracting accident of their reception. “On the contrary,” Grobe asserts, “confessional poetry was from the start a performance genre, infused at every stage of its creation with the breath of the poet — and with a promise to perform.”
This is a fascinating paradox that constitutes the heart of Grobe’s argument: poetry becomes personal precisely by becoming performative. The strength of Grobe’s compelling account stems from the complexity and flexibility of the concept of performance — “understood,” he explains, “as a hypermedial practice, as a way of playing with and between media.” Confessions are performative, in other words, not only in the theatrical sense but also in something like the deconstructionist sense as well, existing somewhere in the ambiguous space between marks on the page and the way those marks are animated by the act of being read. Confession puts words into motion, and attending to the performative dimension of this motion highlights the way that a poetic confession resists the strict finality of the written word even as it seems to succumb to it. When Lowell describes his work as making a breakthrough back into life, in other words, he is not merely describing the jettisoning of repressive literary traditions. This rupture is not simply a matter of content but also of form, a breakthrough of the written word into the lecture hall, for instance, an attempt that “spills across the borders that separate literature from performance.” The generational transformation he describes is not merely a matter of putting real life back into the poems; it is a matter of the way that poems circulate out in the life of the world. It is a recognition that poems exist as part of that world in the first place.
Confessionalism, for Grobe, is a movement — more like Romanticism or the Gothic than a particular school of poetry — and as such it is “always on the move between media.” The confessional turn in poetry thus quickly spreads across different art forms, transforming stand-up comedy in the ’60s, performance art in the ’70s, theater in the ’80s, and television in the ’90s. Each of these moments represents a pivotal instance in which confession seemed to rejuvenate a particular medium. This mobility is powerful in part because of the way it combines a liberating conception of art with a particular understanding of subjectivity, insisting that any depiction of self is always partial and mediated. Rather than some kind of straightforward revelation of naked subjectivity, the examples Grobe underlines thus present a self that is “not quite made present, but also not disappearing just yet, and certainly not an immediate thing: this self is hypermediate, visible only at times (and in parts) as it flashes across a complex media array.” On the one hand, this might seem like a distinctively modern model of subjectivity, presenting the constructed subject of poststructuralist theory, say, or the edited persona of reality television. But these complex, mediated selves can be seen in earlier academic and popular accounts of the theatricality of selfhood as well. We might distinguish between what Erving Goffman calls front-stage and back-stage performances of self, but it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine anything like an authentic self, at least not if we imagine authenticity as opposed to performance.
The fact that performance and authenticity have never been neatly opposite even in the most apparently autobiographical form of artistic confession has important implications that radiate outward from the specific literary and art historical narratives Grobe traces. This is evident, for instance, in the way that he explores the complicated legacy of the second-wave feminist technique of Consciousness Raising as it played out in the feminist performance art of the 1970s. Encouraging women to tell their stories as a way of recognizing the connectedness of their struggles, Consciousness Raising turned a generation of feminists into confessional poets. Not surprisingly, the adoption of this kind of confessional practice has often been treated with the same dismissive gestures that have haunted confessional poetry. Critics have faulted this sort of confessional performance art for practicing a kind of artless self-help, betraying a naïve belief in the subject’s ability to achieve a kind of facile universality linked to the experience of being a woman. Confessions of this sort have become associated with an essentializing conception of gender and performance that was purportedly superseded in the 1980s by a mode of performance much closer to the sort visible in Judith Butler’s account of gender performativity. Feminist and queer theoretical accounts of the performativity of gender unfolded amid discussions of the way that feminist performance art itself was changing. Indeed, Butler published early portions of Gender Trouble in venues like Theatre Journal.
But of course when queer theorists declared in the 1980s and ’90s that gender was a kind of performance they did not mean taking to the stage to tell your life’s story. Instead, they meant something closer to the idea of drag: an ironized, iterative activity that, rather than revealing some core truth about an individual’s experience, revealed instead that the very idea of a core truth was an illusion. The difficulty with this narrative, however, is that the kinds of performance art that underwrite such arguments are more complicated than this received wisdom allows. Examining the performance art of Eleanor Antin and Linda Montano, Grobe explains: “Sincerity and irony, confession and parody, commitment and camp coexisted in this art, appearing together in the same galleries, in the careers of single artists, and even sometimes within one performance.” Indeed, the lesson about gender that confessional performance art highlights is less the facileness of a kind of sincerity that must be supplanted by the ironies of camp. Rather, it is the fact that experience and performance of gender and sexuality is often better understood as a kind of “camp sincerity,” a dead-serious play with artifice and style that refuses any clear-cut choice between a deconstructed and an essential self.
The long history of the coexistence of camp and sincerity helps illuminate a problem central to making sense of any contemporary account of the poetics of oversharing: what does it mean that our culture maintains such a fervent investment in confessionalism when confession itself has grown banal? One has only to look down at one’s phone to dip into the lives of strangers and acquaintances, to eavesdrop as they confess about their mental health, their sexual history, their lunch. Every generation wants to believe its own narcissism is special, and it has seemed to many that oversharing on such a scale is a novelty. But Grobe helps uncover continuities between Robert Lowell and reality television, revealing that all along confession has been a matter of art as much as truth. “Even today,” Grobe explains,
with confession itself now the norm, this old drama of containment and breakthrough remains. We demand not authenticity, but the spectacle of crumbling artifice; not direct access to the personal, but a sidelong view of the persona falling away; not straight-ahead fact and sincerity, but the roundabout truths of an ironic approach.
The artists Grobe discusses devoted their careers to telling stories about themselves that would evade any attempt to pin them down as straightforward, even while still managing to engage their audience’s desire for revelation. For this reason, they can perhaps help us to navigate a contemporary media ecology governed by the algorithmic logics of data aggregation. Grobe shows that these artists might usefully instruct us how better to perform — “to do something” — with our stories. The Art of Confession is itself in this regard an impressive performance, written with an eloquence and uncommon verve that breathes vitality into the genres of academic writing and testifies to the ability of scholarship to move freely between the page, the classroom, and back into life.