02 March 2005

The illusion of confessional poetry

As yesterday was Robert Lowell's birthday, it was inevitable I not find this till today... Frank Bidart on Robert Lowell:

Because Robert Lowell is widely, perhaps indelibly, associated with the term "confessional," it seems appropriate and even necessary to discuss how "confessional" poetry is not confession. How Lowell's candor is an illusion created by art. He always insisted that his so-called confessional poems were in significant ways invented. Lowell, in his Paris Review interview with Frederick Seidel, says that the illusion of "reality" in a "confessional" poem is an aesthetic effect:

"Yet there's this thing: if a poem is autobiographical--and this is true of any kind of autobiographical writing and of historical writing--you want the reader to say, this is true. In something like Macaulay's History of England you think you're really getting William III. That's as good as a good plot in a novel. And so there was always that standard of truth which you wouldn't ordinarily have in poetry--the reader has to believe he was getting the real Robert Lowell."

What fascinates in these sentences is the forthrightness with which Lowell treats the sensation that the autobiographical or historical writer aims at, This is true, as an aesthetic effect--as possessing power because the writing gives the reader the illusion that it is true.

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