The power of confessional poetry

Caitlin Ryan is a sophomore English major.

GRAPHIC BY LEO TAFOYA/GRAPHICS CENTER

As an English major and poet, I am a strong believer in the power of the written word. To honor National Poetry Month this April, I have been investigating poetry’s expressive power and the dedication and emotional exploration required to master the craft. 

Poetry is the bridge upon which communication evolved from oral tradition. Since the time of ancient epic poets like Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, poetry has been a pillar of society. Fast forward to the past century, four literary-conscious U.S. presidents — John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden — have all requested poets to speak at their inaugurations to inspire the masses. Maya Angelou became the first Black woman Inaugural Poet in 1993 when she recited, “On the Pulse of Morning,” and Amanda Gorman became the youngest Inaugural Poet in history in 2021 with her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” showing that poetic authority knows no age or race requirement.

As a poet who is relatively new to the craft, these examples are inspiring and I sometimes become excitedly overwhelmed when I think of all the benefits that come with writing poetry. Unlike anything else I’ve discovered, writing offers me an outlet for self-expression: the ability to unlock and unpack emotions that I am sometimes unaware of until they materialize on the page. Further, the possibilities of a blank piece of paper opens up a realm of endless freedom through which I can articulate my ideas. 

As a part of my journey of poetry-discovery, I interviewed USF English professor and poet Peter Kline, whose confessional poetry workshop class I am currently in. Kline is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow whose poems have appeared in several publications, including his two personal collections, “Deviants” and “Mirrorforms.”

Kline and I agreed that the opportunity the USF community has to live and write in San Francisco is unparalleled given the city’s rich literary history. In the 1940s and 50s, San Francisco was home to the Beat Poets, “a new generation of poets [who] rebelled against the conventions of mainstream American life and writing,” according to the Poetry Foundation, an independent literary organization and publisher of Poetry magazine. Among the founders of the Beat Generation was poet Allen Ginsburg, who has been an inspiration to me.

In one of Ginsberg’s most famous poems, titled “Howl,” Ginsberg addresses how the power of poetry is so great that it is, in a sense, supernatural. This poem is one of my favorites because its balance of absurdity and sincerity so effectively denounces the oppression of socially ostracised groups of people. Ginsberg, who was openly gay, wrote at a time when being so was unconvenional and cause for persecution. In “Howl,” Ginsburg powerfully wrote that poetry can create “incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images / juxtaposed.” What I believe Ginsberg meant by this is that poetry has the power not only to change how we each see the world, but also to foundationally change the world itself. 

Poets like Ginsberg also led the revolutionary generation of Confessional Poetry, a 1950s movement which, according to the Poetry Foundation, “marked a revolution in poetic style as well as specific subject matter and the relationship between a poem’s speaker and self.” Poets of the Confessionalism movement rallied together to share their stories that were often deemed too taboo in the mainstream world of literature; covering topics such as shame, suffering, and sexuality. 

According to the Poetry Foundation, Confessionalism founders Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton “wrote in direct, colloquial speech rhythms and used images that reflected intense psychological experiences, often culled from childhood or battles with mental illness or breakdown.” Discovering the breadth of this movement in Kline’s class has been so meaningful to me because I have learned that the most beautiful aspect of poetry is how there are no right or wrong answers. Instead, there are only liberating open spaces we can use to reveal and work through our trauma and subconscious. 

As a psychology minor, I am fascinated by the psychological element that is integral to writing. Registered poetry therapist Perie Longo, Ph.D., MFT, PTR wrote on her practice’s website that she regularly uses writing in her work to “help [patients] access and express emotions that are difficult to put into words.” Longo continued by writing that healing from poetry therapy often comes when “each individual [travels] to that source of creativity easily and naturally, and [realizes] how much the poem has to teach us about ourselves and the world, as form and sound give rise to silence.”

Concerning the relationship between writing and psychology, Kline poignantly said, “To be a good writer, you have to be a good psychologist. If you don’t understand human nature you can be a beautiful writer in other ways, but you are going to be missing a critical component of writing.” He said that by making the reader confront “what makes a person feel a certain way, [and] speak in [a certain way] way, [it] might reveal their life perspective.”

Sigmund Freud even said, “Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious.” In my own writing, the power of poetry to both help me make sense of my own subconscious thoughts and help me recognize the sources of my creativity has proved transformative in developing my literary perspective. 

Not only does reading and writing poetry facilitate individual self-expression, but it can also help us interpret larger societal issues and anxieties while exposing the breadth of the human condition among people of all races, ethnicities, religions, and identities. There are so many mediums that allow us to express our thoughts and feelings, but the written word is my favorite because it involves a poet speaking directly to their reader to give exclusive insights into the inner workings of their mind, ideas, and passions. 

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