After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham

June 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm (book review, books, essays, literary criticism, literature, nonfiction, poetry, reading)

Being a poet who writes primarily confessional poetry I was stoked to come across After Confession, a collection of critical essays discussing the technical, aesthetic, and ethical considerations unique to confessional poetry. With essays by some of the biggest names in contemporary poetry including Alicia Ostricker, Billy Collins, and Louise Gluck, After Confession offers a remarkably well-rounded look at the possibilities and pit falls of the form.

The book is divided into four sections: “Staying News: Critical and Historical Perspectives” looks at autobiographical poetry from antiquity to the present. “Our Better Halves: Autobiographical Musings ” examines the self within confessional poetry. “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” is self-explanatory. And “Codes of Silence: Women and Autobiography” shines a spotlight on women in confessional poetry.

Sontag’s and Graham’s arrangement of the essays is almost conversational, each one responding to arguments put forth in previous essays. This back and forth makes it feel as though you’re listening in on an active debate rather than reading a book.

Though the book as a whole is incredibly rich, I enjoyed part three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” the most. Ted Kooser’s essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems” in which he lambastes autobiographical poets who stretch the truth and advocates the inclusion of some sort of note or clause at the start of poems indicating whether or not they are true, had me so furious I covered the margins in back talk. I didn’t need to though. In the following essay, “Self-Pity,” Carol Frost highlights the many subtle ways confessional poets use syntax, timing, innuendo, and word choice to indicate what is true and what is false, and basically makes Ted Kooser look like a lazy reader.

In his amusing essay “The Glass Anvil: The Lies of an Autobiographer” Andres Hudgins maps out ten different types of lies ranging from white to red hot, and points out where, why, and how he used each of them in his poetry book The Glass Hammer. And Kimiko Hahn’s “Blunt Instrument: a Zuihitsu” examines the intersection of truth, half-truth, and memory in confessional poetry as a whole through a poetic form that allows one to clearly view each fragment, each thought, by itself  and in relation to surrounding truths and untruths.

Each section has its stand out essays. In section four’s  “The Voices We Carry” Kimberly Blaeser talks about the social construction of individuality, and how our sense of self is cobbled together through membership to various groups, and relationships to other people.  In section two Stanley Plumly’s remarkable “Autobiography and Archetype” makes the argument that archetype is what connects autobiography to something larger than itself, and autobiography is the medium through which archetypes are continually renewed.

No matter how you feel about confessional poetry – whether you love it, hate it, write it, or sneer at it – After Confession should be on your bookshelf. The essays offer ammunition to anyone looking for a way to explain why confessional poetry is awesome or why it sucks, and contains loads of food for thought along the way.

More than anything, the critical ideas and personal views expressed in After Confession reminded me of the possibilities inherent in the poetic form; that a poet can never learn enough, can never stop trying new things, and must never stop pushing the boundaries of poetic expression.

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3 Comments

  1. David Graham said,

    Thanks very much for such a thoughtful and perceptive reading of our book. Much appreciated!

    Anyone interested in further details about the anthology can read the table of contents and introductory essay here at the Graywolf site:

    http://www.graywolfpress.org/Related_Content/Book_Excerpts/Excerpt_from_After_Confession/

    David Graham

  2. Kate Sontag said,

    It is heartening to know the book is still being read and recommended. Thank you so much for the kind praise and thorough commentary.

    Kate Sontag

  3. jenneandrews said,

    I just ran across this and really liked it. Visit me at Loquaciously Yours here on WordPress- http://loquaciouslyyours.com , and I’ll be back! xj

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