31 October 2016 ¦ Katie Goh
Confession: I love Sylvia Plath. The honesty of her poetic expression, the seeds of wisdom in her journals, the technical skill of her story stories, and the fundamental relatability of Esther Greenwood. As a teenager, I was seduced.
But then I went to university. From the lecturer who dismissed Plath as ‘privileged, confessional neediness,’ to boys at parties who scorned her while worshipping Bukowski, to Woody Allen’s patronising ‘interesting poetess’ dismissal in Annie Hall. It was embarrassing to like Sylvia Plath.
Photograph: 1977 – MGM
But why is she so dismissed by the literary elite?
Sylvia Plath is part of the poetry school known as confessionalism, a mode of writing beginning in 1950s America. Often viewed as a rejection of post-war commodification, confessional writing places an emphasis on individualism. The confessional poet grounds her writing in experience to carefully construct a ‘personal symbolic language’. The introspective nature of the form has been the subject of harsh criticism, and in particular female confessional poets, like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, have been attacked for being too self-indulgent, too emotional, and too autobiographical.
Over the latter half of the twentieth-century, the female confessional mutated and dissipated into popular culture. Women’s magazines, reality television, and self-help guides all act as variations of confessionalism. The form has become a money-making machine with women confessing their past “sins” (weight issues, beauty blemishes) and then selling the “solution” (fad diets, make-up) – a shallow, capitalist before-and-after confessional.
Indeed, a twenty-first century confessionalism has emerged from our celebrity-obsessed culture with reality television and TMZ providing behind the scenes access to celebrity façades. A distinction must be made, however, between representation of the self and self-representation. There is a difference between leaked CCTV footage of Beyoncé, Solange, and Jay Z arguing in an elevator and Beyoncé releasing Lemonade (2016), a record centred around her marriage. Confessionalism as a literary form functions as a mode of consensual self-expression– it wholly adopts an individual’s perspective.
Female confessionalism in song writing is hardly a new phenomenon. Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971) chronicles Mitchell’s relationship with James Taylor with ‘hardly a dishonest note.’ Stevie Nicks, Mary J. Blige, and Cat Power have also written in the vein of the female confessional, creating music which expresses personal trauma. While the female confessional is not a new mode of song writing, Beyoncé’s Lemonade marks a major shift in contemporary pop music. In a genre renowned for generic lyrics and manufactured personalities, Lemonade stands out as brutal in its candour.
Lemonade exists in two versions: the 45-minute studio album and the 60-minute “visual album”. The “visual album” mixes film, poetry, and music to create a self-contained narrative arc in eleven chapters, spanning Intuition to Redemption. It is melodramatically theatrical: Beyoncé dives off a building, drowns, becomes a goddess, and breathes fire. These visual metaphors for Beyoncé’s emotions become her very own ‘personal symbolic language’. Her theatrical self-presentation is Plath’s self-comparison to Lady Lazarus: “I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.” But like Plath, Beyoncé also exposes vulnerability, for example, in metaphor when her marriage is a sandcastle or when she describes her experiences as a Black woman in a racially tense America.
Lemonade’s scope of the personal and the political widens the label of confessional to encompass more than self-indulgence or self-wallowing. Beyoncé’s focus is not solely on her husband’s infidelity and ‘hysterical narcissism’, but also spans feminism, the Black Lives Matter movement, motherhood, female sexuality, grief, and freakum dresses.
So why are these works by female writers labelled as purely confessional despite being wide-ranging in scope? Saint Martin emphasises the sexist double standards surrounding self-representational writing: ‘the realm of the personal and sexual has always been literary for men and confessional for women.’ Sylvia Plath is confessional, while Hemingway, whose writing is similarly founded in personal experience, is literary. While Tidal describes Lemonade as ‘every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing’ – a patronisingly generic description of female confessionalism – Frank Ocean’s Blonde, another album confessional in its intimacy, is lauded by Apple as ‘an album we’ll be listening to and talking about for years.’
The breadth of these women’s writings exposes the label of confessionalism as just that: a label.
Confessionalism is not merely the divulging of personal sins and secrets, like the discourse surrounding Lemonade would suggest, but instead functions as an empowering and cathartic mode of self-expression. Beyoncé’s grandmother-in-law puts it best at the end of Lemonade when she says ‘I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.’
About Katie Goh
Katie is currently studying for her MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh via Belfast and Glasgow. Her research interests include women’s domestic fiction, modernist short stories and postcolonial theory. Her other interests include poetry, ramen, and terrible horror films. Find her on twitter at @johnnys_panic
Article edited by Vicki Madden, Katie Hawthorne, and Agnes Mela.