Modern American Poetry

David Mitchell | June 11, 2018

American Poetry: In the work of three American ‘confessional poets’, the poetic self is explored. But history was important to them too.

The Ottoline Club met on 13th March 2018 in the Archive for a talk by Peter Maber with the title “History and the Self in Modern American Poetry”.

Those present were: Peter Maber (Faculty of English), Naomi Goulder (Faculty of Philosophy), Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), Christoph Schuringa (Faculty of Philosophy), Diana Bozhilova (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Catherine Brown (Faculty of English), George Zouros (Faculty of Economics) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).

The three American writers whose poetry Peter discussed in his talk were born within a few years of each other, Delmore Schwartz in 1913, Robert Lowell in 1917 and John Berryman in 1914. They have been grouped together by some critics, on the strength of the apparently autobiographical elements abundantly present in their work, as ‘confessional’ poets. That label has also been repudiated, notably by the poets themselves.

Peter himself takes a nuanced view, recognising the poetry’s attempts to capture the individual life but very much being sceptical – as the poetry at times also is – as to whether any such enterprise can succeed.

This evening’s talk was particularly about one not quite central aspect of these poets’ works, the way in which history enters into them, and is related to the self. In both Schwartz and Lowell, there is a concern with ancestral influences, upon respectively a second-generation Romanian-Jewish immigrant and a scion of an eminent Boston family. Schwartz also wished to find ways of bringing epic or dramatic character into the lyric, and Lowell in his Notebooks and other works extends Schwartz’s efforts in this direction. His late work is dominated by a series of 350 ‘sonnets’ bearing the title History, concerned both with the past and with ‘historic’ events in the present, such as the My Lai massacre.

Peter also introduced two poems from Berryman’s The Dream Songs, reading them as satires about politics’ effect on the self, in the cases of Thomas Jefferson and Dwight Eisenhower. As with Lowell, the evocations of public figures and events in this work are often provocative and disturbing. In late Lowell and Berryman, Peter suggested, we find not so much that history and the self determine each other as that each exposes the other as a constructed myth.

One of the poems of which Peter gave us an extract was Schwartz’s ‘Coriolanus and his Mother’, a prime example of the use of plural perspectives in his work, as it incorporates comments on itself by unnamed but sometimes readily identifiable imagined observers, among them Marx and Freud. Peter was happy to take those two figures as representative of the thought that lives can be shaped in hidden ways by determinants in, respectively, social and personal history. And they were alluded to at various points in the discussion. Peter responded to a question of Diana’s about McCarthyism by mentioning how all three poets were in different ways at odds with anti-communist tendencies.

All of them also underwent repeated psychoanalysis. Christoph wondered what familiarity any of the three might have had with an Emerson essay on history that was known to Nietzsche. He also prompted Peter to elaborate in various ways on Lowell’s references to the past outliving the present, and his description of the self as an open book. The discussion as a whole was typically wide-ranging: among the authors brought in, besides those already mentioned, were Petrarch, Hegel and Lawrence, and the philosopher with whom Schwartz studied for a time at Harvard, A. N. Whitehead.


David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy