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Contemporary Confessions

By Callum Foulds

The Confessional poets emerged from the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their work was marked by its intimate subject matter; first-person point of view; use of lived experience; and often exquisite command of language. Poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell were some of the more well-known names of the genre; Plath especially being someone who has had a lasting impact due to her brutally honest output. This genre of poetry was my own way into the art form. Since then, I have found similarities between the work of the confessional poets and today’s popular singer-songwriters. Not only this, but I would go as far as to say that some contemporary artists hold up the pantheon of confessional work that these great writers revolutionised in the mid-20th century.

One of my favourite singer-songwriters from the last few years is Phoebe Bridgers. Her singular blend of ghostly instrumentals and breathtakingly miserable lyrics floored me at first listen. Her songwriting is funny, bleak, reverential, and all together just impressive. ‘Kyoto’ from 2020’s Punisher, is a song that hangs off the strained relationship between Bridgers and her father. It is bittersweet, as a web of conflicting emotions and frustrations. There is a moment where Bridgers’ father forgets his son’s birthday; “He said you called on his birthday/You were off my like ten days/But you get a few points for trying”. The harsh tragedy of the situation makes it funny, like a friend telling you a story that they think is hilarious, but instead, you find it uncomfortably depressing, and you’re not sure whether to laugh or not. It is a very specific feeling, one that Bridgers captures immaculately.

I noted a similarity between Phoebe Bridgers’, ’Kyoto’ and Sylvia Plath’s, ‘Daddy’. The poem uses a slightly off-kilter rhyming scheme which gives it an air of childlike play. The rhythm is lyrical, and at times makes certain lines fun to read aloud; “In which I have lived like a foot/For thirty years, poor and white,/Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.” It is tragic, and yet the image of sneezing appears whimsical. The first stanza in which this comes from is deceptive: the next lines read; “Daddy, I have had to kill you./You died before I had time—“, before going on to reference childhood and the height nazism. It is a striking pivot in tone, one that is all the more effective for how jarring it is. Where Bridgers’ work is anchored by the ability to smoothly shift between tones and narratives, here Plath’s work is marked by her ability to quickly lean into the darkest pits of the human psyche. However, both works find themselves dealing with intimate subject matter, displayed in a way that is not altogether flattering for either party in both song and poem. It is something that I have noticed in both contemporary singer-songwriters and confessional poets; they find great inspiration in the uglier side of human relationships and are not afraid to stretch their subjects all around them in order to produce raw and visceral work.

Another similarity between the work of a singer-songwriter and confessional poet that I haven’t let go unnoticed is that of, ‘Shameika’ by Fiona Apple, and ‘The Double Image’ by Anne Sexton. Fiona Apple has for many years produced work that explores the ugliest capabilities of humankind, using imagery from her own life to create startlingly intimate reels of lyrical content. A great example of this comes in the form of, ‘Shameika’ from 2020’s, Fetch The Bolt Cutters. It details Apple’s difficulties growing up, whilst being encouraged by a school acquaintance to persevere. Lyrically, it is highly detailed and contains countless examples of poetic sensibilities: for example, her use of zooming in and out of a moment gives the narrative real flavour; “I used to walk down the streets on my way to school/Grinding my teeth to a rhythm invisible/I used to crush dead leaves like they had fallen from trees”. It’s these microscopic details that remind me of the work of confessional poets. There is also a rhythm that is used to bolster and enhance the quick-fire shooting off of simple yet utterly dynamic couplets; “Hurricane Gloria in excelsis deo, that’s my bird in my tree/My dog and my man and my music is my holy trinity”. Of course, most poetry uses to rhythm and meter as a tool, but in music, it isn’t often associated with the work of singer-songwriters; there will be a sense of rhythm present in the lyrics, but it isn’t necessarily a main feature of the song. When it comes to, ‘Shameika’ however, the galloping cadence in which Apple delivers the song orders the listener to believe in every word she fires off. The past in which she speaks of is completely brought to life, due to the intricacies of her lyrical content, and the stomping speed at which she chants.

Sexton’s poem talks about the poet’s mental illness in relation to her daughter, and being a mother herself. The tone of the poem is sombre, and despite the regular rhyming pattern, this only adds to the poem’s lethargic lull. Similarly to, ‘Shameika’, there are moments where scenes are magnified upon before zooming out again; “I am thirty this November./You are still small, in your fourth year./We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,/flapping in the winter rain,”. This technique lends the poem a sense of realism, something that marks the confessional poets’ work, and is often utilised by singer-songwriters in order to engage with listeners. Something not so obviously similar, but still worth mentioning, is the length of, ‘The Double Image’; with twenty-five stanzas, Sexton’s voice is notable for its accuracy of reflecting speech rhythms and the sense of intonation produced. The scale of the poem gives it an air of rambling, as if the poet is caught meandering in her head, continuously over the same subject. Because of this, you can’t help but feel as if the poem is intensely personal. It gives the sense of reading someone’s thoughts materialising in real-time. This is something I think is the most notable similarity between singer-songwriters and confessional poets. The way in which their works are meticulously constructed makes the listener or reader feel like the content is an unedited stream of consciousness. This considered style of writing often makes for the most striking work.

As a big fan of both the confessional poets and contemporary singer-songwriters, I appreciate that there are of course countless differences between the two. However, I have felt it necessary to elaborate upon some of the more blatant similarities in order to understand each of them better. I believe that by doing this I have learned to appreciate both poetry and songwriting in new and exciting ways, and I know that I will continue to unearth how one of the most influential and singularly powerful genres of poetry influences some of today’s most popular and well-revered singer-songwriters.


About the Writer:

Callum Foulds is a poet and recording artist based in Nottingham, England. They enjoy good food, scary movies and playing with their cat. They can often be found reading on the couch, or agonising over whatever creative venture they are currently embarking on. @cf_oulds


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