Wednesday, May 22Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Confessional Writing and the Destigmatisation of Mental Health

Jack Wright

In the middle of the twentieth century, a new style of poetry saw a surge in popularity, spearheaded by writers such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell.

Principally, confessional poetry placed an emphasis on the “I” and involved a poet incorporating biographical narrative directly into their writing. 

Rather than glorifying the mental health struggles of writers, confessional poetry sought to embrace the exploration of topics previously seen as taboo. Mental illness was one, as was sexuality and suicide. 

A key effect of this style of writing was to expose the imperfections of the domestic which, in both written and filmed media, was often idealised. The world was in recovery mode after the Second World War and would remain ever-changed by events such as the development of the atomic bomb and the Holocaust. Women were side-lined and, frequently, silenced.

This makes the surge of confessional work, particularly of female writers, all the more significant. Nowadays, it is difficult to separate the most famous confessional poet, Sylvia Plath, and her later poetry in Ariel, from her death in 1963. Reflecting on her 1953 suicide attempt in her poem ‘Daddy’, she writes:

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

These are some of the most recognisable lines in Ariel, along with the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’. After her failed suicide attempt, Plath saw herself as having undergone a resurrection of sorts; a renewal. 

Though her struggles with her mental health are evident in the poetry of Ariel, Plath’s utilisation of the page as a place to explore her experiences result in some of the most incredible verse written by anyone, ever.

The same can be said for Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, published in 1963. The protagonist, Esther Greenwood, attempts suicide in a near-identical way to Plath. There is a tragedy in Plath’s writing and there is much debate as to how best to analyse work which borrows so heavily from the writer’s own life.

Despite the tragedy of Plath’s life and writing, and that of other confessional writers, the exploration of such topics was important. The significance of a writer, particularly a woman in the middle of the twentieth century, introspectively analysing their own state of mind should not be understated. Their work helped to allow contemporary writers the freedom to explore an even wider array of topics and to continue to break down barriers.