Friday, April 16, 2010

What does "Confessional" mean?

An interesting discussion unfolded in my Surrealism and Dada class yesterday. We're currently reading Claude Cahun's Disavowals. Some of my classmates called it confessional or journal-esque in nature. The discussion veered away from the text and what exactly is meant by the term "confessional."

One of the frustrations Elizabeth Robinson expressed about what are traditionally known as "Confessional" poets is the underlying assumption in their work: if I have felt or experienced something, it must be true. While they may doubt or make fun of this assumption at times, their work ultimately is a testament to it.

I asked, in order for something to be confessional, if it must be grounded in reality. Many people disagreed with this idea and I'm not sure I believe it 100% myself. There are plenty of fictionalized accounts of actual events that include supernatural phenomena or otherworldly happenings. These can always be contextualized by their historical origins. A good example of a book that we read in Surrealism that challenges this question is Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet, a surrealist memoir that could be read as a fictionalized account of Carrington's mental breakdown that resulted from Max Ernst's arrest during the Nazi occupation of France.

Those who said Disavowals was confessional argued that the erratic nature of the sections, lack of central plot, and no apparent glue to link each section together was representative of the unstable nature of Cahun's personality. I think this is ultimately a dangerous position, as it makes no distinction between thoughts and events. It is precisely this belief that leads to thoughtcrime in 1984 and a situation like Minority Report.

However, I don't want to minimize the reality of the mind. Poetry, the art of language, is often engaged with the tangible and intangible qualities of thought. It shows how ideas are formed, where they break down, and what an idea does to how we view the world, language, and ourselves. Even if it records your actual thoughts, there is nothing inherently confessional about it. That is, of course, unless you make it known to the reader, as Charles Bernstein does in "Thank You for Saying Thank You":

It fully expresses
the feelings of the
author: my feelings,
the person speaking
to you now.

and you, the reader, believe it.

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