Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Confessional Poetry of Anne Sexton

One of the things that Lessa Bouchard, director of Tongue of a Bird told me early on was that, in her mind, the script was similar to the female confessional poetry of the late 1950's/early 1960s. In our chat she specifically referenced Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath as touchstones. Since it's been approximately a million years since I studied poetry in high school I had to hit the books to refresh my memory. Here's what I dug up from on the subject.

Confessional poetry is the poetry of the personal or "I." This style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W.D. Snodgrass. Lowell's book Life Studies was a highly personal account of his life and familial ties, and had a significant impact on American poetry. Plath and Sexton were both students of Lowell and noted that his work influenced their own writing.

The confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century dealt with subject matter that previously had not been openly discussed in American poetry. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in this type of poetry, often in an autobiographical manner. Sexton in particular was interested in the psychological aspect of poetry, having started writing at the suggestion of her therapist.

The confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work. While their treatment of the poetic self may have been groundbreaking and shocking to some readers, these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody.

One of the most well-known poems by a confessional poet is "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath. Addressed to her father, the poem contains references to the Holocaust but uses a sing-song rhythm that echoes the nursery rhymes of childhood:

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And what that explanation, I can see why Lessa was struck by the similarities between the poetry and Tongue of a Bird. Lessa mentioned the Sexton poem "The Double Image" which I wanted to read. It's a bit long so rather than copying it here I'll link you to it.

Much like Tongue of a Bird, "The Double Image" deals with the grandmother, mother, daughter relationship with elevated language and poetic imagery.

McLaughlin is a difficult and interesting writer. She's translated a number of ancient Greek tragedies to contemporary English productions and in many ways, Tongue of a Bird, seems to be her stab at a Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy was poetic and used imagery to convey meanings, but it was much less personal and confessional and more often offered worship to the Greek gods or memorialize a war. I found an interesting interview online with McLaughlin, and, when asked which work she was proudest of she said

As a playwright, I’ve written about a dozen plays now, many of which are adaptations of Greek plays. The adaptations vary widely in terms of how closely they cleave to the original work, but all are inspired by what I perceive as the primal formative power of that ancient work. One of the productions I’m most proud of was a version of The Trojan Women I wrote for refugees from the Bosnian War who had fled the former Yugoslavia and were living in NY in the mid 1990s. I received a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund that allowed me to organize the project with a psychiatric social worker who had experience in Yugoslavia and with the American Friends Service Committee, which helped me to recruit participants in the project, none of them professional actors, all of them traumatized to some extent by the war.

What we were able to achieve in the project was a real confirmation of the community-building and healing capability of the theater.
And, in my mind, this is the central purpose for Tongue of a Bird - healing. It's not an easy show, but it's elegant and lovely, and has stuck a chord in a number of our audience members. Theatre isn't always easy, and often it's inspiring, even in small ways. Based on the reaction from some of our patrons, Tongue was worth doing, as hard as it is to produce and live in as an actor, and watch in the small darkness of the theatre, because it's really resonated with some people in a really great way.

Clearly we should do a light-hearted comedy next. Oh wait, next up is A Streetcar Named Desire. Nevermind. ;)

Did you see Tongue of a Bird? Did it dredge up some emotions for you? What did you think of McLaughlin's choice of language and themes?

1 comment:

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