Hostname: page-component-588bc86c8c-2zrg9 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-11-30T10:47:48.440Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

The Breath of the Poem: Confessional Print/Performance circa 1959

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


This essay offers an early chapter in the conjoined history of poetry and performance art, literary criticism and performance studies. Beginning in the mid-1950s and with increasing fervor through the 1960s, American poetry lived simultaneously in print, on vinyl, and in embodied performance. Amid this environment of multimedia publicity, an oddly private poetry emerged. The essay locates confessional poetry in the performance-rich context of its birth and interrogates not only its textual voice but also its embodied, performed breath. Focusing on early confessional work by Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, this essay conducts side-by-side “readings” of printed poems and recorded performances and suggests that confessional refers to an intermedial, print-performance style—a particular logic for capturing personal performances in print form and for breathing performances back out of the printed page.

Research Article
Copyright © 2012 by The Modern Language Association of America

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Works Cited

Advertisement. Lee Anderson Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Lib., Yale U. Print.Google Scholar
Alvarez, A.Sylvia Plath: A Memoir.” Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath. Ed. Alexander, Paul. New York: Harper, 1985. 185213. Print.Google Scholar
Anderson, Lee. Memoirs. 23 Jan. 1970. N. pag. MS. Lee Anderson Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Lib., Yale U.Google Scholar
Armstrong, Chloe, and Brandes, Paul. The Oral Interpretation of Literature. New York: McGraw, 1963. Print.Google Scholar
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975. Print.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Barth, John. “Author's Note (1968).” Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Anchor, 1988. xi–xii. Print.Google Scholar
Bernstein, Charles, ed. Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bernstein, Charles, ed. “Hearing Voices.” Perloff and Dworkin 142–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bernstein, Charles, ed. Introduction. C. Bernstein, Close Listening 326.Google Scholar
Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York UP, 2011. Print.Google Scholar
Blasing, Mutlu. Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.Google Scholar
Brooks, Daphne. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.Google Scholar
Damon, Maria. “The Jewish Entertainer as Cultural Lightning Rod: The Case of Lenny Bruce.” Postmodern Culture 7.2 (1997): n. pag. Project Muse. Web. 13 July 2010.Google Scholar
Derrida, Jacques. Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988. Print.Google Scholar
Drucker, Johanna. “Not Sound.” Perloff and Dworkin 237–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Felman, Shoshana. The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J. L. Austin; or, Seduction in Two Languages. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.Google Scholar
Geiger, Don. The Sound, Sense, and Performance of Literature. Chicago: Scott, 1963. Print.Google Scholar
Gill, Jo. Anne Sexton's Confessional Poetics. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2007. Print.Google Scholar
Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems, 1947–1997. New York: Harper, 2006. Print.Google Scholar
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howland Other Poems. 1959. Fantasy, 1998. CD.Google Scholar
Ginsberg, Allen. Letter to Richard Eberhart. 18 May 1956. Howl. Ed. Miles, Barry. New York: Harper, 1995. 151–54. Print.Google Scholar
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor, 1959. Print.Google Scholar
Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print.Google Scholar
Gray, Spalding. “The Art of Autobiography: An Interview with Spalding Gray.” By Dan Georgakas. Cineaste 19.4 (1992): 3437. Print.Google Scholar
Gray, Spalding. “My Life in Art: Interviewing Spalding Gray.” By Richard Schechner. Drama Review 46.4 (2002): 154–74. Print.Google Scholar
Hall, Donald. “The Poetry Reading: Public Performance / Private Art.” American Scholar 54.1 (1984–85): 6377. Print.Google Scholar
Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random, 1982. Print.Google Scholar
Kumin, Maxine, and Sexton, Anne. “A Nurturing Relationship: A Conversation with Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin.” By Elaine Showalter and Carol Smith. Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4.1 (1976): 115–36. Print.Google Scholar
Lowell, Robert. Collected Poems. Ed. Bidart, Frank and Gewanter, David. New York: Farrar, 2003. Print.Google Scholar
Lowell, Robert. “Life Studies.” Robert Lowell Reads from His Own Work. Yale Ser. of Recorded Poets, 1959. LP.Google Scholar
Lowell, Robert. “National Book Award Acceptance Speeches: Robert Lowell, Winner of the 1960 Poetry Award for Life Studies.” National Book Foundation. Natl. Book Foundation, 2007. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.Google Scholar
Lowell, Robert. Robert Lowell: Collected Prose. Ed. Giroux, Robert. New York: Farrar, 1987. Print.Google Scholar
MacLeisch, Archibald. “Ars Poetica.” Collected Poems, 1917–1982. Boston: Houghton, 1985. 106–07. Print.Google Scholar
McCurdy, Philip. E-mail to the author. 13 July 2010.Google Scholar
McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009. Print.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.Google Scholar
McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1962. Print.Google Scholar
Middlebrook, Diane. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton, 1991. Print.Google Scholar
Middleton, Peter. Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2005. Print.Google Scholar
Olson, Charles. “Notes on Language and Theater.” “Human Universeand Other Essays. By Olson. Ed. Donald Allen. New York: Grove, 1967. 7377. Print.Google Scholar
Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” “Human Universeand Other Essays. By Olson. Ed. Donald Allen. New York: Grove, 1967. 5161. Print.Google Scholar
Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967. Print.Google Scholar
Perelman, Bob. “Speech Effects: The Talk as a Genre.” C. Bernstein, Close Listening 200–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Perloff, Marjorie, and Dworkin, Craig, eds. The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Print.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Phelan, Peggy. “‘Just Want to Say’: Performance and Literature, Jackson and Poirier.” PMLA 125.4 (2010): 942–47. Print.Google Scholar
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.Google Scholar
Plath, Sylvia. Interview. The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets. New York: Barnes, 1966. 167–72. Print.Google Scholar
Plath, Sylvia. Interview. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Kukil, Karen V. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.Google Scholar
Reed, Brian M.Visual Experiment and Oral Performance.” Perloff and Dworkin 270–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rein, Lynn Miller. Northwestern University School of Speech: A History. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1981. Print.Google Scholar
Rosenthal, M. L. New Poets: American and British Poetry since World War II. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. Print.Google Scholar
Rosenthal, M. L. “Poetry as Confession.” Nation 19 Sept. 1959: 154–55. Print.Google Scholar
Roubaud, Jacques. “Prelude: Poetry and Orality.” Trans. Jean-Jacques Poucel. Perloffand Dworkin 1825.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sexton, Anne. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Ed. Sexton, Linda Gray and Ames, Lois. Boston: Houghton, 1977. Print.Google Scholar
Sexton, Anne. “Comment on ‘Some Foreign Letters.‘No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1985. 1417. Print.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sexton, Anne. The Complete Poems. Boston: Houghton, 1981. Print.Google Scholar
Sexton, Anne. “The Freak Show.” No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews, and Prose. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1985. 3338. Print.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sexton, Anne. The Poetry of Anne Sexton. Audio Forum, 1964. Audiocassette.Google Scholar
Stanislavsky, Konstantin. Stanislavsky on the Art of the Stage. Trans. Magarshack, David. New York: Hill, 1961. Print.Google Scholar
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wheeler, Lesley. Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008. Print.Google Scholar