Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Wayne Koestenbaum

Committee Members

Mary Ann Caws

Nancy K. Miller

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Literature | Literature in English, North America | Poetry | Women's Studies


confessional poetry, poetry, contemporary poetry, American poetry


When a provocative style of autobiographical verse had emerged in postwar America, literary critics christened the new genre “confessional poetry.” Confessional poets of the 1960s and ’70s are often characterized by scholars of contemporary poetry as a cohort of writers who, unlike previous generations before them, dared to explore in their work the personal and inherited traumas of mental illness, family suicides, failed marriages, and crushing addictions. As a result, the body of work these writers produced is often experienced as a collection of stylized, literary self-portraits. What can these self-portraits reveal to us about the connection between confessional poetry and other autobiographical acts? This project examines how two poets within the confessional canon, John Berryman (1914-1972) and Anne Sexton (1928-1974), performed in various guises the part of the confessional poet. In addition, this project introduces to the canon a third unconsidered Black prison poet, Etheridge Knight (1931-1991), who was also writing at the same time as Sexton and Berryman. By considering Knight’s work as one of the strains (or divergent branches) of confessional poetics, this project confronts some of the critical blunders that constitute the curiously white-washed canon known as confessionalism.

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