Experimental Confessionalism: The Personal Turn in American Post-conceptual Poetry

1 August 2018

The rise, fall and rise of experimentalism

In my book The Writing Experiment, a pedagogical book primarily concerned with the practice of creative writing, I characterise experimental writing as ‘retaining an open-ended and open-minded attitude, and pursuing new, diverse modes of textual exploration’(Smith 2005, ix). I suggest, however, that there is a paradox at the heart of experimentalism that complicates it. That paradox is that ‘any mode of experimentation is initially an appeal to the new but can become conventional over time’ (x).

In characterising experimentalism as open-ended, I was identifying it with exploration and with the subversion of previous literary conventions. Experimentalism, therefore, inevitably involves the overturning of former ‘experimental’ approaches; otherwise it would remain static. Language poetry, for example, questioned the idea of poetry as direct personal expression. Conceptual poetry in turn – through its emphasis on the large-scale appropriation of text – questioned some of the pieties of language poetry, which still placed a value on the style of its author while complicating the notion of voice. In the same way, the writers I am discussing here, though they show strong affinities with conceptual poetry (and language poetry) are also happy to upend some of the ideological positions that characterised those movements. This act of reversal is exemplified in the work of Felix Bernstein, whose father Charles Bernstein was one of the founders of language poetry, and whose act of overthrowing has a decidedly Oedipal turn. Felix does the only thing he can do, which is to topple some of language poetry’s verities while also displaying continuity with them.

The social context of experimental confessionalism

The rise of confessionalism, then, is partly a response to the turn against the personal in previous contemporary experimental poetry. But these poets are also embedded in a culture of confessionalism that has become very pronounced in recent times. This culture is characterised by public disclosure of private matters in reality TV programs and TV chat shows; news bulletins that often include the expression of raw emotion by people in stressful situations; a sharp rise in the influence of psychology and the growth of counseling. Then there is the self-imaging that marks social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.

The pros and cons of such a culture, the way it encourages confession and whether that leads to narcissism, has been widely discussed in sociological and cultural studies publications. With respect to the rise of counseling, Wright, for example, argues that while a more therapeutic culture is often seen in terms of social decline, it can help people to express and alleviate their suffering (Wright 2008). Wittig and Marino, advocating for more sophisticated and role-playing uses of social media through participation in ‘netprov’ (networked improvisation), draw attention to the ‘emotional stock taking’ that social media involves. Invoking the mantra ‘I share, therefore I am’, they claim that sharing is often oversharing in social media and that confessionalism can become an obsessive way to grab time and attention (Wittig and Marino 2017, 8). Trisha Low and Felix Bernstein, part of the generation known as the ‘Net Generation’ or ‘Net Geners’ born between 1977 and 1999 (Leung 2013, 998), are both firmly embedded in social media as part of their social reality. They attest to social media’s inevitability and ubiquity, and play with its hyper modes of self-presentation and cult of celebrity. As Daniele (discussing Felix Bernstein’s work) points out, there is a tension between ‘the obsessive act of daily restyling of one’s own self-image on line’ and ‘the interior process of building an identity, the way in which psychoanalysts and theorists of the unconscious conceived it in modern times’. She therefore comes to the conclusion that the confessionalism developed in social media can ‘inaugurate a new poetics’ (Daniele 2016).

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