confessional poetry

1 post

“Forgive Me, Mother, for You Have Sinned”

Confessional mode. Like the first-person point of view in general, it is often welcomed by readers because they like to feel like confidantes. They also like to know that they are not the only ones.

The only ones what, you ask? It doesn’t much matter, I answer. The only ones with family trouble, marriage trouble, parenting trouble, love trouble, self-confidence trouble. There’s trouble in River City, all right, and the river flows under the good ship Readership.

For fraught poetry, you need go no further than Louise Glück, who takes a scientist’s eye (and even makes it part of this poem!) to her own life, then shares hard results with the poetry-reading world. Here, with “Brown Circle,” she overlays her own upbringing with the upbringing of her son.


Brown Circle
Louise Glück

My mother wants to know
why, if I hate
family so much,
I went ahead and
had one. I don’t
answer my mother.
What I hated
was being a child,
having no choice about
what people I loved.

I don’t love my son
the way I meant to love him.
I thought I’d be
the lover of orchids who finds
red trillium growing
in the pine shade, and doesn’t
touch it, doesn’t need
to possess it. What I am
is the scientist,
who comes to that flower
with a magnifying glass
and doesn’t leave, though
the sun burns a brown
circle of grass around
the flower. Which is
more or less the way
my mother loved me.

I must learn
to forgive my mother,
now that I am helpless
to spare my son.


It takes no small amount of bravery to write “I don’t love my son / the way I meant to love him.” People think those things but don’t say them.

Of course, we must realize that narrator and poet are not always the same voice. Thus, it is easier to express thoughts as a writer, knowing that you are impersonating a character of your own construction.

The other wonder is this: Is Mom alive reading poems like this? Some writers don’t worry so much about family reactions (see Karl Ove Knausgaard of My Struggle fame). Others would do well to.

Either way, though, there’s no denying the slight sensationalism offered by writing in the confessional mode, whether it’s a case of “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned” or “Forgive me, Father, for they have sinned….”

Readers like reading about sin. It distracts them from their own. It keeps their own company.