Two Sides of Confessionalism: On the Undesirable Connotation of "Edgy" Poetry / by Amanda Silberling

Sylvia Plath, noted confessional poet. Photo via The Daily Beast.

Sylvia Plath, noted confessional poet. Photo via The Daily Beast.

While talking to a friend and fellow poet, I stumbled upon a minefield I had not known existed - that of the word "edgy." I told my friend that her work was especially admired because it appealed to current tastes; it was the kind of "edgy,” uncompromising and personal work that finds a place of honor in journals and features frequently on sites like Tumblr. To my surprise, she took offense to this and said it wasn't fair to say her work was popular because it was commercial and "edgy," or that it was somehow easier for her to be published because of that. Swiftly apologizing, I assured her that this wasn't the case. But wasn't that exactly what I was saying?

Poetry has always been a marginal art. Within that margin there is a breed of poem that takes a glance at conventional boundaries and tears them apart without a moment's hesitation, whether that was their original intention or not. This passionate and subversive poetry tends to be the poetry that is remembered throughout history, like Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Poems rallying against tradition or expectation have been given a place in our collective poetic remembrance - they were pieces of work that defied expectation.

When using the word "edgy" to describe my friend's work, I had meant it in this historic context. Her work is that which refuses to bend to people's desires, which seeks to portray her mind in all its twisted beauty. In this act, it has no desire to be popular or commercially successful, but rather tear down certain preconceptions about society and life by showing the terrible reality of her worldview. Yet in its rejection of convention, this work appeals to readers of poetry. It is here that the issue begins.

Poems rallying against tradition or expectation have been given a place in our collective poetic remembrance - they were pieces of work that defied expectation.


For such personal poets, the popularity of "edgy" poetry is often closely associated to the popularity of the Confessionalist Poets, a label violently rejected by the poets it was originally meant to define. In a Paris Review interview, the American poet John Berryman reacted with "rage and contempt" when asked what he thought of the label, stating that "[T]he word doesn't mean anything." 

Indeed, it almost appears to be a source of voyeuristic joy for certain readers to analyze "confessional" poems, judging the writer through their work. This trend is frustrating to the poet who attempts to display their mind in their work, as it places excessive emphasis upon the poet's life and not upon the poetry itself. It is in this act of imparting a sense of honesty into the poetry that is considered "edgy." It goes beyond the boundary of simply describing a view, but invites the reader to share the view with the poet, regardless of how terrible or horrific that view may be.

Thus the crux of the issue was that we had come to understand the word differently. Whereas I was saying that her work was popular because of its unrelenting passion and the historic popularity of such poems, she believed I devalued her work by claiming it was "edgy." Unwittingly, I had insinuated it was commercial due to its personal nature and so it was easier for her to be published.

It almost appears to be a source of voyeuristic joy for certain readers to analyze “confessional” poems, judging the writer through their work.

Truthfully, if being published is easier for her due to the nature of her poetry, it does not take away from the beauty of her work, or supports the claim that her popularity derives purely from this subversiveness.


Kyle Lovell is an eighteen-year-old student from the United Kingdom. Named a Foyle Young Poet in 2014, he has also read poetry at the LV21 and Wise Words festival. He cites Camus, Kierkegaard and baroque architecture as influences on his work.