Life Writing


[Self-portraits (St. George's School)]

Lectures / Workshops:

  1. Lecture 1 - What is Life Writing? [MP]
    • Workshop allocations

  2. Lecture 2 - Memory [MP]
    • Workshop 1:
      • Exercise 1: 'This is the indelible place you lived in'

  3. Lecture 3 - Memoirs, Diaries [MP]
    • Workshop 2:
      • Exercise 2: Changes

  4. Lecture 4 - Biography (and relationship to Autobiography) [MP]
    • Workshop 3:
      • Exercise 3: Questionnaire

  5. Lecture 5 - Collecting Data [MP]
    • Workshop 4:
      • Exercise 4: Writing a Journal Entry

  6. Lecture 6 - Writing a Biography [Guest Lecturer]
    • Workshop 5:
      • Exercise 5: Rules and Taboos

  7. Lecture 7 - Confession or Performance? [MP]
    • Workshop 6:
      • Exercise 6: Family Gatherings

  8. Lecture 8 - Genre [JR]
    • Workshop 7:
      • Exercise 7: Life Studies

  9. Lecture 9 - Subversion [JR]
    • Workshop 8:
      • Exercise 8: Life Distortions

  10. Lecture 10 - Politics of Lives [MP]
    • Workshop 9:
      • Discussing Proposals

  11. Lecture 11 - Writing a Biography [tba]
    • No Workshop

  12. Lecture 12 - New Zealand Life Stories [MP]
    • Workshop 10:
      • Sharing Writing


Lecture / Workshop 12

[Gillian Chaplin: Kathleen Pih-Chang (1988)]

Lecture 12:
New Zealand Life Stories

Anthology texts to read:

This is more of an invitation to discussion than a lecture as such.

What do you know now about the ethics (and practicalities) of turning your own or other people's lives into writing that you didn't know three months ago, when the course started?

We've talked about the advantages (and pitfalls) of confessionalism, we've talked about the opportunities (and constraints) offered by different genres, we've talked about sexual politics and avant-garde poetics ... Which ones, among this smorgasbord of topics, are of most interest to you? Which do you think will help you most in your future writing (and thinking)?

Finally, I'll also be asking you to fill in the course assessment forms at the back of your Administration Guide, so this is your chance to make your views known. Any feedback gratefully (but also anonymously) received ...

NB: Any students enrolled in 139.226 who have journals, exercises or final assignments written for the course which you'd like to have published online on the course anthology are very welcome to submit them here.

[Chris Skelton: Miriam Cameron (2006)]

Workshop 10:
Sharing Writing


Lecture / Workshop 11

[Marti Friedlander: Rita Angus (1970)]

Lecture 11:
Case Studies:
The Uses of Life Writing

Panel of Researchers:

  • Bronwyn Lloyd

    I'm a freelance writer and PhD student living in Mairangi Bay in Auckland, New Zealand. By day I write about New Zealand art but my spare time is devoted to making limited edition books for Pania Press, a bijoux publishing company that I co-founded in 2006. You can find the link to our website here.

    I'll be talking today about the subject of my Doctoral research, Rita Angus, and particularly the archive of letters she wrote to Douglas Lilburn, which the latter bequeathed to the Turnbull Library at his death. How ethically justified are we in making use of such intensely private materials? More to the point, how valuable are they in interpreting the work of a painter? You can find a link to a presentation I gave on the subject at a Te Papa symposium in 2008 here.

  • Paul Fenton

    Paul started university life as a mature student following work as a Control Systems Technician for a petrochemical company. He completed his BA as a Massey Scholar in Psychology with courses including English, Sociology, and, not surprisingly, psychology. He went to the University of Auckland as a postgraduate psychology student before coming back to lead the Student Learning Centre team at Massey Albany. After spending some time as Retention Manager at a university in Melbourne, he came back to the University of Auckland to complete his honours degree in clinical psychology and neuropsychology, being awarded a UoA Doctoral Student and Top Achievers Scholarship, and starting his PhD while tutoring part-time. Following the birth of his son Dominic, he took on a project management role at Te Wananga o Aotearoa before being enticed back to Massey Albany managing the enrolments, international, retention and scholarships centres while continuing his PhD in psychology (part-time) on the topic of the male experience of miscarriage. He is married to Stephanie, and his son Dominic is 4.

The session today will begin with each of our speakers talking briefly – for 10 to 15 minutes – about a research project they’ve undertaken which involves using either biographical or autobiographical materials (or both). They'll discuss some of the possible pitfalls of this area of study, but will also - I hope - share with us some of the pragmatic strategies they've evolved as a result.

After that we’ll go into a q-&-a session where you can quiz them on the details of the case studies, but also ask their advice on your own research projects.


Lecture / Workshop 10

[Anne Sexton]

Lecture 10:
Politics of Lives

[Dr. Mary Paul]

Anthology texts to read:

  • Norman Bilbrough: 'The Facts of Life: Him,' from Grace (January 2001: 62-64)
  • Ngahuia Te Awekotuku: ‘Old Man Tuna,' from Tahuri (1989)
  • Anne Sexton: ‘The Double Image,’ ‘For My Lover Returning To His Wife' & ‘The Fury of Overshoes,’ from The Complete Poems (1981)
  • Jane Westaway: 'The Facts of Life: Her,' from Grace (January 2001: 59-61)

Let's begin with the concept of the zeitgeist, or Spirit of the Age.

In our age, this could be said to be Sexual Politics, the sexual revolution, the Battle of the Sexes, or the so-called "second wave" of international Feminism.

The first wave was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the second was in the 1960s and 1970s, and the third extends from the 1990s to the present.
- Charlotte Krolokke & Anne Scott Sorensen (2005). "Three Waves of Feminism: From Suffragettes to Grrls". Gender Communication Theories and Analyses:From Silence to Performance (Thousand Oaks, CA & London: Sage Publications, 2006): 24.

If you had to reduce this movement to a single tenet, it would definitely be:

One of the first things we discover in these [consciousness-raising] groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time."
- Carol Hanisch (1969). "The Personal is Political". Feminist Revolution: Notes from the Second Year. Ed. Shulie Firestone & Anne Koedt (USA: Redstockings, 1969): 204-5.

But what does (or did) that mean in practice? Let's move on from our discussion of the Confessional poetry of the 1960s and 70s to the Feminist writing of the 70s and 80s ...

[Anthony Browell: Germaine Greer (1972)]

Workshop 9:
Discussing Proposals


Lecture / Workshop 9

[J. G. Ballard (1930-2009)]

Lecture 9:

[Dr. Jack Ross]

Anthology texts to read:

[Hieronymus Bosch:
The Garden of Earthly Delights: Hell (1500)]

This is the second of my two lectures on the consequences (and fallout) of "confessionalism" as a literary movement. Today I'd like to talk about two literary traditions: one European and the other Anglo-American. Your first reaction might be to see them as at the other end of the spectrum to the texts we've been looking at until now, but I'd prefer to define them as a kind of inverted mirror to more straightforwardly "self-revelatory" writing.

How revealing is confessional poetry, really? How much of it is just an act. By the same token, how can you avoid details of your life experience coming across in even the most apparently mechanical and pre-programmed writing?

In any case, on one hand we have the fairly well-organised group of mainly French-speaking writers known collectively as OuLiPo [Ouvroir de littérature potentielle = Workshop of Potential Literature], led and inspired by Raymond Queneau. Important members of the group include Italo Calvino and Georges Perec.

On the other hand we have the far less structured set of experimental writers led and inspired by the Beat writer William Burroughs, who pioneered the technique known as the cut-ups. One might include, along with him, the punk post-feminist writer Kathy Acker, and the British Science-Fiction novelist J. G. Ballard.

[Steven Spielberg, dir.: Empire of the Sun (1987)]

Major works in the Anglo-American tradition:

  • W. S. Burroughs: Junkie (1953)
  • W. S. Burroughs: Naked Lunch (1959)
  • W. S. Burroughs: The Soft Machine (1961)
  • J. G. Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)
  • W. S. Burroughs: The Ticket that Exploded (1962)
  • W. S. Burroughs: Nova Express (1963)
  • Kathy Acker: Politics (1972)
  • J. G. Ballard: Crash (1973)
  • Kathy Acker: The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973)
  • W. S. Burroughs: Cities of the Red Night (1981)
  • Kathy Acker: Great Expectations (1983)
  • Kathy Acker: Blood and Guts in High School (1984)
  • J. G. Ballard: Empire of the Sun (1984)
  • W. S. Burroughs: Queer (1985)

[Raymond Queneau (1903-1976)]

Major works in the European tradition:

  • Raymond Queneau: Exercices de Style [Exercises in Style] (1947)
  • Raymond Queneau: Zazie dans le métro [Zazie in the Metro] (1959)
  • Raymond Queneau: Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes [A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems] (1961)
  • Italo Calvino: Il castello dei destini incrociati [The Castle of Crossed Destinies] (1969)
  • Georges Perec: La Disparition [A Void] (1969)
  • Italo Calvino: Le città invisibili [Invisible Cities] (1972)
  • Georges Perec: Les Revenentes [The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex] (1972)
  • Georges Perec: W ou le souvenir d'enfance [W, or the Memory of Childhood] (1975)
  • Georges Perec: Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien [Attempt to Exhaust a Parisian Space] (1975)
  • Georges Perec: La Vie mode d'emploi [Life: A User's Manual] (1978)
  • Italo Calvino: Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore [If on a Winter's Night a Traveller] (1979)

[Italo Calvino (1923-1985)]

Profoundly troubled times breed profoundly troubled (and troubling) works of art, one might say. After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, many writers thought, conventional approaches to experience no longer seemed adequate to the changed texture of reality.

Do we, in fact, see things "as they are" - or as they're projected to us. You didn't have to be paranoid to think that everyone was out to get you if you lived in the twentieth century ...

Remember, too, that things are seldom what they appear to be on the surface:

[Alfred Jarry (1873-1907)]

Barabbas, slated to race, was scratched.

Pilate, the starter, pulling out his clepsydra or water clock, an operation which wet his hands unless he had merely spit on them -- Pilate gave the send-off.

Jesus got away to a good start.

In those days, according to the excellent sports commentator St. Matthew, it was customary to flagellate the sprinters at the start the way a coachman whips his horses. The whip both stimulates and gives a hygienic massage. Jesus, then, got off in good form, but he had a flat right away. A bed of thorns punctured the whole circumference of his front tire.

Today in the shop windows of bicycle dealers you can see a reproduction of this veritable crown of thorns as an ad for puncture-proof tires. But Jesus's was an ordinary single-tube racing tire.

The two thieves, obviously in cahoots and therefore "thick as thieves" took the lead.

It is not true that there were any nails. The three objects usually shown in the ads belong to a rapid-change tire tool called the "Jiffy."

We had better begin by telling about the spills; but before that the machine itself must be described.

The bicycle frame in use today is of relativelv recent invention. It appeared around 1890. Previous to that time the body of the machine was constructed of two tubes soldered together at right angles. It was generally called the right-angle or cross bicycle. Jesus, after his puncture, climbed the slope on foot, carrying on his shoulder the bike frame, or, if you will, the cross.

Contemporary engravings reproduce this scene from photographs. But it appears that the sport of cycling, as a result of the well known accident which put a grievous end to the Passion race and which was brought up to date almost on its anniversary by the similar accident of Count Zborowski on the Turbie slope -- the sport of cycling was for a time prohibited by state ordinance. That explains why the illustrated magazines, in reproducing this celebrated scene, show bicycles of a rather imaginary design. They confuse the machine's cross frame with that other cross, the straight handlebar. They represent Jesus with his hands spread on the handlebars, and it is worth mentioning in this connection that Jesus rode lying flat on his back in order to reduce his air resistance.

Note also that the frame or cross was made of wood, just as wheels are to this day.

A few people have insinuated falsely that Jesus's machine was a draisienne, an unlikely mount for a hill-climbing contest. According to the old cyclophile hagiographers, St. Briget, St. Gregory of Tours, and St. Irene, the cross was equipped with adevice which they named suppedaneum. There is no need to be a great scholar to translate this as "pedal."

Lipsius, Justinian, Bosius, and Erycius Puteanus describe an other accessory which one still finds, according to Cornelius Curtius in 1643, on Japanese crosses: a protuberance of leather or wood on the shaft which the rider sits astride -- manifestly the seat or saddle.

This general description, furthermore, suits the definition of a bicycle current among the Chinese: "A little mule which is led by the ears and urged along by showering it with kicks."

We shall abridge the story of the race itself, for it has been narrated in detail by specialized works and illustrated by sculpture and painting visible in monuments built to house such art. There are fourteen turns in the difficult Golgotha course. Jesus took his first spill at the third turn. His mother, who was in the stands, became alarmed.

His excellent trainer, Simon the Cyrenian, who but for the thorn accident would have been riding out in front to cut the wind, carried the machine.

Jesus, though carrying nothing, perspired heavily. It is not certain whether a female spectator wiped his brow, but we know that Veronica, a girl reporter, got a good shot of him with her Kodak.

The second spill came at the seventh turn on some slippery pavement. Jesus went down for the third time at the eleventh turn, skidding on a rail.

The Israelite demimondaines waved their handkerchiefs at the eighth.

The deplorable accident familiar to us all took place at the twelfth turn. Jesus was in a dead heat at the time with the thieves. We know that he continued the race airborne -- but that is another story.

From The Selected Works of Alfred Jarry. Translated by Roger Shattuck (New York: Grove Press, 1965).

[Georges Perec (1936-1982)]

Workshop 8:
Life Distortions


Lecture / Workshop 8

[Edvard Munch: The Scream (1893)]

Lecture 8:

[Dr. Jack Ross]

Anthology texts to read:

"Once you master epic diction, it will write your epic for you"
- Johann Wolgang von Goethe

Genre is the name we give to a kind of literary taxonomy, an attempt to reduce literature to order along the lines of the major Life Sciences: biology and geology, for instance.

One can certainly waste a lot of time debating whether a particular work falls into one category or another: travel writing or autobiography, for example. On the other hand, it's important to realise that the broad structure of genres does condition readers' expectations of any text they read.

Fictionand Non-fiction, for example: Verse or Prose. These are distinctions which have to be understood if one is to achieve any appreciation of literature at all.

This, then, is the second lecture in a trilogy looking at the creation of "Life Writing" as a genre or category of expression as a result of the growth of Confessionalism in the 60s and the Women's Movement in the 70s and 80s.

"Creative Non-fiction" is another designation for this field incorporating Life Writing, Travel Writing, and what used to be called "The New Journalism" (after Tom Wolfe's influentual anthology of that name from 1973).

What we're looking at today will, however, take the form of another case-study.

I want to talk about the interaction of two creative personalities, two American poets, both close friends - one, Robert Lowell, the Dean of (so-called) "Confessional Poets"; the other, Elizabeth Bishop, a famously reticent and meticulous writer who nevertheless revealed almost as much about her life in her perfectly-crafted, elaborately calculated works.

[Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)]

Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop:
A Chronology

1911 (8 February) - Elizabeth Bishop born in Worcester, Massachusetts. After the death of her father when she was eight months old, her mother had a nervous breakdown and was confined to an asylum in 1916. Bishop was brought up by her grandparents in Nova Scotia, Canada.

1917 (March 1) - Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV born in Boston, Massachusetts to a wealthy and influential family. After two years at Harvard, he transferred to Kenyon College, Ohio, to study under Southern Agrarian poet John Crowe Ransom.

1940 - Lowell marries novelist Jean Stafford (they were divorced in 1948). A sufferer from alcoholism and manic depression, Lowell was hospitalized many times throughout his life.

1944-45 - After converting to Catholicism, Lowell becomes a conscientious objector during World War II, and as a result serves several months at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

1946 - Lowell: Lord Weary's Castle [Pulitzer Prize for poetry].
Bishop: North & South.

1947 - Bishop is introduced to Lowell by writer Randall Jarrell.

1947-48 - Lowell is poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (an office now referred to as "Poet Laureate of the United States").

1949 - Lowell marries the writer Elizabeth Hardwick.

1949-50 - Bishop is poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.

1951 - Bishop travels to South America, settling eventually in Brazil with her companion, architect Lota de Macedo Soares.

1953 - Bishop publishes "In the Village" in the New Yorker.

1955 - Bishop: A Cold Spring [Pulitzer Prize for poetry].

1959 - Lowell: Life Studies.

1964 - Lowell: "The Scream," in For the Union Dead.

1965 - Bishop reprints "In the Village" in Questions of Travel.

1966 - Bishop returns to the United States. Her estranged lover Lota de Macedo Soares follows her there, eventually committing suicide in 1967.

1970 - Lowell leaves Elizabeth Hardwick for the British author Lady Caroline Blackwood.

1973 - Lowell: The Dolphin [Pulitzer Prize for poetry].

1977 (September 12) - Lowell dies from a heart attack in a New York cab on his way to see Hardwick.

1979 (6 October) - Bishop dies of a cerebral aneurysm in her apartment at Lewis Wharf, Boston.

2008 - Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. Thomas Travisano & Saskia Hamilton.

[Robert Lowell (1917-1977)]

One of the more interesting events in the long relationship between the two poets is perhaps best summed up in this review of the last-mentioned book above, Words in Air, their collected correspondence:

Biographers have investigated in detail the rocky episodes in the relationship of the two poets, chiefly the deep difficulty that occurred over Lowell's use, in his volume The Dolphin [1973], of Elizabeth Hardwick's letters to him during his absence in England with Caroline Blackwood. Bishop had moral objections to the mixture of fact and fiction in The Dolphin, and brought up her heaviest guns to persuade Lowell that he was wrong on all counts. After praising the book as "magnificent poetry," she says (with uncharacteristic capitalization), "I have one tremendous and awful BUT." Against Lowell, she quotes a 1911 letter by "dear little Hardy," in which he said:

What should certainly be protested the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that. If any statements in the dress of fiction are covertly hinted to be fact, all must be fact, and nothing else but fact, for obvious reasons.

"You have changed [Lizzie's] letters," Bishop adds. "That is 'infinite mischief,' I think." She then brings up Hopkins on the idea of a "gentleman," commenting, "It is not being 'gentle' to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it's cruel." She concludes by adducing a letter by Henry James objecting to a roman à clef: "His feelings on the subject were much stronger than mine, even."

- Helen Vendler, "The Friendship of Cal and Elizabeth."
New York Review of Books 55 (18) (20/11/08)

[J. L. Castel: Elizabeth Bishop (1954)]

Here are a few more extracts from that famous letter:

March 21, 1972

I've been trying to write you this letter for weeks now, ever since Frank [Bidart] & I spent an evening when he first got back, reading and discussing The Dolphin. I've read it many times since then & we've discussed it some more. Please believe I think it is wonderful poetry. It seems to me far and away better than the Notebooks; every 14 lines have some marvels of imagery and expression, and also they are all much clearer. They affect me immediately and profoundly, and I'm pretty sure I understand them all perfectly (Except for a few lines I may ask you about.) I've just decided to write this letter in two parts - the one big technical problem that bothers me I'll put on another sheet - it and some unimportant details have nothing to do with what I'm going to try to say here. It's hell to write this, so please first do believe I think Dolphin is magnificent poetry. It is also honest poetry - almost. You probably know already what my reactions are. I have one tremendous and awful BUT.

If you were any other poet I can think of I certainly wouldn't attempt to say anything at all; I wouldn't think it was worth it. But because it is you, and a great poem (I've never used the word "great" before, that I remember), and I love you a lot - I feel I must tell you what I really think. There are several reasons for this - some are worldly ones, and therefore secondary ... but the primary reason is because I love you so much I can't bear to have you publish something that I regret and that you might live to regret, too. the worldly part of it is that it - the poem - parts of it - may well be taken up and used against you by all the wrong people - who are just waiting in the wings to attack you. - One shouldn't consider them, perhaps. But it seems wrong to pay right into their hands, too.

(Don't be alarmed. I'm not talking about the whole poem - just one aspect of it.)

Here is a quotation from dear little [Thomas] Hardy which I copied out years ago - long before Dolphin, or even the Notebooks, were thought of. It's from a letter written in 1911, referring to "an abuse which was said to have occurred - that of publishing details of a lately deceased man's life under the guise of a novel,with assurances of truth scattered in the newspapers." (Not exactly the same situation as Dolphin, but fairly close.)

"What should certainly be protested against, in cases where there is no authorisation, is the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions. Infinite mischief would lie in that. If any statements in the dress of fiction are covertly hinted to be fact, all must be fact, and nothing else but fact, for obvious reasons. The power of getting lies believed about people through that channel after they are dead, by stirring in a few truths, is a horror to contemplate."

I'm sure my point is only too plain. Lizzie is not dead, etc. - but there is a "mixture of fact & fiction," and you have changed her letters. That is "infinite mischief," I think.

[...] One can use one's life as material - one does, anyway - but these letters, aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission - IF you hadn't changed them ... etc. But art just isn't worth that much. I keep remembering [Gerard Manley] Hopkins's marvelous letter to [Robert] Bridges about the idea of a "gentleman" being the highest thing ever conceived - higher than a "Christian," even, certainly than a poet. It is not being "gentle" to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way — it's cruel.

[...] In general, I deplore the "confessional" - however, when you wrote Life Studies perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now - ye gods - anything goes, and I am sick of poems about the students' mothers & fathers and sex lives and so on. All that can be done - but at the same time one surely should have a feeling that one can trust the writer - not to distort, tell lies, etc.

The letters, as you have used them, present fearful problems: what's true, what isn't: how one can bear to witness such suffering and yet not know how much of it one needn't suffer with, how much has been "made up," and so on. [...]

- Elizabeth Bishop. One Art: Letters. Selected and edited by Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994): 561-62.

Perhaps the real politics of this exchange go back a few years, though, to the publication of her story "In the Village" (included in your anthology) in The New Yorker in 1953. She wrote to one friend about it:

I'm nervous about your seeing it. I know I'm not a story writer, really - this is just poetic prose. And completely autobiographical [...] I've just stuck a few years together. Fortunately the aunt most involved in it all - my only nice relative - likes it very much and even corrected some names, and reminded me of this and that. We have equally literal imaginations ... (Bishop, 1994, p.291)

What was her surprise, then, in 1962, to receive a typescript of Robert Lowell's new book of poems For the Union Dead, which included his poem "The Scream" (also included in your anthology):

"The Scream" really works well, doesn't it? The story is far enough behind me so I can see it as a poem now. In the first few stanzas I saw only my story - then the poem took over - and the last stanza is wonderful. it builds up beautifully, and everything of importance is there. But I was very surprised. (Bishop, 1994, p.408)

I suspect that "I was very surprised" was putting it mildly! Later she referred to it as "that story of mine ... Cal wrote a poem on" (431), and emphasised again, to another correspondent - in 1967, after the story had reappeared in her book Questions of Travel (1965) - that "'In the Village' is entirely, not partly autobiographical. I've just compressed the time a little and perhaps put two summers together, or put things a bit out of sequence - but it's all straight fact [my emphasis]" (p.477). So you can see that the subject preoccupied her. And I don't think it's hard to understand why (Lowell didn't - as his own letters on the subject reveal. But that's another story ...)

[Words in Air (2008)]

Quotations from Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. Thomas Travisano & Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008:

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 244 (March 10, 1962):
  • ... I tried versing your "In the Village." The lines about the heart are Harriet's on her kindergarten society, the rest is merely your prose put into three-beat lines and probably a travesty, making something small and literary out [of] something much larger, gayer and more healthy. I let the scream throw out the joyful clang. Anyway, I send it with misgivings. maybe you could use it for raw material for a really great poem. ... (390)

  • Bishop to Lowell, Letter 247 (April 4, 1962):
  • I don't know why I bother to write "Uncle Artie" really. I shd. just send you my first notes and you can turn him into a wonderful poem. He is even more your style than the Village story was. "The Scream" really works well, doesn't it? The story is far enough behind me so I can see it as a poem now. The first few stanzas I saw only my story - then the poem took over - and the last stanza is wonderful. it builds up beautifully, and everything of importance is there, But I was very surprised. (401-2)

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 248 (April 14, 1962):
  • I was rather on tiptoe that my poems had been intrusive, and read your letter with great relief. ... Glad ... my tampering with "In the Village" didn't annoy you. When "The Scream" is published I'll explain, it's just a footnote to your marvelous story. (405)

  • Bishop to Lowell, Letter 249 (April 26, 1962):
  • No - I was very pleased with "The Scream." I find it very touching to think you were worried for fear I might be annoyed. - I thought it was only I who went around imagining people were cross with me when I didn't hear from them. But living here [Brazil} has almost cured me. I just have to give them the benefit of the doubt; think their letters got lost, or mine did. All letter-writing is dangerous, anyway - fraught with peril. (412)

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 300 (June 15, 1964):
  • ... there is no tolerance or place for the unconvinced bystander.

    There's a connection between how the world is and what the imagination lights on. What it usually lights on now is some grueling murk or release at all costs. Well, why not? It has always been so. (542)

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 319 (June 15, 1965):
  • In my classes, I read poems aloud, comment, ramble and ask questions, oh and also listen. The students have either anthologies or mimeographed copes of the poems so there's no question of a performance or declamation. Classes are not lectures so much as arranged conversations, and you need do nothing but take things casually and trust yourself to your humor, sense, knowledge and personal interests. (576)

  • Bishop to Lowell, Letter 390 (March 21, 1972):
  • I wish I had here another quotation - James wrote a marvelous letter to someone about a roman a clef by Vernon Lee, but I can't find it ... His feelings on the subject were much stronger than mine, even. (708)
    [Footnote: Henry James to William James (January 20, 1893), The Selected Letters of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (1955).]

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 412 (January 24, 1973):
  • I think a writing course in poetry might be half reading modern poetry. (738)

  • Lowell to Bishop, Letter 422 (July 12, 1973):
  • Your old letter of warning - I never solved the problem of the letters, and there and elsewhere of fact and fiction. I worked hard to change the letters you named and much else. The new order somehow makes the whole poem less desperate. And the letters, as reviewers have written, make Lizzie brillant and lovable more than anyone in the book. Not enough, I know . ...

    My immorality, as far as intent and skill could go, is nothing in my book. No one, not even I, is perversely torn and twisted, nothing's made dishonestly worse or better than it was. My sin (mistake?) was publishing. I couldn't bear to have my book (my life) wait hidden inside me like a dead child. (752)

  • Bishop to Lowell, Letter 423 (July 22, 1973):
  • We all have irreparable and awful actions on our consciences - that's really all I can say now. I do, I know. I just try to live without blaming myself for them every day, at least - every day, I should say - the nights take care of guilt sufficiently. (But for God's sake don't quote me!) (753)

Workshop 7:
Life Studies


Lecture / Workshop 7

[Sylvia Plath (1932-1963):
Self-portrait (1951)]

Lecture 7:
Confession or Performance?

[Dr. Mary Paul]

Anthology texts to read:
  • Ted Hughes: 'The Rabbit Catcher' & 'The Shot,' from Birthday Letters (1998)
  • Sylvia Plath: from The Bell Jar (1966)
  • Sylvia Plath: ‘The Rabbit Catcher,’ ‘Daddy’ & ‘Lady Lazarus,’ from Collected Poems (1981)
  • Sylvia Plath: from The Journals, ed. Ted Hughes (1983)
  • Sylvia Plath: from The Journals, ed. Karen V. Kukil (2001)

Tuesday March 24, 2009, 08:26 AM

Son of poet Sylvia Plath commits suicide

LONDON (Reuters) - The son of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes has committed suicide 46 years after his mother gassed herself, his sister told a newspaper on Monday.

Nicholas Hughes, 47, hanged himself at his home in Alaska, Frieda Hughes, who is also a poet, told The Times.

"It is with profound sorrow that I must announce the death of my brother, Nicholas Hughes, who died by his own hand on Monday, March 16 ... He had been battling depression for some time," Hughes said in a statement to the newspaper.

Frieda Hughes, who was reported to be flying to Alaska, could not be reached for comment.

Nicholas Hughes, who was unmarried, had until recently been professor of fisheries and ocean sciences at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Plath has been at the centre of a literary cult since she committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30 by gassing herself in the London flat while her children, one-year-old Nicholas and two-year-old Frieda, slept.

Plath, famous for her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and the poetry collection Ariel, left bread and milk for the children and sealed their room against the gas. They were unharmed.

Critics blamed Ted Hughes for driving the American poet Plath to despair, and their relationship has been the source of public fascination fuelled by a 2003 Hollywood movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig as the troubled couple.

Ted Hughes' lover Assia Wevill also committed suicide in 1969, at the same time killing her young daughter from the relationship with the poet.

He was one of Britain's most distinguished poets and was given the honour of being appointed poet laureate, but Plath's suicide cast a shadow over him until his death in 1998.

(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Phakamisa Ndzamela)

[Anne Sexton (1928-1974)]

I guess this tragic story is as good a place as any to begin our discussion of the history (and bodycount) associated with so-called "confessionalism" in literature.

Let's begin with the word "confession" - obviously it has a religious connotations. one of the earliest autobiographies in world literature is the fourth-century The Confessions of St. Augustine, in fact. The idea was to examine the inner parts of a life, the parts hitherto accessible only to yourself, rather than the publically available facts of a life, as recorded in the Emperor Augustus's Res Gestae Divi Augusti [Deeds performed by the God Augustus].

As a literary movement, however, it really came to prominence in the mid to late twentieth century as a result of the confluence of the Beat movement (Burroughs, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Kerouac et al.) on the West Coast, with the East Coast poetry establishment represented by Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman.

Lowell saw Snodgrass's "Heart's Needle" (which he read in 1957, long before its publication) as a crucial milestone. He also taught Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in some of his poetry classes at Harvard.

We can construct a very rough chronology of publications as follows:

  1. Allen Ginsberg:
    • Howl (1956)
    • Kaddish (1961)
  2. Jack Kerouac:
    • On the Road (1957)
  3. William Burroughs:
    • Naked Lunch (1959)
  4. William Snodgrass:
  5. Robert Lowell:
    • Life Studies (1959)
    • For the Union Dead (1964)
    • Notebook (1969)
    • The Dolphin (1973)
  6. Anne Sexton [suicide - 1974]:
    • To Bedlam and Partway Back (1960)
    • All My Pretty Ones (1962)
    • The Death Notebooks (1974)
  7. Al Alvarez:
    • [ed.] The New Poetry (1962)
    • The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (1971)
  8. Sylvia Plath [suicide - 1963]:
    • The Bell Jar (1963)
    • Ariel (1965)
  9. John Berryman [suicide - 1972]:
    • 77 Dream Songs (1964)
    • Love & Fame (1970)
  10. Ted Hughes:
    • Crow (1970)
    • Birthday Letters (1998)

As you see, a good many of these writers didn't actually commit suicide, but there was a tendency in all of them to live in an extreme, razor's edge way, and then write about the results.

Our main case-study here, though, has to be Sylvia Plath (here's a link to a very detailed biography site about her) and Ted Hughes (here's a link to a similarly detailed site about him) - perhaps the most famous poetic couple in literary history.

Sylvia achieved fame after her death, and partly as a result of it. The rest of Ted Hughes's life was dominated by the implication that he was the kind of man who drove his partners to kill themselves (especially after the 1969 suicide of Assia Wevill, the young poet he left Sylvia for in the first place).

It's not so much for us to sit smugly in judgement on these tortured, disordered lives, but more to register just how much we know about each of them - and how much we've had to find out in the course of reading their (largely posthumous) literary legacy.

Could there even be said to be a difference between their literary and actual lives at this point?

Confessionalism may have resulted in some of the most exciting and influential poetry of the twentieth century, but it's also an extremely perilous and addictive literary mode. It's impossible to ignore it altogether, though, when our larger subject is Life Writing and the use of one's life as literary material ...

[Ted Hughes (1930-1998)]

Workshop 6:
EITHER: Family Gatherings


OR: Seven