Plath and Sexton: Undressing Confessional Poetry

 During the 1950s in America, a new poetic style developed: Confessionalism. Pioneered by poets including Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, the movement heavily interrogated the self. Traditionally ‘unacceptable’ topics, like suicide and sexuality, emerged for the first time in a completely transparent way.

Scrutinising personal experience could seem contradictory to clothing; style being perceived as ‘superficial’ and ‘trivial’. Yet, dressing and undressing is an act of physical self-exposure, mirroring the poets’ emotional nakedness. As Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, commented, poetry is “the central experience of a shattering of the self, and the labour of fitting it together again or finding a new one.” Destroying the performed self is examined literally via undressing. For Plath and Sexton, clothing is camouflage. Peeling away their jewellery, dresses and stockings, is fundamental to their poetry: a ‘shattering’ and ‘finding’ of the self.

Plath was concerned with the way clothing conveyed character. She writes in an early journal that she “dressed slowly, smoothing, perfuming, powdering”, perceiving herself as “the American virgin, dressed to seduce.” There is a clear theatricality to her dressing, she is acutely aware of her position as the naïve girl. Playing the part of the ‘American virgin’ coincides with her externality. Her sexuality and the dress that presents it are co-dependent. It is only when the dress is removed that her self can be separate from stereotypes. In Electra on Azalea Path, Plath writes:

“Small as a doll in my dress of innocence

I lay dreaming your epic, image by image.”

 The doll-like Plath is an unnervingly stationary figure. She lies, dreamless and fragile, consumed by the epics of others. Her self is compromised when it is dressed up. In March 1951, Plath wrote in her journal: “I went about the tedious business of undressing…of undoing filmy brown nylon, of letting stiff white net slip to the floor.” The process of undressing is laborious; the brownness and stiffness are suffocating. However, once this is achieved, “the blood and the flesh of [her] were electric and singing quietly”. There is a sudden musicality to the naked body: it is alive and excitable. Discarding clothing, along with the stereotypes sewn into them, is portrayed as highly liberating.

 

Sexton is also preoccupied with how clothes define women. Often figures are introduced via their appearances: “clumps of women in cotton dresses”, a family “dressed up like puppets”, a piano-player in “a pink piqué dress”. Yet, the subverted undressed body is also celebrated. For Sexton, abandoning clothes is a vehicle to expose the authentic self. In For My Lover, Returning to His Wife, the naked self is elevated to an ethereal level:

“She is so naked and singular.

She is the sum of yourself and your dream.

Climb her like a monument, step after step.

She is solid.

 

As for me, I am a watercolour.

I wash off.”  

The wife figure is transcendental. Her nakedness means she is unique. Stylistic restrictions are irrelevant; she is free to be solid. Uncloaked, her body can be physically explored, ‘step after step’. On the other hand, the speaker is a removable. Sexton’s piece Consorting with Angels again interrogates undressing: 

“I’ve been opened and undressed.

I have no arms or legs

I’m all one skin like a fish.

I’m no more a woman

Than Christ was a man.”

The abandonment of clothes conveys not only vulnerability (“opening up”), but also separation from the body entirely. The speaker is limbless and unsexed. Refusing fashion has a transformative effect. Without mentioning clothes, their absence, and the influence this has, is felt intensely.

Without clothes there is no barricade. Performed identities through style are eliminated. Self-exposure is inevitable. Plath commented, “My fiction is only a naked recreation of what I felt, as a child and later.” Referring to her works as ‘naked’ is fitting. They are raw and bare representations of the self, uninterested in the disguise that clothing offers. The critic Lant dubbed Plath’s poetry as “flamboyantly revealing”. In her poems, descriptions of fashion evoke spectacles: whether that is a “twinkle-dress”, “masks of horn” or “saffron hair”. This explicit flamboyancy is undercut by vulnerability. Her dressed up heroines are literally and figuratively stripped: self-revelation is the result. Sexton does the same. Outfits shroud her complex female figures; their undressing is necessary to elevate this complexity. These lines from Plath’s Live summarise the shortcomings of artificially dressing up the self:

 

“And even though I dressed the body

It was still naked, still killed.

It was caught

In the first place at birth

Like a fish.

But I played it, dressed it up,

Dressed it up like somebody’s doll.”

 

Plath and Sexton’s poetry is uncomfortably aware that the body is ‘caught’ between nakedness and concealment. It is either exposed or veiled. The fascination with clothing in their poetry establishes this binary. The removal of clothes reveals a ‘true’ self, separate from social expectations and sexual requirements. Fashion is synonymous with self-characterisation. But perhaps, the abandonment of fashion can represent a more authentic version of character. Beneath “sleek black taffeta dresses, dangling crystal earrings, bare shoulders and high heels” is nakedness, liberated from stylistic demands. Our confessional poets show the universality and honesty of this undressed body.

 

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