The spread of new ideas after World War II helped shape postmodern poetry that can be differentiated from modernist poetry by its focus on minimalist and conceptualist approaches. In all art, the “postmodern” began with the rise in mass communications and related developments in advertising related to consumerism. Literature was no exception—the poetry of the Cold War era is marked by an evolution from the early modernist movements of the 20th century. As Albert Gelpi writes:
The poetry of the Cold War period set out the defining features of Postmodernism before critics introduced the term: a deepening sense of the mind’s alienation from nature and of the world’s alienation from reality; an intensified experience of material randomness and temporal flux, of moral relativity anal psychological alienation, of epistemological confusion and metaphysical doubt; a drastic scaling down of expectations and aspirations; a questioning of language as a medium of perception and communication; a shift from hypostasizing poetry as a completed work to investigating it as an inconclusive process of provisional improvisation.
The development of modern poetry is defined by a number of women that emerged to define it. Women poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Carolyn Kizer all influenced and defined the literature of their time by their views on death, emotion and feminism. These American postmodern poets, especially Plath and Sexton defined and expanded on the idea of confessional poetry, which traffics in intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about herself, in poems about illness, sexuality, despondence and the like (“Confessional”, par. 1).
Sylvia Plath Postmodernism
However, the influences on them and other contemporary poets are rooted in the poets of the preceding generation. In Plath’s case, a plethora of influences shaped her writing. Marjorie Perloff writes: Sylvia Plath – or “Sivvy” as she called herself in her letters home, never quite abandoned the carefully constructed voice that won her prizes and awards in all the right quarters, a voice her mother could and did approve of. Indeed, the early poems display a bewildering hodge-podge of influences: Hopkins and Yeats, Auden and Wilbur, Stevens and Thomas, and, a little later, first Lowell and then Roethke and Hughes himself.
(304) These influences shaped the young Plath, however in the end it was a combination of factors that affected her life that made her poetry memorable. There is a precise correlation between the breakdown of Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes and the writing of the great poems (Aird 1979). There is some contention that her work is undeserving of the confessional brand. Beake says of her: There seems to have been very little attempt to place Plath as an American poet in the context of her generation.
There was the early very silly labelling of her, Sexton, Lowell and Berryman etc as “The Confessional Poets”. It is doubtful if this school ever had any reality in the minds of the poets involved, as opposed to the critics. In the case of Plath it must be questioned whether a poet so interested in the fictional and the persona can be confessional. (par. 3) Likewise, Sexton is also named one of the foremost confessional poets of her generation, and as a contemporary of Plath one of the most interesting pieces about them is their friendship.
Sexton fleshed her memories into “The Bar Fly Ought to Sing” and included two poems: “Sylvia’s Death,” an elegy she wrote on February 17, 1963, just six days after Plath’s suicide, and “Wanting to Die,” which she wrote one year later. (Trinidad, par. 3). There is a general idea among literary critics that there existed a mutual influence with each other’s work between the poets, however there has been very little scholarly work in this area. (Trinidad par. 1)
Sexton is seen as the modern model of the confessional poet, inspired by W. D. Snodgrass, her mentor whom she met at the Antioch Writer’s Conference in 1957. His poem, “Heart’s Needle”, about his separation from his three year old daughter, encouraged her to write “The Double Image,” a poem significant in expressing the multi-generational relationships existing between mother and daughter. “Heart’s Needle” was particularly inspirational to Sexton because at the time she first read it her own young daughter was living with her mother-in-law. Sexton began writing letters to Snodgrass and they soon became friends. (“Anne Sexton” par. 6)
Kizer, meanwhile, fits more in a succession of passionate women in poetry, that includes Phillis Wheatley, Frances Osgood, Emily Dickinson, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anna Hampstead Branch, Louise Bogan, and Leonie Adams. Finch argues that these women poets expressed emotions in a way different from the prevailing romantics and modernists of their time. “This powerful tradition of women poets built successful careers writing formal, accessible poems about spiritual and political as well as domestic and emotional themes. ” (Finch par. 3).