Few aspects of poetry escaped me during my time in college, but I never felt that I “got” confessional poetry. This feeling largely came from a teacher (whose class I eventually dropped) who seemed to desire some confusing form of confession from us. My poems handled everything from abuse survival to emergent sexuality, but for some reason, they never quite qualified as “confessional” in her eyes. Every class, I felt like I was piecing the professor’s reactions together to figure out her definition of confession. I recall one particular classmate’s poem she fawned over, a several-line recount of falling off a bicycle, closing in the lines1:
“I know concrete is hard.
I know blood’s red, too.”
Confession and Shame
Despite the succinct scene the lines evoked, I found myself mystified. What about this qualified as confession? While there are many “confessional poets” whose work I find provocative, I’ve never fallen in love with poets classified this way. For a long time, I blamed this poetry class for turning me off an entire genre. At other times, I simply presumed myself lacking in the sophistication to “get it” (falling into the response of many art audiences attempting to explain their lack of appreciation for whatever’s hailed as genius in the moment). But today, I thought perhaps part of my aversion to confessional poetry is also s due to the inherent shame with which confessional poetry tends to speak: the brave airing of dirty laundry. I guess there’s a part of me that just wants it to be laundry, interestingly enough, without any judgment.
Shame and Speaking Secrets
My own journey through confession is an interesting one. I suppose as we age, we see less value in dirty little secrets. We begin to recognize that many of the experiences that breed shame simply aren’t our fault, or aren’t worth worrying about, or are so universal they hardly deserve a closeted life of pained cover-up. Though I grew up religious, my protestant background only embraced confession privately to God, or “to one another,” largely with the goal of “accountability.” For the most part, though, there was no onus to confess. Despite the lack of public shaming, the pressure to be holy left a residue of inner shame, one that probably would not have erased with speaking one’s sins (if we consider the binding relationship with shame despite confession spoken of by innumerable former Catholics).
Confession implies wrongdoing, waywardness, impulse, freakishness. In its strictest sense, the concept of confession seems to also implicate the confessor across a variety of contexts — murder confessions, treason confessions, confessions of sin, even the barely-sexy “Cosmo Confessions.” Confession evokes an image of a searing conscience at odds with great fear of retribution, with conscience narc-ing us out as it buckles under the unbearable weight of guilt. We convict ourselves with our own words. Most confessions of this sort will make someone angry, and most confessions of this sort will make us inherently feel bad, wrong, dirty, or awful. The benefit of confession is apparently that it “does the soul good,” essentially removing fear and providing a clean slate once we allow the past to resolve into consequence.
Witnessing and Testifying − Shamelessly
This is not how I think of confession. To me, the most powerful form of confession is closer to testimony. You are a witness not only to what you have done, but to what you have felt, to what you have overcome, to what you have endured. Something healing happens when we embrace this type of testifying, whether in a hushed whisper or with a loud, strong voice in front of a crowd. We validate our own experiences. We remove the shame of trauma, humanity, anger, poverty, sexuality, and poor judgment. We allow ourselves a soapbox in which to say, “Yeah, I did this. I am this. It happened. So, what’s your point?” In these moments, confession becomes a threat to the accuser, as we hijack the power of shame into the pride of survival.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we won’t have to duck a few stones hurled our way. It doesn’t mean that we’ll automatically feel better, either. Confession is sometimes the first step to forgiving yourself − or realizing you don’t need to be forgiven − but speaking experience isn’t equal to inner acceptance. Confession can open you up to further scrutiny (so often by those who have already convicted themselves at some point). Not everyone may even believe the things you testify to (equally often, because they find the reality a threat of some kind to their own belief systems or interpretation of personal experience). We spend so much energy figuring out our own stories, contexts and truths, we don’t particularly like them shaken by another voice when we reach them.
But confession can also be a beautiful, powerful thing. Once, when coming to terms with a terrible occurrence, I wrote a simple statement on a piece of paper that merely expressed:
This happened. It’s painful, awful and incredibly sad, but it did.
I looked at that piece of paper countless times over the next several days, each time denial crept in again. It was a testimony of the simplest kind. A short, historical entry etched on the back of an envelope. In that moment, I acknowledged reality and began to heal. Something about seeing these words in my own handwriting made a difference. This scrawled statement was also helpful in what it did not attempt to be − it didn’t attempt to explain misfortune, it didn’t assign fault, and it didn’t attempt to find a bigger truth, a brighter side, or a reason for it all. It didn’t even brainstorm next steps; it simply said what was.
Exercise: Simple, Shame-Free Statements
Releasing shame isn’t as simple as announcing our secrets at the microphone, but it can begin with an attempt to speak our truths to ourselves. See what happens if you simply state a fact and its feelings.
- Write down a statement you feel shame around.
- Cross out charged or judgmental words that slip into our vocabulary − “cheated,” “failed,” “ruined,” etc.
- Above your cross-outs, write neutral words instead.
- Act like a reporter. What happened? When? Where?
- Aside from shame, how does the event itself feel? Sad? Awful? Scary?
- Rewrite your testimony in a single, nonjudgmental statement.
- Attempt to find the passive voice, most useful for avoiding blame (“The marriage is over,” rather than “I failed at marriage”).
- Try to keep the rewritten statement to 15 words or fewer.
- Make sure the testimony you give includes no information about your character.
When you feel shame arise around this secret, pull out your testimony slip. Your secret is one step further from secrecy. It made its way from your memory onto paper. When you look at this simple sentence again, remember that the reality of what happened all you need to embrace. Try to avoid editorializing or condemning and just sit with this statement and see what emerges.2
Apologies to the uncredited author, as my brain found the lines more memorable than your name.
If you find the shame overwhelming after writing this testimonial sentence, it may help to seek out therapy. Outside perspective can sometimes help us release shame when we’re too close to an event to escape our inner judge.