June 10, 2009

Prompt: Confession Is Good For The Soul

This month we looked at the poem "A Man Walks Into A Bar" by Shaindel Beers. Despite the comedic setup implied by the title, it's a serious poem. If we can believe that confession is truly good for the soul, then perhaps the writing of the confessional poem might be good for the soul of writer and reader. 

In our site prompt, we talk about confessional poems being so because of the poet's personal revelation as much as by their subject matter. In the tradition of poets like Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, and William De Witt Snodgrass, Beers' poem is certainly confessional. 


He was tall, well-built, blue-eyed,
a guy most girls would want to take to bed.
Then he reached for the beer with his left hand,
revealing the stump of his right.

We could tell the second he knew that we knew.
We’d smile, but the smile wouldn’t travel
all the way to our eyes. He’d turn back to the bar,
fold his arm closer so that we could
no longer see

as we rushed off to sling beers for guys
not as good-looking but more whole,
the ones who leered lecherously,
on “Short-Shorts Night”
and left ten dollar tips for two-dollar beers

always expecting more, always bitter when we didn’t deliver.
The quiet one, we wounded week after week, a guy
any of us would have considered “out of our league,”
“a long shot,” if he had been unbroken,

the sad, blond man we were afraid to love.

In an interview, Beers talks about the incident that inspired the poem.
When I was 21, I worked at a sports bar the summer before my senior year of college... I remember he was standing at the bar, and the rest of the servers - we were all checking him out. As he turned, we saw that one of his arms ended around the elbow. Then there was this weird moment of recognition where he knew we knew. That sort of thing. You feel bad taking part in re-wounding somebody, or reminding them of an injury... Writing it - even though I have no idea who this man is, and the chance of him reading my book is somewhat astronomical - I feel like, more than a confession, it’s sort of an apology.
After reading the poem, I was struck by the irony of the title, which Shaindel explains this way:
I wanted to start out with the standard line to a joke, “A man walks into a bar...” because I think we generally think of bars as a happy place, but a lot of people are there to escape and forget their troubles, and it’s doubly sad when they are wounded there, too. So, we have the expectations of the servers seeing this attractive man, and then that acknowledgment when “he knows that they know.”
Like the expectations of the servers, the reader's expectation that we are entering a joke is quickly given an unexpected turn. The poem also plays on our added awkwardness about dealing with the disabled, and even the inappropriateness of joking about them. Beers talks about an essay by Nancy Mairs, a writer who has degenerative multiple sclerosis that put her in a wheelchair. She writes about living in a world that clearly prefers nondisabled "normals." Mairs says that part of the reason we are so uncomfortable with the disabled is because we know that it’s a minority that we can become a part of at any time. The idea of confession also comes through in her poem, "Sunday Worship." Here we have an interplay between both the religious and psychological aspects of confession.
They used to chuckle at him softly the way the small-minded do at the simpleminded when he would snore or fart in church– And sometimes let him carry the collection plate while they dropped in a sweat-earned buck or two from callused, earth-caked hands. But it was her I watched– Imagining how hard it must have been to have a Mongoloid son and a husband so cruel he called the boy “It” and left her out of shame. And yet– she sat every Sunday of my childhood beside a forty-something son she still dressed every day and felt blessed enough with her life to make me ashamed to pray for more.
For our June prompt, we ask you to write a poem that is both confessional (in its style) and a confession (in its subject matter). Here's your chance to do some good for your soul. 

Read the Poets Online interview with Shaindel Beers


  1. I had not realized that those poets were considered part of the "confessional" school. Interesting idea to twist that a bit into the confession poem!

  2. I like the pairing of the 2 poems here as a way to describe the prompt. It gives me a clearer idea of where I would want to go with my own poem. Thanks!

  3. One could argue that all poems written in the first person are confessions on some level, just as some believe that all poetry is political.

  4. But it's very easy to write in first person and use a personae.

    The confessional poet is using their own life and experiences accurately, autobiographically, to make their point.

    My own favorite generalization is that all poems are ars poetica!


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