112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The Boston Trio: Reassessing Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton

Sarah-Jane Burton, Western Sydney University

Developments in 1950’s American poetry are often connected the concept of “Confessional” writing. At the centre of this movement was the city of Boston, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and their 1959 Boston University workshop. Reassessing these writers as a trio, this paper seeks to demonstrate how, by incorporating aspects of their social, spatial and cultural context in their poems Lowell, Plath and Sexton created a unique form of regional writing and developed a collective independent of Confessionalism.

Proposal: 

The mid-twentieth century saw unprecedented developments in American poetry, dominated by the concept of “Confessional” writing. This so called “personal” verse rejected the reigning paradigms of the New Critics and offered an alternative to popular American poetics of previous decades. At the centre of this movement were the city of Boston, its literary circles and the poets Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

During the period of their 1959 Boston University workshop, taught by Robert Lowell - and the years surrounding it - this collective, which I have termed “The Boston Trio” incorporated aspects of their social and cultural context into their poetry, creating their own unique form of writing. In the words of Robert Lowell, “poetry isn’t a craft you can just turn on and off; it has to strike fire somewhere.” This paper will argue that for Lowell, Plath and Sexton 1959 in Boston was a point of ignition.

Using examples from their works Life Studies (1959), The Colossus (1960) and To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) this paper will explore the impact of Boston and broader New England on these three important American poets, tracing Lowell's Boston Easternism, Plath's articulation of Winthrop and Sexton's poetics of the suburbs.

The paper will also look at other similarities in the poets’ work, and ways in which they may be considered a collective, addressing the notion of the creative writing “academy” and the "workshop" model which gaining momentum at the time. This paper will also briefly examine the proliferation of themes in the writing of Lowell, Plath and Sexton related to their epoch and notions of mental illness.

Reassessing these writers as a trio, I will seek to demonstrate how, by incorporating aspects of their social, spatial and cultural context in their poems Lowell, Plath and Sexton formed a unique collective, independent of Confessionalism and will further argue that due to the importance of these figures to the development of American poetry as a whole, this historic juncture and poetic collective was revolutionary to the American poetic tradition itself.