Dispatches | March 15, 2004

Ok, so perhaps it’s a bit unfair to compare Sexton with Survivor, Lowell with The Littlest Groom (yes, there is such a show!). But like it or not, there are some definite links between confessional poetry and the plethora of reality shows currently eating up airtime, and often, Nielsen ratings.

1) Both methods of expression have come to be classified as distinct genres—one within the realm of literature; the other, over the airwaves. Just as writers within the confessionalist movement are referred to, aptly, as “confessionalists,” reality tv stars (like Trista of the Trista-‘n-Ryan moniker) have become household names. Pop culture has made a space for the overnight celebrities of Trading Spaces—right next to W.D. Snodgrass.

2) Both have spawned hoards of look-alikes and have achieved a following, either cult or popular. Semester after semester, wide-eyed college students in workshop drills emulate Ginsberg’s style of writing; likewise, tv execs spin out duplicates of popular reality shows each new season. Like The Bachelor? Try its spin-off, The Bachelorette. Enjoy Paradise Hotel? You’ll love the tropic drama of Forever Eden.

3) Both tend to border on the sensationalistic and can portray the sharing process as a carthartic journey. Rather than shy away from controversy, both confessional poetry and reality tv deal directly with taboo subjects. However, while confessional poets strive to explore the individual self through dissection of topics such as sex, class, religion, and so on, reality television uses sensationalism as a marketing tool. Both confessional poetry and reality tv shows say something, more or less eloquently, about the polarized experience of isolation versus acceptance within real or simulated environments. In many of her poems, Anne Sexton openly outlines her struggle as a young woman to fit within the strict mold of the 1950s housewife. On the follow-up special to The Bachelor, spurned female contestants spill their manicured guts about how relationship rejection feels.

These similarities beg the question: has the continuing wave of reality tv become a substitute for confessional poetry? Try as I might, I just can’t seem to accept the theory. If I shed a tear at “run-of-the-mill” Adam’s misfortune in the finale of Average Joe, that reaction can’t compare to what I’ve felt after reading Sexton’s powerfully moving “Her Kind” —not to mention the impact other similar works have made on me. What’s your take on the situation?