By Kathryn Nuernberger
William Blake, reflecting on how much readers tend to prefer that old villainous anti-hero Satan to any of the good guys in Paradise Lost, remarked, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
Certainly there are no shortages of ways to be a villain, but poets, freed as they are from the constraints of “plot” are also freed from the narrow alleyways of that first-order definition for villain, “character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot.” Instead, we, or the speakers we inhabit, can be villainously “responsible for trouble” or “causing of harm” or “sources of damage.” To that end, Confessionalism is a genre of poetry that offers unique opportunities for inventions in villainy, dragging vices like wrath or pride into grayer terrain, or maybe even, in some cases, the light.
There is, famously, that time Robert Lowell quoted directly and without permission from the pleading letters his soon-to-be-ex-wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, sent asking him to leave off his affair and return to her and their daughter. Or the times Sylvia Plath excoriates one aspect of an oppressive hegemony—its condescending patriarchy—while propping up its racism and antisemitism through thoughtless metaphorical appropriations. Oh, but they don’t mean to do it exactly, which makes their villainy so much more—well, let’s just say it’s no party, the devil’s or otherwise, this work we the living do of dragging our ancestors to confession. For this essay I propose instead a jubilee of recent confessional poets who have learned from these examples how to create on purpose speakers who are troublesome, reckless, dangerous, and careening. They make an art of it—these infernal confessions—and I can’t get enough of such raw lyric villainy.
Like Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin, with its letters, Denise Duhamel’s “Takeout 2008” from the book Blowout attends at length to a break-up. Like Sylvia Plath’s speakers in Ariel, Duhamel’s is also pissed off and breaking all manner of social mores conventionally associated with goodness. Duhamel’s blowout of sorrow and fury in response to the loss of a father, a flooded apartment, and even financial ruin is refreshingly complicated by an extra layer of self-awareness and reflection. “I know there are people with missing children,” she writes. “There are people without a place / to sleep tonight.” She knows her grief is a drop in an ocean of grief, and yet, what good comes of feigning optimism? Earlier in the poem a sweet, nice psychic, embodying “goodness” promised just so optimistically “my father would do fine in the operation” and “[d]on’t worry, your husband will never bring you harm.” It is a pleasant little lie that seems so much uglier than any of the confessional fury Duhamel presents in an honest and forthright manner elsewhere in the poem. This is a poem that explores what kinds of connections and new beginnings might emerge between us if one were to truly and honestly confess that we are flawed or angry or freaking out and we’re doing it all with navel-gazing myopia. One thing that happens is the navel-gazing myopia starts to seem like a pretty clear-sighted gesture that might create more genuine and sustainable human relationships.
Duhamel’s speaker admits she wants to be like Elizabeth Bishop, so reticent and restrained in her poems, a woman who, it seems, never makes a mistake. But it is no mean feat, to keep your secrets close and your poems closer. “I will try to be more likeable in my next poem,” Duhamel writes. “For now I’m broke and alone. A Dolly Parton song. / Still I am trying harder, faster. Still, I am trying to learn the art.” “Write it,” Bishop insists in that famous poem “One Art” Duhamel references here. What is “it”? In this case it is that she has not been the perfect woman, she has not been restrained, she has not been beatific. This speaker has been pissed at her ex and her god and herself, not to mention at the gendered expectations of a particular kind of decorum and restraint, and she is going to write the truth of it.
Did you know “villain” in Middle English means nothing more than “feudal tenant to the lord of a manor”? It simply implied someone low-born, but the meaning devolved, as meanings for low-born people usually do, to mean “criminal.” One could argue it’s criminal the way this language of ours always seems to go. It’s enough to make you want to utter a curse with one hand on your heart and the other on the OED, that big, beautiful book that will also tell you “to fuck” once meant nothing more and nothing less than “to know.”
Adrian C. Louis’s “A Colossal American Copulation” from the collection Ceremonies of the Damned begins, “fuck the bluebird of happiness / Fuck the men who keep their dogs chained,” and goes on to:
add the yuppie hillbillies who mess
up the powerspray carwash when they come down
from the hills with half the earth clinging
to their new four-wheel drives
and on through the rest of a list 106 lines long that culminates in the real rage and grief at the heart of this poem:
Fuck Alzheimer’s Diesase.
And all the things my woman
And time. It only confuses her.
It’s a list that makes you laugh and cry, that is intimate and personal, but it’s also a fury expansive enough to include the political forces and their operatives that shape these little intimacies of our lives.
Fuck the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The ATF for the Waco massacre…
Fuck the genocidal Serb soldiers;
may their nuts roast in napalm hell.
Fuck all the booze I ever drank.
It’s a list where the speaker becomes a villainous anger so he does not have to keep being at its mercy. It’s a list like a wrecking ball just when what you need is to see something wrecked that isn’t you for a change. It’s a gift, this unreasonable distemper, and a very generous gift at that, to offer up a flawed narrative persona so close to the poet himself readers really aren’t sure of the difference.
Like in that Mark Doty poem from a recent issue of American Poetry Review, “In Two Seconds,” written in memory of Tamir Rice. He begins with a description of
the boy’s face
climbed back down the twelve-year tunnel
of its becoming , a charcoal sunflower
paying honor to the life of a boy shot by a cop, lingering over “the held loved body” and
the long history
of those whose suffering
was made more bearable
by the as-yet unknown of him.
Then Doty writes of his speaker’s refusal to imaginatively empathize with the man who shot this child playing with a toy gun. We all know the poet could empathize. Empathy is what good people do and Doty is especially gifted in this art of goodness. He writes in this very poem, “I believe it is part of the work / of poetry to try on at least / the moment and skin of another.” But what if good people, every so often, once in a while, say for the length of a poem, refuse? What happens if they get angry instead? If they utter a curse in place of so much compassion? “I refuse it, “ Doty writes here of empathy. “May that officer / be visited every night of his life / by an enormity collapsing in front of him.” Maybe something good could come of such willful, unrepentant villainy as the refusal to forgive or forget or even to say “I understand.” Maybe something that needs to be damaged or harmed or broken down will be, for a change, instead of someone who does not.
In his poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” in which that famous line about Paradise Lost appears, Blake eschews the usual definitions of good and bad, of heroic and villainous. He says, “That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, call’d Good is alone from the Soul.” Energy is what we need to provoke change, Blake says. Change of course, can look a lot like trouble and feel a lot like harm, it can seem as if your villains are rising up in the field, though it may be all they have done is lay down their pitchforks in protestation. Or written a poem in which they are not afraid to wear the voice of a villainous energy in place of that more familiar sound of so much inert Reason.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of three poetry collections, RUE (BOA, 2020) The End of Pink (BOA 2016) and Rag & Bone (Elixir 2011), a collection of lyric essays, Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (OSU 2017). Her essay collection, The Witch of Eye, about witches and witch trials, is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in 2021. An Associate Professor of Creative Writing at University of Minnesota, she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, and the American Antiquarian Society for her work in the area of Docupoetics.