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Ungyung Yi


Exoteric Confession, Publicity, and Commercial Persona in Postwar American Poetry: Anne Sexton, Frank O’Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop

My dissertation project scrutinizes the public affinity to enjoy and consume literary tragic figures such poets as Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Anne Sexton (1928-1974), and Frank O’Hara (1926-1966). These poets have a tragic reputation in the public imagination, a reputation that inflects common understanding of their published works. In my dissertation concerning the confessional aspects of the mid-twentieth century poets, I argue that the poets emerge not only as a product of cultural and literary practices that delimit confessional poems and poets, but also of their own volition acts as they created a commercial—or anti-commercial—persona.
I challenge pervasive scholarly interpretations that regard the postwar American poets’ textual confessions as self-reflective, autobiographical documentation. When it comes to self-revelation or confession, both critics and readers often are preoccupied with matching games—that is, by determining whether the private details presented in the text match known details about a poet’s life. Refuting such reading practice, I explore confessional poetry as a genre defined by a deliberate manipulation that curates, mediates, and circulates a public persona (rather than the autobiographical “real” self) mainly through print media.

My dissertation contributes to media studies, authorship studies, celebrity studies, gender studies, calling for a perspective-shifting approach to the genre of confessional poetry. There have been fruitful and productive academic conversations on confessional writing. However, the existing scholarship has limited their scope of research either to the self-repentant mode of confession or to posthumous impact on the reading public’s reception that comes from posthumous marketing of the poets critically missing out the important aspects of writer’s understanding of the nature of publishing market and readership and their intended choices of a medium.

My project fills in the gap between authorship and the posthumous marketing of celebrated poets by connecting the loud speakers of attentively addressing one’s private details to their public images. As a woman, gay, lesbian poet in the mid-century literary market respectively, Sexton, O’Hara, and Bishop calibrate and extend the intricate relation between autobiographical documentation and textual performance as crafting personal intimacy and selling public image at once through the print media. My research reevaluates the meaning of confession not as a recording of negative emotions such as self-repentance but as a strategy for fame and profit, which makes the poets visible.
Through extensive research ranging from scholarly and non-scholarly periodicals to commercial and nonprofit magazines, I explore how the mid-century American poets utilized print culture and publication environment to forge the relationship between a poet and readers. I argue that these poets understood and embraced new readerly appetites that shaped the public literary marketplace of postwar America and thus strategically manipulated their intimate autobiographical texts and circulated their poetic persona by their periodical publication choices. The poets actively construct a poet figure in their texts but also as circulate in the public marketplace, yielding a doubled figure that calls into question to what extent this public overlapped with (or was generated by) the public of scholarly and non-scholarly, commercial and nonprofit magazines.