English & Women's Studies 224 ~ Women in Literature


English & Women’s Studies 224 ~ Women in Literature

Her Kind, Continued: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, & the Female “Post-Confessionals”


Spring 2008

Pamela Gemin 225 Radford 424-2260 geminp@uwosh.edu

Spring 2008 Office Hours: Wednesdays 4:30-5:30 p.m., Tuesdays & Thursdays 10-11 a.m.


Lucille Clifton, Blessing the Boats

Sharon Olds, Strike Sparks

Anne Sexton, Selected Poems of Anne Sexton

Virginia Chase Sutton, What Brings You to Del Amo

Natasha Trethwey, Native Guard

Additional poetry, book chapters, and websites will be posted on E-Reserve and D2L.

Course Description

In this course, we will read and discuss poetry by women that has been or could be classified as “confessional,” “post confessional,” or “apparently personal.” Until the 1950s, when poets Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass began the male confessional tradition, autobiographical work detailing the more private aspects of poets’ personal lives was uncommon in men’s poetry and unheard of in women’s work. While the emotional, tell-all characteristic of confessional poetry was raw and even shocking to some readers in its early era, “[t]he confessional poets were not merely recording their emotions on paper; craft and construction were extremely important to their work…these poets maintained a high level of craftsmanship through their careful attention to and use of prosody” (Academy of American


Influenced at first by their teacher Robert Lowell and later by other male teachers, Anne

Sexton and Sylvia Plath thrived as poets despite enormous social pressures and bouts with mental illness. At the time of their suicides (Plath’s in 1963 and Sexton’s in 1974), both had written an astonishing amount of critically acclaimed poetry. Central to our discussion of these poets and their literary influence are the following questions:

۰ How did the work of Plath & Sexton help to establish and add to the “confessional” (now referred to as “post-confessional” or “apparently personal”) tradition in women’s poetry?

۰ How closely did the subjects of Plath’s and Sexton’s art resemble the circumstances of their “real” lives,” and what should readers understand about poets’ biographical personae?

۰ How can Plath’s and Sexton’s work be approached according to the notions of femininity

(and masculinity) predominant in their era?

۰ How do the “post-confessional” women poets writing today incorporate aspects of confessional poetry and build upon ground broken by poets like Anne Sexton?

Coursework & Evaluation

Short Essays=100 points (50%)

Students will write five short (1 ½ – 2 page) essays in response to reading assignments. 20 points will be assigned to each essay according to these four, 5-point criteria: a demonstrated understanding of material, critical thinking, clarity and accessibility of expression, and writing mechanics (including proofreading).

What is a reader’s response? It’s not a critique--not a judgment of the reading material or the writers. Instead, response essays answer the following questions: What was most intriguing about the reading? What was most confusing about the reading? What were you surprised by? Does anything in this reading strike a personal chord with you?

Attendance (see heading below), Class Participation & Engagement=50 Points (25%)

Class discussion in 224 is live and in person. To stimulate class discussion, and to aid in the understanding of often difficult reading, study questions incorporating appropriately formatted quotes and paraphrases will be designed in groups during class. Everyone is expected to contribute to class discussion. Using their questions, groups will generate informal, interactive discussions on a regular basis. In a self-evaluation, students may recommend (but recommendations are not guaranteed) a points value up to 50 for this category at the end of the semester.

Take-Home Final =50 points (25%)

The final exam (50 points) is a 4-5 page essay in formal, MLA-documented style. Sources for these essays will be limited, and an MLA refresher session will be given before essays are due.


In this once-a-week class, two absences are allowed, but regular attendance is very important, and missing three classes will lower the final grade. Missing four or more will constitute failure regardless of coursework completed. Administrative or medical documentation is required for any extenuating circumstances. Students should not feel compelled to report their reasons for missing class as long as absences remain within the allowed range.

Submission Requirements

E-mail attachments are discouraged. Late hard copies are preferred. (Also see “E-Mail” heading below.)

All submissions should be typed and double-spaced.

Papers of more than one page should be stapled.

Papers should be titled.

Submissions should be labeled with name, class, date, and submission number and type

(e.g., essay #1, Sexton bio; essay #2, Trethewey poems)

Late Submissions, Classroom Etiquette, E-Mail

Cell phones should be turned off during class, and students are discouraged from walking in and out of the classroom except for in emergencies. Those with special circumstances

should talk to the professor. Students are also expected to be on time for class, and to stay the entire 3-hour period.

Two late submissions are allowed, to be submitted by the following Friday, if possible. Final exam essays will not be accepted late.

Most professors greatly prefer in-person conversations with students to continuing series of e-mail exchanges, as it’s extremely difficult to keep up with the sheer volume of e-mails they receive daily. E-mail conversations have their limitations, and e-mail exchanges can lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings between students and professors. Therefore,

Women in Lit students are encouraged to take advantage of office hours and/or make appointments instead.

Tentative Syllabus

A tentative (provisionary, for now) study plan is sketched below. It will likely be altered to suit the needs of the class, and there will be extra materials (interviews, essays, articles, and poems) provided on D2L and E-reserve as we go. For the most accurate, most detailed week-by-week study plan, please go to your D2L site and see “Assignments and


Week 1, 2-6: Welcome. Overview: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and “confessional” poetry.

*Week 2, 2-13: Anne Sexton, bio material and poetry ; c onfessionalism.

Week 3, 2-20: Sexton, bio material and poetry; intro to Plath.

Week 4, 2-27: Plath & Sexton, bio material and poetry.

*Week 5, 3-5: Plath & Sexton, bio material and poetry; melodrama in film.

Week 6, 3-12: Intro to Sharon Olds. Film: Far From Heaven.

Week 7, 3-19: Olds, bio material and poetry; comparing Olds, Plath & Sexton.

Spring Break

*Week 8, 4-2: Olds, continued.

Week 9, 4-9: Olds, continued; intro to Clifton.

*Week 10, 4-16: Clifton and Olds; comparing Clifton and Olds to previous poets; intro to


Week 11, 4-23: Virginia Chase Sutton and Anne Sexton.

*Week 12, 4-30: Sutton, continued; intro to Trethewey.

Week 13, 5-7: Natasha Trethwey and Lucille Clifton.

Week 14, 5-14: Wrap-up; final exam due.