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Tuesday, May 21
The Indiana Daily Student

arts music

COLUMN: Tracing confessional poetry from Sylvia Plath to indie musicians

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Art is the greatest form of human expression. This form of expression has been essential in vocalizing pain as a common human experience. Confessional poetry perfectly embodies this. It focuses on individual experience generally dealing with extremely personal topics like mental illness and sexuality. It highlights the rawness of pain.  

In “Birth of the Tragedy," German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche draws attention to a tension in art. This tension exists between two forces: Apollonian and Dionysian. Both energies originate from Greek Gods with Apollo representing an individualistic calm, reasoned and structured form of art while Dionysus represents a collective, deeply emotional and ecstatic form. The union of these two forces create a distinctive art. 

The basis of Nietzschean philosophy is that there is indefinite suffering in the world, but humans can overcome it only if there is meaning to that suffering. Art becomes representative of that meaning. Nietzsche later goes on to suggest that Dionysus in art died as Socratic logic took over leading to the triumph of the Apollonian spirit. In modern art, Dionysus seems lost. I see a revival of the union of Apollo and Dionysus in confessional poetry. It is a genre of poetry that uses direct and structured language to express intense psychological experiences. 

Sylvia Plath is a confessional poet that stands out to me. The first time I read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” was in my sophomore year of high school. It is a poem about a dominating figure addressing her father. The dominating figure is Plath’s answer to the influence of her oppressive father by playing on the same themes of abuse that she was perhaps subjected to. “Daddy” shows a release of latent anger through its intense and derogatory language — through this we see Dionysus overpowering Apollo — a recurring theme in confessional poetry and other similar literary genres.  

Plath’s greatest appeal is in the expression of her struggles with depression and other mental health issues through poetry. Her literary works have helped me voice my voiceless struggles. Her ability to voice pain in its rawness without linguistic complexity explains her popularity. Her work embodies the essence of vulnerability which can be expressed on a piece of paper in a few stanzas.  

This tradition of confessional poetry has since changed forms. With the same direct language and vulnerable lyricism, we see contemporary indie singers like Adrianne Lenker and Julien Baker carry the bastion of confessional art in the 21st century.  Julien Baker is an indie rock singer from Tennessee primarily known for her role as a member of the Grammy-winning supergroup: Boygenius. Her work as a part of Boygenius is very popular and critically acclaimed. However, her solo career remains niche.  

Baker’s music can almost be categorized as performance poetry. This is because the role of instrumentation is limited in her songs, and she instead focuses on her lyrism. The complementary role of instrumentation is so subtle, that it is almost insignificant. To fully appreciate her music, one must carefully understand the poetry that she projects through subtle tunes. This music aptly represents the Apollonian need for structure while her poetic lyricism represents the Dionysian emotionality.  

This poetry tends to follow through on the same themes as Plath’s. The song “Sour Breath” by Baker is a beautiful representation of resignation from a seemingly toxic relationship while longing for that same relationship, highlighting the complexity of love and human relations. There is an admission of guilt and acceptance of toxicity associated with dependency and not a unidimensional release of anger in the lyrics. “Sour Breath” is a search for closure and self-reflection.   

Lenker is another artist who brings a similar introspective flavor to her music. Lead vocalist and principal songwriter for indie folk band Big Thief, she has also had a successful solo career. 2024 saw the release of her album “Bright Future” which featured a beautiful indie ballad — “Sadness As A Gift.”  

With themes of an ending relationship like “Sour Breath” the song ends on a positive note of something that was never meant to be. With lyrics like “You could write me someday, and I hope you will” embodying the hope of staying in touch that comes with a recently parted relationship. Lenker’s music is often hopeful and positive with an indie folk vibe. This combined with introspective lyricism makes Lenker a dream musician for a listener that values musical poetry.  

Plath’s direct expression of psychological turmoil paved the way for contemporary indie musicians like Baker and Lenker. This poetic tradition epitomizes raw emotions through themes of emotional release, acceptance and vulnerability. Their voice offers a meaning of solace and love to those grappling with the complexities of human suffering.  

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