Poetry Terms: Dramatic Monologue, Mood, Confessional
Considering the nearness of Halloween, this Poetry Terms takes a closer look at the words we use when we talk about poetry that spooks and scares. These three terms, Dramatic Monologue, Mood, & Confessional, represent three different invitations to build horror, dread, and menace into our poems. Enjoy, and be safe, and scare children with poetry this Halloween.
There’s something about a Dramatic Monologue that lends itself to elements of horror and goth and anxiety. The poet puts on a persona or character and unleashes a long, uninterrupted monologue. The only voice is the speaker, with an audience implied, assumed, and mute. The reader inevitably puts on their own mask in the reading, and somehow the poet often leaves us feeling complicit & accused.
If you’ve been taught the dramatic monologue in an American high school, it was likely Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” which introduced the English speaking world to the form in poetry. Browning’s poem leans deeply into the inherent horror of the DM as the speaker slowly reveals himself to be an unrepentant murderer.
If in college: T.S. Eliot’s famous dramatic monologue, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” defined the modernist anxiety for generations of poets.
See also “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath, and the haunting “Night, Death, Mississippi” by Robert Hayden. Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology is an immense resource if you’re looking to dive deep as it creates an entire town of characters.
The Dramatic Monologue is a versatile form for a poet to explore the pleasure of building character and dramatic irony into a piece. Don’t let prose writers be the only ones to have that fun.
As we poets try to create poems that spook and scare, we learn to steal as much as we can from our prose sisters. The mood of a piece, as a fictioneer might say, is the atmosphere built by specific choices around point-of-view, imagery, rhyme, word choice.
Dramatic Monologues lend themselves to an apprehensive atmosphere as our speaker’s attitude dominates the space. Robert Hayeden built a menacing tone through his speaker’s point of view, muffled as it is behind that KKK hood.
Gothic poems are wonderful examples of mood at work. These are poets who often take the imagery and soundwork of childhood lullabies to speak of ghosts and ghouls and curses. Poets can use the tension between sweet and soothing music and disturbing imagery and word choice. Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry is prime example. Perhaps more surprisingly, Sylvia Plath knew how to employ gothic techniques and atmospheres as well, i.e.“The Snowman on the Moor.”
Following this thread of Sylvia Plath—any excuse to talk more about Sylvia Plath—we must discuss the confessional mode of poetry begun in the 50s and 60s by American poets Plath and Lowell and Sexton and Berryman and Snodgrass. Particularly, Lowell’s book Life Studies has had a long and large influence on later poets.
Put simply, confessional poetry is deeply personal, written from the “I”, and more often autobiographical than not. Young American poets today may think poetry is primarily confessional because of the work these poets were doing the in mid-century—but the confessional genre was not just journaling turned into published books. These were expertly crafted pieces exploring new territory for English speaking poets: abuse and trauma, depression, personal relationships, mental illness.
You see the room to haunt the reader here, poet? Take Plath’s famous, “Daddy”. This confessional piece, about abuse and daughterhood and the holocaust, employs every element discussed so far: our speaker monologues the dark confession,