Though her work in many ways confounds the designation, Sylvia Plath can be better appreciated when one understands the genre of confessional poetry, in which she is often grouped.
Confessional poetry is a genre of poetry first identified in the decades immediately following the Second World War. It was initiated with the publication of Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959); other poets whose work typifies this style include Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, and Anne Sexton. With its origins in the British romantic poets of the 19th century, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, confessional poetry of the modern era focused on inward expressions of conflict and emotion through the use extremely personal details from the poet's life. Critics sometimes include the Beat poets, particularly Allen Ginsberg, in this movement.
Confessional poetry was a reaction to the depersonalized, academic poetry of writers like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. These paragons of modernism believed poetry was a thing apart from its creator, and that there was no room for the self in poetry. The confessional poets did not adhere to this perspective, instead writing from a deeply personal perspective and filling their work with intimate and controversial details from their private lives.
Robert Lowell, the veritable founding father of the movement, was a professor at Boston University, where he taught poetry workshops that Sexton and Plath attended. Life Studies dealt with many of Lowell's family dysfunctions, alcoholism, and sexual guilt, thereby breaking with previous poetic tradition and veering more toward the freer forms of William Carlos Williams. M.L. Rosenthal first used the term "confessional poetry" when writing a review about Lowell's work.
Anne Sexton wrote poetry that dealt with her personal life, including her experiences with psychotherapy, sex, depression, and rage. One of her most significant works, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), dealt with such excruciating topics as molestation by a father.
Sylvia Plath is commonly seen as a confessional poet, although some critics dispute her placement within this movement, arguing that her work is more universal than commonly assumed. Nevertheless, Ariel, published posthumously in 1965, deals with the very personal issues of suicide, sex, her children, and, most dramatically, her complicated relationship with her deceased father. Poems like "Daddy," "Ariel," and "Lady Lazarus" are stunning in their originality, wit, and brutality.
The confessional poets have garnered a lot of critical interest, but there is a tendency to conflate their art and lives too fully - the usage of a personal pronoun in their work is not an unequivocal invitation to assume that the subject of the poem is always the poet. Critic Mary A. Murphy writes about the poets that "their poems are not open wounds on the page. Their work is a crafted response to their overwhelming emotional impulses. They use the sharply defined sensory prompts and the everyday language of the common person learned from the imagist school. The profound intimacy of the poetry demands such an accessibility." While the tales of personal tragedies might be the most fascinating aspect of their work for many readers, the confessional poets were also masters of their craft. Plath is well understood as a reflection of both sides of the debate.