The Holocaust poetry of John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and W.D. Snodgrass
John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and W. D. Snodgrass are each commonly associated with the poetic movement known as ‘confessionalism’ which emerged in the USA in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They did not, however, write works of undiluted autobiography; through close readings of their Holocaust verse, I take the poetry, rather than the lives of the poets, to be the ultimate authority on what they had to say about history, about the ethics of representing historical atrocity in art, and about the ‘existential’ questions that the Nazi genocide raises. Chapter 1 offers the first sustained analysis of Berryman’s unfinished collection of Holocaust poems, The Black Book (1948 - 1958) - one of the earliest engagements by an American writer with this particular historical subject. In my second chapter I look at some of Plath’s fictionalised dramatic monologues, which, I argue, offer self-reflexive meditations on representational poetics, the commercialisation of the Holocaust, and the ways in which the event reshapes our understanding of individual identity and culture. My third chapter focuses on W. D. Snodgrass’s The Fuehrer Bunker (1995) - a formally inventive cycle of dramatic monologues spoken by leading Nazi ministers, which can be read as an heuristic text whose ultimate objective is the moral instruction of its readers. Finally, I suggest that while all three poets offer distinct responses to the Holocaust, they each consider how non-victims approach the genocide through acts of identification. For Snodgrass, it is important that we do identify with the perpetrators, who were not all that different from ourselves; for Berryman and Plath, however, the difficulty of identifying with the victims marks out the limits of historical understanding.