Confessional Humanism

Where the Confederation poets focussed on the intersections of landscape and psyche, musing about environment as a total field (that which was both inside and outside the individual), the confessional poets focus on how the social environment shapes the individual. For the latter group, environment includes class, age, faith, family, gender, and other social determinants. Anticipating and coincident with the reforms of New Brunswick social renovator Louis Robichaud, the province’s first elected Acadian premier, the confessional poets write about the vulnerable, the forgotten, and the disadvantaged. Whether the teenaged mother in Alden Nowlan’s “Beginning” and “It’s Good to be Here,” the bag lady in his “Daughter of Zion,” or the footnoted economic migrants in Elizabeth Brewster’s “River Song,” the subjects at the centre of this module’s poetry are what earlier critics might have called “the unpoetic” – that is, they are not beautiful, powerful, learned, or rich. What makes them apt subjects for poetry, however, and thus poetic, is that they are human. The great advance of Nowlan and Brewster, then, is their exploration of both the “how” and the “why” of personal disenfranchisement in the province.

While Nowlan and Brewster’s concerns appeared in some of the work of their predecessors – Charles G.D. Roberts’s treatment of leaving and return, for example, or Francis Sherman’s preoccupation with ennui (see Confederation Poets) – there was always a measure of intellectual or emotional distance between those earlier writers and the suffering they portrayed. By contrast, Nowlan and Brewster’s intensely personal portrayals offer poignant, sympathetic treatments that have no trace of artifice and, as significantly, few equivalents in Canadian literature.


Readers should note the situational aspects of the work of the confessional poets, and ponder the appropriateness of such work in a “have-not” province. Again, linkages to the earlier notions of the environment as total field, an idea pioneered in the work of New Brunswick’s Confederation poets, is useful for understanding contemporary literary humanism in a provincial context.


For the full Module Page on Confessional Humanism, click here.