The Confessional Poetry of Taylor Swift’s folklore

During my week off work, I discovered something new about myself.

It was a revelation, if not a surprising one.

Yes, I’m a Swiftie…

Listening to her new album, folklore, made me fall in love with her storytelling. But it also ignited a thought that I haven’t been able to shake: Swift has a lot in common with the confessional poets of the 50s and 60s.

After my synapses connected, I went down a rabbit hole to join the dots between their work and hers.

This isn’t the first time Swift’s work has been described as ‘confessional’. Rachel Greenhaus, writing in JSTOR Daily, traces a line from the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton to Swift’s 1989. The confessional poets, just like the female pop stars of the twenty-first century, were accused of undermining their work with autobiographical details.

Critics of the confessional poets acted like “biographical detectives”, foraging for clues in their work to test their “trustworthiness.” Sound familiar? 1989 is littered with references to her high-profile relationships, whether that’s her feud with Katy Perry in ‘Bad Blood’ or her love affair with a certain 1D member in ‘Style.’

Already, folklore is being mined for its autobiographical details. The Evening Standard asks: “Who is William Bowery? Was Rebekah real? And which songs make up the album’s ‘love triangle?’” in their definitive guide to all of the references on the album.

Over 60 years later, this criticism is something female pop stars are still trying to shake.

So what’s changed? How does folklore mark a departure from the confessionalism of Swift’s previous work? Well, many characteristics of her previous albums persist, but with this comes darker themes and increased self-awareness.

The confessional poets took private details of their personal lives and made them public in what Deborah Nelson calls an “act of self-exposure.” They tackled topics like infidelity, sexuality and mental illness that transgressed the norms of white, heterosexual, middle-class society.

Whilst Swift’s body of work is hardly as countercultural or extreme as the likes of Plath and Sexton, echoes of this can be found in folklore.

“Leave the perfume on the shelf/ That you picked out just for him/ So you leave no trace behind” she sings on ‘illicit affairs’, as she attempts to cover up her infidelity. On ‘this is me trying’, Swift numbs the pain of a breakup with alcohol and describes that she “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout/ Could’ve followed my fears all the way down.” On ‘seven’, she alludes to familial abuse when she says to her childhood friend: “I think your house is haunted/ Your dad is always mad and that must be why.”

This is darker – and more private – territory than Swift has ever explored before.

With this comes an increased self-awareness of the ways in which she constructs and manipulates details of her private life. Miranda Sherwin, in her book “Confessional” Writing and the Twentieth-Century Literary Imagination, debunks the myth that confessional poetry is a direct communication of the author’s innermost thoughts and feelings. She refers to the ‘autobiographical fallacy’: the idea that these poets manipulate confession as an aesthetic trope, rather than speaking directly from the heart.

Swift, more than any other pop star, is hyper-aware of her own public narrative, which is complicated further in folklore.

In a now-infamous 2017 Buzzfeed essay, Ellie Woodward explores how Swift has positioned herself as a victim – of men, fellow female pop stars, and the press – by weaving public scandals into her songwriting. This is most fully realised in Reputation, a concept album in which Swift attempts to take ownership of her own narrative.

This self-mythologising immediately connects her to someone like Plath, but also points to the ways in which her confessional songwriting is highly constructed.

On folklore, Swift complicates this further. In her introduction to the album, posted on Twitter, Swift says: “The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible.” This is a clear statement of intent that aims to deflect autobiographical readings of her lyrics.

She refers to “Gossip and legend. Someone’s secrets written in the sky for all to behold.” In doing so, she writes a mini-manifesto, intentional or otherwise, that connects her to Plath, Sexton and the ‘autobiographical fallacy’ of the confessional poets of the past.

Lana Del Rey may have just released her spoken word album, but in making her private feelings public whilst deflecting autobiographical readings, Taylor Swift is this generation’s closest thing to a modern-day confessional poet. 

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