Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Women in Folklore: Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. She had many mental health issues which ultimately resulted in her taking her own life.

One of Sexton's best known collections of poetry is her Transformations (1971).

From The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales:

All Sexton’s poems are intensely personal and reflect the pain and suffering she endured during her life. Transformations is unique in that she gains distance on her personal problems by transposing them on to fairy-tale figures and situations. The book consists of 17 poems taken from the Grimms' Children's and Household Tales, and among them are such classics as 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', 'The Frog Prince', 'Rumpelstiltskin', 'Rapunzel', 'Red Riding Hood', 'Cinderella', and 'Hansel and Gretel' as well as such lesser-known ones as 'The White Snake' and 'The Little Peasant'. In each of the poems, written in free verse, Sexton has a prologue in which she addresses social and psychological issues such as sexual abuse, abandonment, incest, commodification, alienation, and sexual identity. Then she retells the Grimms' tale in a modern idiom with striking frequently comic metaphors and with references to her own experiences. Instead of a moral at the end, there is a coda that raises disturbing questions about the issues with which she has dealt.


Her fairy tale poems can be considered 'feminist' in the manner in which they seek to deal with the 'true situation' of women during the 1950s and 1960s and undermind the false promises of the classical fairy tales.

From the Poetry Foundation:

Transformations, a retelling of Grimm's fairy tales, marked a shift away from the confessional manner of her earlier work, which several commentators found to be a fruitful change. Gail Pool, for example, contended that the tales provided Sexton with "a rich medium for her colorful imagery," a distance from her characters which allowed wit, an eerie realm "where she had always been her sharpest," and "the structure she needed and so often had difficulty imposing on her own work. At last she had found material to which she could bring her intelligence, her wit, all that she knew, and she created, in Stanley Kunitz's words, 'a wild, blood-curdling, astonishing book.'" Christopher Lehmann-Haupt echoed Pool's analysis, arguing that Sexton's earlier work tended to lack control, that perhaps she worked too closely with firsthand experience. Lehmann-Haupt continued, "by using the artificial as the raw material of Transformations and working her way backwards to the immediacy of her personal vision, she draws her readers in more willingly, and thereby makes them more vulnerable to her sudden plunges into personal nightmare." Similarly, Louis Coxe discovers a new objectivity and distance in Transformations, which he considers "a growth of the poet's mind and strength."

Here are links to Anne Sexton, "Cinderella" and Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Warning that these are graphic if you are unfamiliar with her work.

And another interesting article: A Feminist Far from Grimm: Anne Sexton and her Transformations by Roger Brunyate.

Using fairy tales as inspiration for poetry was nothing new by the time Sexton wrote Transformations, but her usage of the fairy tales was innovative and shocking. Her work has influenced many fairy tale retellings written since then.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Heidi, I'm very much impressed by Anne Sexton - as a poet and as a person. Thank you for this post! Last night I read a lot about her for I didn't know anything up till now! A very precious blog - I found it yesterday and will follow it regularly! In fact, I visit from time to time SUR LA LUNE. I find it's fantastic - created with a lot of knowledge and love towards fairy tales... It helped and inspired me last year when I put on stage "Rapunzel" (you can read about it in my blog). Best wishes from Bulgaria!