Saturday, April 26, 2008

Transformations by Anne Sexton

I don't really know where to start with this collection of poetry by Anne Sexton. I liked it, but I'm not sure why or what to say about it. I'm a virtual poetry novice and don't really feel qualified to critique it. From the blurb on the back of the book, "The poems collected in this astonishing volume are reenactments, parodies, what Anne Sexton described as transformations, of seventeen Grimm fairy tales. . ." The first poem is The Gold Key. I've never heard of a fairy tale by this name, and I'm not sure if this is a retelling of a fairy tale or not. It almost seems to me as if this is an introductory poem by Sexton describing what she's going to do with the rest of the poems in the collection. See what you think.

The Gold Key
The speaker in this case
is a middle-aged witch, me --
tangled on my two great arms,
my face in a book
and my mouth wide,
ready to tell you a story or two.
I have come to remind you,
all of you:
Alice, Samuel, Kurt, Eleanor,
Jane, Brian, Maryel,
all of you draw near.
at fifty-six do you remember?
Do you remember when you
were read to as a child?
at twenty-two have you forgotten?
Forgotten the ten P.M. dreams
where the wicked king
went up in smoke?
Are you comatose?
Are you undersea?
my dears,
let me present to you this boy.
He is sixteen and he wants some answers.
He is each of us.
I mean you.
I mean me.
It is not enough to read Hesse
and drink clam chowder
we must know the answers.
The boy has found a gold key
and he is looking for what it will open.
This boy!
Upon finding a nickel
he would look for a wallet.
This boy!
Upon finding a string
he would look for a harp.
Therefore he holds the key tightly.
Its secrets whimper
like a dog in heat.
He turns the key.
It opens this book of odd tales
which transform the Brothers Grimm.
As if an enlarged paper clip
could be a piece of sculpture.
(And it could.)
I like the idea of the gold key as a metaphor, admitting the reader into new worlds through books and storytelling. Sexton transforms all of the most famous fairy tales, including Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. She also includes some that are lesser known (at least to me), such as Iron Hans, The Maiden without Hands, The White Snake and others. For the most part, she begins each fairy tale with a poem about the fairy tale and then gives a version of the fairy tale. I apologize if that doesn't make much sense, but that's what she does. In many cases, these fairy tales are even darker than the original tales. Sexton also interjects much of her own feelings and life into the tales, as well. Sexton suffered from depression for most of her life and committed suicide in 1974 just seven years after winning the Pulitzer Prize.
I read this book as part of The Year of Reading Dangerously, and I'm glad I did. Even though I haven't always been successful with my reading challenges, I'll keep joining them for this reason -- it forces me to read books that I would never have picked up otherwise. I really did enjoy this book of poetry even though I find it difficult to describe. However, after reading the foreword to this edition by Kurt Vonnegut I feel somewhat better about my lack of ability to describe these poems. He says, "How do I explain these poems? Not at all. I quit teaching in colleges because it seemed so criminal to explain works of art. The crisis in my teaching career came, in fact, when I faced an audience which expected me to explain Dubliners by James Joyce. I was game. I'd read the book. But when I opened my big mouth, no sounds came out." So, as you can see, I'm in good company.


jenclair said...

I really, really must read Transformations! Love this particular poem.

Last year, I read Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales for the Once Upon a Time Challenge and one of my favorite essays was by Linda Gray Sexton, Ann Sexton's daughter. She discusses Transformations at length as well as other elements of their lives.

Andi said...

Yep, The Golden Key is a real fairy tale. Cathy provided a link on the first (and only, thus far) discussion post at YoRD. I've been re-reading this collection, and it's been a bit difficult to come up with questions for it. I suppose everything I want to ask hinges on "did you like the fairy tale transformations?" I do, but I know many probably do not

I loved Vonnegut's intro, too. I posted that very quote on my blog, and it often describes my own feelings about teaching literature to a group of college students.

ravenousreader said...

Sexton is a tough one to "get," especially if you're not a big poetry reader. I've read a couple of biographies of her, which I find more interesting than the poems! She had quite a troublesome life.

Nymeth said...

You are indeed in very good company.

The Gold Key is a Grimms fairy tale, yes - a very short and strange one that you can read here. But I think that what you said about it working as an introduction still applies.

I've wanted to read this book for so so long. Now, after your review, and after Linda Grey Sexton's essay in Mirror Mirror on the Wall, I'm very inclined to include it in my new book order.

Lisa said...

jenclair, I've heard several other people mention this book of essays on fairy tales. I may need to look into it especially for the essay by Sexton's daughter.

andi, I can see how it would be hard to come up with questions for this book. It was certainly hard for me to try to put together my thoughts for this post. But, that doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy this collection. I did, and I've been thinking a lot about it since finishing it, which is obviously a sign that it made an impact on me.

ravenousreader, I'd like to read more about her life. It's strange that so many really talented people suffer from depression. I'm sure there have been studies that look into correlations between giftedness and depression. That would make an interesting book!

nymeth, thanks for the link to the fairy tale. I didn't realize just how many fairy tales there are that I'd never heard of. Maybe my parents picked and chose the ones that they read to me as a child. I guess I need to go back and reread all the Grimm's fairy tales again. I think you would like this collection. I'll be interested to hear what you think about it.

tricia said...

i just finished this book and your post on it could have been written by me. what i mean by that is that everything you wrote is everything that i thought and felt. it is a strange little thing, that book.

Lisa said...

tricia, it really is 'different' for want of a better word. It was really difficult trying to come up with a way to explain my feelings about it. So, I'm glad it made sense to somebody. :)