Thursday, June 09, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge Post II

Selected tales from: Grimm, Wilhelm and Jacob. Stern, James, ed. The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon, 1976, 1944.

Sexton, Anne. Transformations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

I hadn't planned to read Anne Sexton's Transformations for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I was just interested in reading something by her because I never had. When I got this book (the only Anne Sexton on the shelf at the library the day I was there, grabbed by me without really looking at it, because I had not had much change for the parking meter out front and had very little time for browsing), I discovered it was perfect for the challenge. As Kurt Vonnegut tells us in his wonderful Foreword, Sexton, in this collection, was, "...retelling many of the Grimms' fairy tales in poetry." (p. ix)

I had planned, possibly, to read The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, but it's a huge work, and I've discovered it's a bit like reading The Bible: fascinating, but a little goes a long way. It's best to read it slowly, throughout a year, say, than to try to read it all at once. So instead, after reading half a dozen or so in order, I decided, for the purposes of this challenge, just to read the seventeen tales on which Sexton based her poems.

Most of her poems are based on tales with which we're all familiar: Cinderella, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, etc. However, there were some here, like Iron Hans and The White Snake with which I was not so familiar. The poet's retelling of these tales are anything but magical (that is, if you ignore her magical abilities with imagery and choosing and putting together words). Just as many of the original stories are very dark, so are Sexton's. Her updated versions mimic the old in that they do dance around the issues. She doesn't come right out and say, "I'm talking about feminism here," anymore than the brothers Grimm announced, "We're talking about sex here." She doesn't tell you she's talking about the abuse of women, the abuse of children, about how all those on the margins of society are ignored or silenced. She doesn't have to: you know she's talking about all that and more.

She's also talking about pain, anger, confusion, and, sometimes, a lack of redemption. No, you are not always going to be rescued. And, as a matter of fact, sometimes when your knight in shining armor does appear, he is even worse than what you suffered before he came along. These are disturbing poems but powerful ones. Sexton wanted her readers to think, and, I suspect, to understand her pain (she suffered from mental illness herself and could be considered one of those on the margins of her society). She succeeded in making this reader do so.

Reading the fairy tales was interesting, too. Sexton was right. So many of the tales are about women who had to give up things in order to be deserving of men (or as punishment for daring to flirt with men they shouldn't have): their hands, their voices, their hair, their fun. In fairness to these age-old tales, men often had to sacrifice and are punished in awful ways, too. Typically, though, those are male animals or peasants. Rarely do kings and princes sacrifice, and bad kings and princes are often rewarded in ways that only the most saintly of the female characters are. Also, that "reward" depends on your idea of "happily ever after".

I like Sexton's wry take on the standard fairy tale ending, epitomized here in the final lines of her The White Snake,

So, of course,
they were placed in a box
and painted identically blue
and thus passed their days
living happily ever after --
a kind of coffin,
a kind of blue funk,
Is it not? (p. 15)

Wow, huh? If you like that, you're bound to like this exemplary collection.


Carrie K said...

I do like that. I haven't read her before either, so a double pleasure.

Emily Barton said...

Carrie, IMHO, you're in for a real treat.

litlove said...

Oh I LOVED this poetry collection. It was exactly what I like best - wry, witty, clever, sharp, accessible and entertaining. Sexton's voice was just perfect for rewriting fairy tales because she was naturally tapped into all the sex, revenge and madness elements that hide under the fairy tale surface. You make me want to read them again (and I'm sure I will!).

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, and now I remember where I first heard about this one. It was obviously from you (can't seem to keep it straight anymore from whence all my author/book recommendations come). I just went back and re-read your post (from 2008. Only took me 3 years to get around to reading it). And you're right: wry, witty, clever, sharp, accessible, and entertaining.

Stefanie said...

Oh my! I am now on the lookout for my own copy of this collection. Did you read the fairy tale first of the poem first?

Emily Barton said...

Stef, I read the fairy tales first, which worked really well.