Jun 5, 2008

Transformations by Anne Sexton

Transformations is a collection of seventeen poems, all of which are retellings – or transformations – of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tales Anne Sexton reworks include some of the most well known ones, like “Cinderella”, “Snow White”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel”, and more obscure ones, like “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes”, “The White Snake” or “The Little Peasant”.

For the past month or so I’ve been slowly but surely reading The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, and I found that having the book beside me and reading the fairy tales in question before Anne Sexton’s poems enriched my experience with this book. First, it allowed me to recall details of the fairy tales I already knew. Secondly, reading the ones I didn’t know first allowed me to understand how Anne Sexton’s approach was different – what exactly she had transformed.

The poems all follow a similar structure: there’s an introduction in which she comments on a particular aspect of the story or on its meaning, and then the story itself begins. Her tone is often humorous, but even when there’s humour, these are painful stories. They focus on the things that are often left untold, on the darker side of life. And in this sense, transformations aside, these poems are quite close to the original spirit of fairy tales.

Let me show you an example of her darkness:
Without Thorazine
or benefit of psychotherapy
Iron Hans was transformed
No need for Master Medical;
no need for electroshock—
merely bewitched all along.
Just like the frog who was a prince.
Just as the madman his simple boyhood.
Of her sense of humour:
This one day her mother gave her
a basket of wine and cake
to take to her grandmother
because she was ill.
Wine and cake?
Where’s the aspiring? The penicillin?
Where’s the fruit juice?
Peter Rabbit got camomile tea.
But wine and cake it was.
And of her ability to combine both:
The day was dark as the F├╝hrer’s headquarters.
Godfather death stood once more at the head.
The princess was ripe as a tangerine.
Her breasts purred up and down like a cat.
I’ve been bitten! I’ve been bitten!
cried the thirteenth but chosen
who had fallen in love
and thus turned her around like a shoebox.
In the book's foreword, Kurt Vonnegut says:
I asked a poet friend one time what it was that poets did, and he thought awhile and then told me, ‘They extent the language.’ Sexton does a deeper favour for me: she domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop into my forest once more.
I love this – “domesticates my terror”. And, again, this is so much like what the original fairy tales do. Some of these poems were darker than others, and some of my favourites were actually the darkest – for example, she reimagines Rapunzel and the Witch as lovers, and Briar Rose as a victim of sexual abuse. The result is chilling, beautiful and hard to forget.

Other Blog Reviews:
Booknotes by Lisa
The Endless Pursuit of Life
My Other Car is a Tardis
Rhinoa's Ramblings

(Got any more? Please let me know and I’ll add your link to this list.)


  1. I love the concept of these poems - and that reading them along with the actual fairy tales made you enjoy both more. Sigh. Another one for the list! :-)

  2. This was on my list for "My Year of Reading Dangerously", but I substituted a different book because my library didn't have it. But after reading everyone's reviews, I kind of wish I had read it. It sounds very interesting! I don't usually like reading poetry very much, but I do like fairy tales, so this sounds like a great read. Maybe I'll have to suck it up and buy it from the bookstore :-)

  3. Oh man, this sounds absolutely incredible! I'm thinking there's a point in your future for this one! :)

  4. Sounds like a lovely compliment to the studies you are already doing on the Grimm Brothers. I admit that I ignore poetry because it is so much work for me. I have taken several classes and have several collections on my shelf, but I just can't bring myself to do it. I do LOVE Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, though. I could read that any time.

  5. I'm glad you read this one. I actually thought of you when I read it. It sounded like something that you'd enjoy. I agree with everything you said about it. It's the type of collection you really need to reread every so often. I may follow your advice and read the original fairy tales before reading these next time. I can see where that would definitely add to the experience.

  6. This is truly a great collection -I wish I would've thought to read it alongside the original stories, that was very clever!

  7. Darla, I have no doubt you'll enjoy this one :)

    Kim: It was all the My Year of Reading Dangerously reviews, particularly Lisa's, that made me pick it up! I don't read poetry very often either, but these were very, very readable.

    Debi: yay, a point! lol

    Trish: A lot of the time poetry demands more close attention than what I can afford to give, but like I was telling Kim these were so readable. They were like short stories, really.

    Lisa: It was thanks to your review that I finally picked it up...so thank you!

    Ken: There's always next time!

  8. I have been craving this collecion for a little while now and today I got an email saying my copy has been sent out and will hopefully arrive by the time I get back next weekend (unless I am really lucky and it arrives tomorrow... fingers crossed). It has been recommended at the end of all the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling collections as well as various other fairy tale inspired books.

  9. OK, I'm definitely getting this one! I've always loved Sexton's poetry and like I've told you before, I didn't even know that this existed! So cool! And I have to say, I love the blog name that you linked to "my other car is a Tardis" lol...wish I would've thought of that one.

  10. Transformations sounds like an interesting concept. I like your idea of reading both this and the Brothers Grimm fairy tales together. It would make for an interesting comparison.

  11. Rhinoa: I hope your copy arrives soon. How cool, I didn't know the Datlow/Windling books included lists of recommendations...I want them even more now!

    Chris: I really do think you'll enjoy this one! And yes, that is a cool blog name :P

    Literary Feline: It really did. It made me see both the poems and the original stories in a different way.

  12. Your insight on the structure of Anee Sexton's poetry is remarakable. I have been studying her poetry for a class project and your blog has really helped me. I was just wondering about your ophinion on why she might have used this structure in her poetry? Perhaps she seeked control because she felt so helplessin other aspects of life because of her depression?


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.