Anne Sexton uses fairy tales as the foundation for some of her poems. Why does she do so, and how does understanding this inform one's reading of the poems, and the poems affect one's perceptions of the fairy tales?
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Anne Sexton's work is defined as autobiographical in nature. Perhaps of all the things we might search for in her writing, this element is most important—most central to understanding her poetry.
Sexton's earlier writings are classified as "confessional poetry." Her work speaks directly from her own feelings. The most overwhelming of these feelings for Sexton is "anguish." This theme can be found, for instance, in her poem entitled "Lobster"—the contemplation of a lobster lost, aimlessly wandering until "his" death—unable to understand or control his fate. Knowing of Sexton's struggles with mental illness and years spent in psychoanalysis, perhaps her sense of "anguish" is not surprising.
Though she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (in poetry) for Live or Die, she received both high praise and harsh criticism. One critic complained of her earlier work:
When her artistic control falters the recital of grief and misery becomes embarrassing, the repetitive material starts to grow tedious, the poetic gives way to the clinical and the confessional.
However, critics noted, optimistically, a perceptible shift when Sexton began "her retelling of Grimm's fairy tales" in the aptly named Transformations. This move away from "confessional poetry" allowed the author to display her technique with greater effect, while creating "an eerie realm."
In Sexton's fairy tales, she could chase after the shadows that haunted her waking hours without presenting stark personal confessions. She was able to demonstrate her gift for writing and telling a tale in a manner that while disconcerting, separated her from the action of the poem—shifting attention away from her personally. She became a storyteller. Her writing was still cathartic, but directed attention away from the writer and on to the theme at hand. Despite the change in style, Sexton was still able to write about things that were important to her. She also seemed to have met with less resistance from literary critics.
Sexton's fairy tales include new versions of Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty), but their fates are anything but "happily-ever-after" as Disney and others have presented them. Critics noted that in Transformations, Sexton creates "a wild, blood-curdling, astonishing book." The unexpected twists engage the reader, creep up on him or her, and cause each to "plunge into [Sexton's] personal nightmare."
In knowing the original versions of these stories, the reader is better able to understand Sexton's struggle with the unrealistic nature of stories with which children were raised—believing them to be true. The fact that her marriage and family life were in shambles would support her difficulty in identifying with these idealized stories. And in reading Sexton's poems, one might be better able to comprehend her disillusionment with ordinary girls whose lives were transformed with a kiss. Sexton's presentation of Sleeping Beauty's fate is quite different:
“Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” becomes a tortured insomniac after being awakened by her prince and never knows the sleep of death.
While Sexton was certainly recognized for her writing, amid criticism and praise, Transformations, her versions of Grimm's fairy tales, provided some distance between the characters and their problems and Sexton's own life. In this way she was not only able to write about her difficulties, as she had been encouraged to do by her therapist many years before, but she also found a vehicle with which to do so, where her literary skills were the focus of critiques rather than an airing of her problems to audiences that often had the inability to appreciate or understand her "confessional" style of poetry.
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