The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny” is a forty-six-line poem arranged in four stanzas. Jacob Grimm and his brother Wilhelm were well-known nineteenth century German collectors of fairy tales. As the title indicates, the poet is reading these fairy tales to her daughter Jenny. In later collections, the poem includes the subtitle “Dead means somebody has to kiss you,” which shows that Jenny is young enough to form her image of death from a fairy tale, specifically from the story of Snow White, who was awakened from deathlike sleep by a kiss. Although the poet seems to be addressing the child, she is not speaking but thinking the poem while reading fairy tales aloud. In fact, the poet is arguing with herself. By implication, she is also arguing with her contemporary American peers, many of whom disapprove of fairy tales for children in the belief that they present a false picture of life.

In the first stanza, the poet contrasts Jenny’s “black and white” world, in which things happen by magic, with the poet’s “real world,” which functions by negotiating (“gray foxes and gray wolves/ bargain eye to eye”) and by doing what it takes to survive (“the amazing dove/ takes shelter under the wing/ of the raven to keep dry”). In the second and third stanzas, the poet asks herself why she lies to the child by allowing oversimplified fairy-tale values to seem real when she knows that one day Jenny will have to live in the adult world and...

(The entire section is 457 words.)