Defining Poetry: Anne Sexton’s “Transformations”

by Laurel Myers

I must admit before getting into this essay that I had never read a full book of poetry before university. Like my fellow classmate, Hannah Denham, I picked up Leaves of Grass with the intention to read every page. Holding a book of poetry in and of itself felt extremely scholarly and, dare I say it, snooty, that I worried the entire time I had the book people would think I was pretentious. Only a couple pages in, I got lost in the metaphors and otherworldliness of Whitman’s verse. I felt as if I had failed the literary world by not understanding the twists and convolutions of language. Because of this, I never attempted another book of poetry and only read the infamously famous poems passed out by my English teachers and wrote half-hearted stanzas about my trip to Cambodia or how much I love clouds. (I really love clouds.) In those moments of putting words on notebook paper and forcing out iambic pentameter and choosing rhymes from nowhere, poetry was just another homework assignment, a nuisance keeping me from the stacks of science fiction and fantasy novels that said what they meant and meant what they said. At the time, I simply did not understand the purpose of poetry.

That is, until I read Anne Sexton’s Transformations.

When I start a book, I read the foreword (if there is one) and then the last page first. I have received confused stares, angry outbursts, and sheer exasperation for this unconventional practice, which is understandable, but I am set in my ways. Beginning Transformations in this fashion prepared me for the dark humor and surprising intimacy of Sexton’s writing. I was delighted that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had written the foreword, knowing that if my favorite satirist liked this book enough to write about it, I was in for something good. What struck me in his couple of pages was not something he said, but rather a quote from a friend: “I asked a poet friend one time what it was that poets did, and he thought awhile and then he told me, ‘They extend the language.’” This response partially answered my question of why someone would want to rewrite the Grimm fairy tales. We have the originals, we were read them at bedtime before slipping into dreams, and Disney has animated its fair share. However, there is always more to a story when an author as astonishing and introspective as Anne Sexton reimagines them while still staying true to the earliest versions of the tales. The forward, then, extended my expectations.

The last stanza of the last poem of her collection deserves the coveted spot, because the words linger long after the book is closed. They are the last impression, but just as important (if not more) as the first. Sexton ends “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” with these lines:

     What voyage this, little girl?

     This coming out of prison?

     God help—

     This life after death? 

After reading this, I knew an entire journey occurs, but was it through all of the poems or just this one? Is this what the transformation is about? Do the characters go on physical journeys or is the book itself a journey? Why were there so many questions at the end? Does Anne Sexton not even know how the story is supposed to end? Why did I have to read the end first again?

Questions make you look for their answers, and in poetry, the answers are usually found in the patterns. Or are they found when the pattern is broken? Professor Wheeler, who teaches Transformations in her class about speculative fiction in poetry, would propose that poetry is patterned language, and therefore both the existence of a pattern and then deliberately ignoring the pattern are goldmines for analysis. Reading any type of work for the purpose of writing a paper on it changes how you approach the text, and this is more than true when close reading and annotating a poem. Close reading can sometimes make me see the trees for the forest. I get stuck on a color that keeps popping up or the number of times a name appears in one poem. This can cause you to wonder if this was the reason for poetry, to write in the margins and circle motifs and draw arrows connecting ideas or images. Thankfully, discussing my findings during class and listening to my classmates helped me understand why the patterns that stood out to me were important in the big picture and teased the underlying meanings to the surface.

While reading Transformations, you do not have to look very hard to see that metaphors are everywhere. Sexton’s predilection for metaphors extends throughout the book, diving into her dark humor and curiously personal perspectives. Her use of this literary device causes the world of fairy tales and World War II to collide. Her lush comparisons sculpted scenes full of obsession and bizarrerie while constantly juxtaposing characters with delicious food and nature’s foliage. Because Sexton wrote this collection before my time, she also forced me to look up references to Thorazine, Limoges, and the Bobbsey Twins.

But poems are more than structure and what rhetorical devices are used. They are a conversation, an observation, a call for empathy. They are statements about something, be it political, religious, or simply what it means to be human. Poems are examinations of ourselves and of our world, of desires and losses. As Allison Curseen, a visiting professor, put forth with conviction, “Poetry is bodies talking.” Poetry is extended language, is patterned language, is all of these cursory definitions. But Anne Sexton’s poetry transcends all of these descriptions and stands as a stoic and stark reminder that the world may be a messy place, but you can make something worthwhile out of it. You may not get a happy ending—in fact, your ending may by full of question marks—but you are fully capable of creating a fairy tale journey along the way.

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