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Cinderella -- a Poetry Friday post

Fairy tales are potent things, as any writer knows. Especially the original versions, in all their dark and twisty glory. They speak to the psyche, the way a poem does. They have the power of dreams, the resonance of myth. Not surprisingly, the imagery, emotion and themes contained in fairy tales frequently find their way into poems. Sometimes, the connection is on an unconscious level, because the fairy tales continue to resonate for life. Sometimes, the references are conscious, as in "The Little Match Girl" by Bob King, a survivor of ritual abuse. And sometimes, the poem is a retelling. William McGonagall wrote a version of The Little Match Girl in verse, based on Hans Christian Anderson's story.

And Anne Sexton wrote a version of that most popular of all tales, Cinderella. Sexton was considered a "confessional" poet, like W.D. Snodgrass or Robert Lowell, because of the appearance that her poems echoed her life, even though most were, in fact, fictionalized. However, the fear and angst her poems described resonated with readers alive in the middle of the 20th century, who lived in continual fear of "the bomb" and were dealing with major shifts such as women joining the workforce and the upsurging of the civil rights movement.

Here's Anne Sexton's sardonic take on a classic.


You always read about it:
the plumber with the twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
That story.

Or the nursemaid,
some luscious sweet from Denmark
who captures the oldest son's heart.
from diapers to Dior.
That story.

Or a milkman who serves the wealthy,
eggs, cream, butter, yogurt, milk,
the white truck like an ambulance
who goes into real estate
and makes a pile.
From homogenized to martinis at lunch.

Or the charwoman
who is on the bus when it cracks up
and collects enough from the insurance.
From mops to Bonwit Teller.
That story.

the wife of a rich man was on her deathbed
and she said to her daughter Cinderella:
Be devout. Be good. Then I will smile
down from heaven in the seam of a cloud.
The man took another wife who had
two daughters, pretty enough
but with hearts like blackjacks.
Cinderella was their maid.
She slept on the sooty hearth each night
and walked around looking like Al Jolson.
Her father brought presents home from town,
jewels and gowns for the other women
but the twig of a tree for Cinderella.
She planted that twig on her mother's grave
and it grew to a tree where a white dove sat.
Whenever she wished for anything the dove
would drop it like an egg upon the ground.
The bird is important, my dears, so heed him.

Next came the ball, as you all know.
It was a marriage market.
The prince was looking for a wife.
All but Cinderella were preparing
and gussying up for the event.
Cinderella begged to go too.
Her stepmother threw a dish of lentils
into the cinders and said: Pick them
up in an hour and you shall go.
The white dove brought all his friends;
all the warm wings of the fatherland came,
and picked up the lentils in a jiffy.
No, Cinderella, said the stepmother,
you have no clothes and cannot dance.
That's the way with stepmothers.

Cinderella went to the tree at the grave
and cried forth like a gospel singer:
Mama! Mama! My turtledove,
send me to the prince's ball!
The bird dropped down a golden dress
and delicate little slippers.
Rather a large package for a simple bird.
So she went. Which is no surprise.
Her stepmother and sisters didn't
recognize her without her cinder face
and the prince took her hand on the spot
and danced with no other the whole day.

As nightfall came she thought she'd better
get home. The prince walked her home
and she disappeared into the pigeon house
and although the prince took an axe and broke
it open she was gone. Back to her cinders.
These events repeated themselves for three days.
However on the third day the prince
covered the palace steps with cobbler's wax
and Cinderella's gold shoe stuck upon it.
Now he would find whom the shoe fit
and find his strange dancing girl for keeps.
He went to their house and the two sisters
were delighted because they had lovely feet.
The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
but her big toe got in the way so she simply
sliced it off and put on the slipper.
The prince rode away with her until the white dove
told him to look at the blood pouring forth.
That is the way with amputations.
They just don't heal up like a wish.
The other sister cut off her heel
but the blood told as blood will.
The prince was getting tired.
He began to feel like a shoe salesman.
But he gave it one last try.
This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
like a love letter into its envelope.

At the wedding ceremony
the two sisters came to curry favor
and the white dove pecked their eyes out.
Two hollow spots were left
like soup spoons.

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

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( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 3rd, 2006 03:12 pm (UTC)
Love this, Kelly. Thanks for sharing it. One of the things I love most about your Poetry Friday posts is the bits of background that accompany the poems you post.

Lazy me, I just post the poem.
Nov. 3rd, 2006 03:59 pm (UTC)
Yeah, well . . . I don't work a full-time job like you do, so I have the time to research it. :)
Nov. 3rd, 2006 03:41 pm (UTC)
This is great! I will need to investigate further on Anne Sexton...thanks!
Nov. 3rd, 2006 03:59 pm (UTC)
The song I referenced, Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel, is a tribute to her. She was a rather interesting sort -- unstable, tried many times to kill herself. Ultimately succeeded by using a running car in a garage. Was abused by her parents, abused her own kids, abused by her husband in later years as she became famous. Very confessional sorts of poetry, and most folks thought they "knew" her because of them. Was a contemporary of Plath and others -- Maxine Kumin was one of her best friends. And she was a true beauty, too.
Nov. 3rd, 2006 04:38 pm (UTC)
WoW! you got me on this one... She's probably gunna end up on my "list"!

It's a weird thing...so, many artists, writers and musicians get their genius from such pain...I sometimes rationalize my lack of success with just "too normal" of an upbringing...sure I lost a dad at a very young age, never really knew him, raised a "single parent" before that became vogue...had drunks for grandparents that I was in their care almost every weekend of my life til I left for art school....but nobody beat me and I wasn't addicted to life-threatening drugs and I never seriously entertained thoughts of suicide...none of the "standard formula" for REAL genius-pain! ;-)
Nov. 3rd, 2006 07:37 pm (UTC)
I hear you. I grew up merely moving a lot and with parents who don't truly "get" me. Not nearly horrid enough to qualify as bad, just enough to qualify as odd.

I'm guessing that if you research Anne, you might love her just a little. Not in the way you might love Sylvia Plath, but I'm pretty sure you'll dig her.
Nov. 3rd, 2006 07:53 pm (UTC)
I already had Sylvia on my list. I liked the movie w/ Gwyneth and so i wanted to see "how close" it was... and BELL JAR was THE chic-must-read book of the early seventies (my wife, MJ has a well-worn paperback on her bookshelf), so the name already had my interest....

It is interesting these two "depressed" women writers stirring things up those early turbulent--creative-wise--times of the late fifties / early sixties...both have ties to massachusetts....

so yeah! Thanks for introducing me to a couple of more Massachusetts female writers, I'm lovin' 'em already!
Nov. 3rd, 2006 06:15 pm (UTC)
I have a long running relationship to Anne Sexton, in my head only, of course.

Anne Sexton was the first poet I really felt like I got. I read everything I could about her in high school and college.

During a Peter Gabriel concert when I was a kid, some freak, drunk college boy tried to grope me during the MERCY STREET song, which prompted 800 million autographs in my high school year book saying, "How is your lovely date from the PG concert doing?" and "Broken anybody's toes lately."

In college during a tryout for STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE part of the tryout was reading Anne Sexton's poem, MERCY STREET, or is it 24 MERCY STREET? I can't remember. Wow, I'm getting old. I got the part, mostly because I knew the poem so well it was EASY to recite it.

Finally, a poem about Anne Sexton watching a mommy and me swimming class at the Y, was the first poem I ever had published.

I'm going to have to go dig out my old Anne Sexton books. You've totally inspired me. Really. I have a whole new idea for a story because of this. You and poetry Fridays are the best.


I'm sorry I went on so long. I'm procrastinating.
Nov. 3rd, 2006 07:29 pm (UTC)
Re: I have a whole new idea for a story because of this.
You have no idea how happy that makes me, and how touched I am that my little post was a contributor.

Happy writing.
Nov. 3rd, 2006 07:56 pm (UTC)
45 Mercy Street
Nov. 3rd, 2006 07:46 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes, Anne Sexton. This post brought up memories of being in grad school and reading poetry...Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop, etc.

I hadn't seen this one before...she's got such an incisive voice. It really forces me to listen to her. Thanks for posting it.
Nov. 3rd, 2006 09:48 pm (UTC)
I just love how it relays the story so well in all its brutal glory, while snidely commenting on the improbability of it (like the dove carrying a dress and shoes), and then mocking the ending. I thought it was genius.

I'm pretty sure that Sexton and Plath are still popular among college-age females for their ennui, etc. They were definitely screwed up, but oh-so-talented.
Nov. 3rd, 2006 09:23 pm (UTC)
This is my favorite Sexton poem. Kelly, have you read Sexton's daughter's book about her mom? It has been a long time, but I remember it as being pretty moving.
Nov. 3rd, 2006 09:56 pm (UTC)
Why no, Linda Urban (who posted anonymously), I haven't read Sexton's daughter's book. I would assume it might be a bit Mommy Dearest, since Sexton abused her kids and then turned into a suicidal alcoholic.
Nov. 4th, 2006 12:40 am (UTC)
Nov. 4th, 2006 03:52 am (UTC)
Cool, no?
Nov. 10th, 2006 05:36 am (UTC)
Kelly, I don't know how I missed seeing this one last week. I love Anne Sexton's "fairy tale" poems. They are so brutal and funny and awful all at once. I've been meaning to post one, but couldn't choose and then couldn't work up the energy to preface the poem so that people would understand it (as you have done so well).


Nancy (www.journey-woman.blogspot.com)
Nov. 10th, 2006 05:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the compliment. It was a pretty fabulous poem, I agree. Makes me want to try something like that myself, but I'm not sure I could pull it off.

Do you have a feed over to LJ? Being a dolt on Blogger, I can't figure out how to "friend" people over their or have them show on my Blogger page. I'll have to give it more time and energy, I suspect. I'm also contemplating whether to cross-post over there.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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