[lit-ideas] Re: Sextoniana

  • From: "" <dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> (Redacted sender "Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx" for DMARC)
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2014 05:33:53 -0500

Thanks to L. Helm for his further commentary.
I can see Kumin's point when she writes, as quoted by Helm.
"the reviewers [and not just them] were not always kind to Anne [Sexton]'s  
Compare this with the Wikipedia fragment below (Anne Sexton entry):
"Sexton's work towards the end of 
the sixties has been criticized as "preening, lazy and flip" 
by otherwise respectful critics.[8] Some critics r
egard her dependence on alcohol as compromising her last work."
(This was vis-à-vis Helm's previous remark, "but then recently I read  
something indicating that her reputation has been rehabilitated.  Who am I  to 
say that can’t happen after discovering that Billy Harkness was  
We were discussing with L. Helm, Kumin, "Women poets in particular owe a  
debt to Anne Sexton" -- which sounded too specific by Griceian maxims (do not 
be  more informative than is required) and minimising claims like "Humanity 
should  owe a debt to Sexton").
Helm charmingly brings in some background for Kumin, who was "big into  
Women's poetry". To this effect, he quotes an ingenious footnote by Kumin:
"Before there was a Women's Movement, the underground river was already  
flowing, carrying such diverse cargoes as the poems of Bogan, Levertov,  
Rukeyser, Swenson, Plath, Rich,  and Sexton" -- at which point Kumin  
"I have omitted from this list Elizabeth Bishop,  who chose not  to have her 
work included in anthologies of women poets."
And this is interesting in three respects:
i. the meaning of 'anthology'.
ii. Bishop vs. Sexton
iii. As a trope discussed I think by Quintilian and often used by Cicero  
("I should not of course mention X, who etc. etc. etc."). There is a name for 
 this sort of interesting contradictory figure of speech.
Re (i) Kumin seems to be taking 'my work is included in an anthology of X'  
as criterion for saying that poet P is an X type of Poet. One can provide  
analogies, as there probably are. I suppose one has to take Bishop's "chose 
not  to" to mean "forbade to" (and good luck to L. Helm in finding Sexton 
poems with  titles that won't mislead and keep the reporting!). The issue of 
'anthology' is  an interesting one and Daniel Balderston has done work on 
this. Since the "Greek  anthology" (ANTHOLOGIA GRAECA, published in the Loeb 
Classical Library), the  idea of an anthology connects with what Bloom calls a 
Re ii. By browsing the Anne Sexton entry in Wikipedia and its links I found 
 this interesting reference to the OPERA:
""Transformations" went on to become one of the most frequently performed  
by an American composer.'
'Its chamber opera format has made it particularly popular with smaller  
opera companies and conservatories."
"Notable US revivals include those at 
The Spoleto Festival USA, 1980.
Aspen Music Festival with Renée Fleming as Anne Sexton, 1982.
New York Opera Repertory Theater in New York City, 1987.
Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City, 1996.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 1997.
Peabody Institute, 1999 and 2010.
San Francisco Opera's Merola Program with the composer in the audience,  
University of Maryland Opera Studio, 2007
The Juilliard School, 2010.
Although it has remained relatively unknown in Europe, "Transformations"  
had its UK premiere in 1978 performed by the English Music Theatre Company 
and  was one of the featured operas of the 2006 Wexford Opera Festival in  
The Wexford production, directed by Michael Barker-Caven, won the 2006"  
Irish Times" Theatre Award for Best Opera Production.
The continental European premiere, directed by Elsa Rooke, was given at the 
 Lausanne Opera in June 2006. 
The original Minnesota Opera production was set in a mental hospital, a  
setting used in most of its revivals. 
However, the 2006 San Francisco production was set in an outdoor party in  
1970s American suburbia, while the 2007 University of Maryland production 
was  set in a 1970s nightclub (complete with a disco ball) and modelled on 
Studio 54. 
The opera was given an arcadian setting when it was performed in 1980 at  
San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts by San Francisco Spring Opera in a  
production designed by Thomas Munn."
"The musical style is eclectic with multiple references to American popular 
 music, dance rhythms, and artists of the 1940s and 1950s". Sexton liked 
it, had  it recorded, and played it often.
For the record, in lieu of the poems themselves, I quote about the context. 
Scene 1. The Gold Key – (to Grimm's Tales). 
The speaker, Sexton herself 
(as a "middle-aged witch", her frequent alter-ego), 
addresses an audience of adults by their first names. 
Children, the stereotypical audience for fairy tales, are 
nowhere mentioned. She then tells the story of a 
16-year-old youth searching for answers, whom she proclaims 
to be "each of us". He eventually finds a gold key 
that unlocks the book of Grimm's 
Fairy Tales in their transformed state.
* * * 
Scene 2. The first Grimm tale:
Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs – 
The vanity, fragility and naiveté of 
Snow White ("a dumb bunny" who must be protected by the dwarfs) 
eventually lead to her becoming the mirror image of her wicked  step-mother.
* * * 
Scene 3. The White Snake 
Sexton satirizes marriage as a kind of "deathly stasis",
writing of the young husband and wife, 
"they were placed in a box and 
painted identically blue and thus 
passed their days living happily ever after – 
a kind of coffin".
* * * * 
Scene 4. 
Iron Hans – 
The wild man, Iron Hans, 
eventually freed from his cage 
becomes a 
parable for Sexton's own struggles with insanity and 
society's ambivalence to the mentally ill.
* * * *
Scene 5. Rumpelstiltskin – 
Sexton's sardonic view of motherhood, 
"He was like most new babies, as 
ugly as an artichoke but the Queen thought him a pearl",
co-exists with an urge to 
identify NOT with the protagonist/winner of the tale 
(the former miller's daughter who becomes Queen) 
but rather with the antagonist/loser (Rumpelstiltskin), 
a theme which recurs in the 
following scene, Rapunzel.
Scene 6. Rapunzel – 
Sexton portrays the witch, Mother Gothal, 
as a lesbian in love with Rapunzel, the young girl 
she has imprisoned. In the opera, Mother Gothal and Rapunzel 
sing a duet to 
"A woman who loves another woman is forever young". 
Roger Brunyate, who directed the 1999 production at the Peabody Institute, 
also sees clear allusions in the story to Sexton's beloved great-aunt, who  
died in a mental institution.
Scene 7. Godfather Death – 
Sexton's version sticks fairly closely to the Grimms' narrative, and is  
used to explore 
the simultaneous desire for and fear of death. The first 
stanza portrays death as a state of sexual frustration rather than the  
beginning of an afterlife: 
"Hurry, Godfather death, Mister tyranny, 
each message you give has a dance to it, 
a fish twitch, a little crotch dance".
The theme is reinforced by the explicit sexual desire which leads to the  
physician's fatal defiance of his Godfather.
Scene 8. The Wonderful Musician – 
In the introductory lines to the tale, 
"My sisters, do you remember the fiddlers of your youth? 
Those dances so like a drunkard lighting a fire in the belly?"
Sexton explicitly compares women's sexual response to music with the  
response of the animals whom the Wonderful Musician enchants and then cruelly  
The scene can be read as a cautionary tale about the demonic power of  
music, but on a deeper level about women cooperating in their own  
Scene 9. Hansel and Gretel – 
The Grimms' Hansel and Gretel is one of their darkest tales [and of course  
the subject of ANOTHER opera by itself].
Two young children repeatedly abandoned in a forest by their father and  
narrowly escape from a cannibal witch by burning her alive in her own oven. 
Sexton follows the story quite closely but makes it even more disturbing by 
 an introduction in which a mother affectionately pretends to "eat up" her 
little  boy (sung in the opera as "The Witch's Lullaby"). 
The conflation of mother love with cannibalism becomes explicit as the  
mother's language becomes increasingly sadistic.
 "I want to bite, I want to chew [...] I have a pan that will fit you.  
Just pull up your knees like a game hen."
Scene 10. Briar Rose (The Grimms' variant of "Sleeping Beauty") – 
Sexton eliminates Briar Rose's mother from the narrative and changes the  
ending of the tale considerably. 
As in the original, the Prince awakens Briar Rose from her 100 year sleep  
with a kiss, and the couple marry. 
However, her first words on being awakened are 
"Daddy! Daddy!"
and for the rest of her life Briar Rose suffers from insomnia.
The tale itself is fairly short, preceded and followed by lengthy  
autobiographical stanzas in which Sexton explicitly alludes to her own  
history involving controversial "recovered memories" of sexual abuse  by her 
father and dissociative trance states

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