by Anne Sexton
In A Nutshell
If this poem sounds like it's going to be familiar to you, you're right—"Cinderella" is a retelling of the classic fairy tale. Anne Sexton's fifth book of poems, Transformations, consists entirely of all repurposed (remixed) children's tales. Mostly known for her first-person confessional style (she's often compared to Sylvia Plath), Sexton's "Cinderella" might seem totally different in subject matter from a lot of her other work. But never fear. It still has a close, talkative style and darkness of theme that is the hallmark of Sexton's work. "Cinderella" is a retelling of the Grimms' version of the fairy tale—not Disney's. As you'll soon find out, the two are very different.
That's not a bad thing, though. Anne Sexton was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, helping (along with Plath) create a style of poetry that would leave a permanent mark on the genre—the "confessional" style. Her poems resonated with intensely personal (and often feminist) subject matter. They often dealt with depression, emotional turmoil, and death. "Cinderella," as told by Sexton, becomes infused with all of these elements—in true keeping with the twisted original story, but also with new tonal elements, feminist themes, and fresh comparisons that breathe life into what could otherwise be a tired tale.
"Cinderella" takes the Grimm (and grim) tale and modernizes it, comments on it, turns it sarcastic, heartbreaking, gruesome, and charming by turns. So hold on to your seats and prepare to see the glass-slippered princess in a whole new light. This is no ordinary fairy tale, and it's a model for how clichéd stories can come alive through brilliant poetry.
Why Should I Care?
Okay, so you know what a cliché is, right? It's a tired saying, like "you broke my heart," or "her eyes were as blue as the sea." The comparison was kind of cool the first time around—after all, a broken heart is a neat image if you think about it—but it's been used so much that we don't even think of the original, literal image anymore.
We probably don't have to tell you that clichés don't work so well in poetry. Poetry thrives on making the ordinary extraordinary, on taking a tiny little commonplace thing and making it strange and new. That's the exact opposite of cliché. If you want to be a good poet, you must avoid all clichés. And if you want to be a killer analyst of poetry, you'll want to figure out how the author avoids clichés. It's that simple. (Or, it's at least a good starting point.)
So what does any of this have to do with Anne Sexton's "Cinderella"? Well, think about the fact that the moment Disney touches anything, it's kind of an instant cliché. So the story of Cinderella, popularized as it was by Disney in 1950 (it pulled in $4 million that year—more than $438 million in today's dollars!), has become the subject of numerous clichés. We all know the phrase "a Cinderella story," which can sort of stand in for "rags-to-riches" (another cliché), though it usually involves more luck and less hard work. You might have even heard the phrase "turning into a pumpkin" meaning having to go home or obey a curfew. The story, like so many, has infiltrated our language.
So then, how in the world can "Cinderella" by Anne Sexton be anything other than a horrible series of clichés? After all, the subject matter has been so thoroughly integrated into pop culture that it's hard to see how she could possibly make anything original out of the story.
The fact that she does manage to do something new, fresh, and unexpected with the Cinderella story is, in a nutshell, why you should care about this poem. It's a case study of how to take a tired subject and make it new. If you're an aspiring poet, you should really take note of poems like these. The longer we stick around as humans, the more familiar and worn out everything becomes, from literary themes, to movie plotlines, to pop song lyrics. Finding a new idea can be really hard, which makes poetry nearly impossible. But Sexton's poem reminds us that there's something new in everything, even the most clichéd story, if you look hard enough and work hard enough at it. So read on, intrepid Shmoop followers, to see exactly how Sexton manages this dangerous and daring poetic feat.