Writing “Mrs. Sisyphus”Posted: November 28, 2011
The manuscript and notes for Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Mrs. Sisyphus” from The World’s Wife do a good job illustrating the creative process that she went through in writing the poem. When I think of how authors write poetry and fiction, I imagine that a writer mostly constructs the phrases and sentences in his head, puts them down on paper, and then edits them. This is what one might call a free-writing. However, Duffy’s manuscript for “Mrs. Sisyphus” includes a grid at the top of the page where she wrote out a list of thirty-six rhyming words that ended with k, e.g., cork, dork, lark, mark. Many of these were chosen for the poem, but some like quark and pork were wisely excluded. I noted that this list takes up more than 1/3 of the total page space of the manuscript for the poem, and was written down before any of the poetry. So, it appears that Duffy did one of two things: either she started her writing by coming up with the list of words and then constructed the lines of poetry around those words (which is what the page layout might suggest), or she knew how she would write most of the poems and merely needed to find rhyming to words to fit into those lines. It’s unclear to me which part of writing came first, but in either case, Duffy’s writing doesn’t quite resemble the kind of free-form process that I imagined. The presence of the grid displays a kind of methodical planning that I don’t normally associate with this kind of creative writing. It’s difficult for me to articulate exactly how this is significant, but it definitely struck me. It actually reminded me of a recipe from a cookbook.
I also noticed that right after the poem, she wrote a note about “The Lesbian Rule” and included a definition from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Apparently this is the term for an ancient flexible lead ruler used to measure corners on the Greek island of Lesbos, and so it figuratively means a rule that is easily bent as needed. I have no idea why she made this note. Maybe it was just something on her mind that she wanted to get down on paper. In any case, it was puzzling to me.