Writing “Mrs. Sisyphus”

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.

7 Comments on “Writing “Mrs. Sisyphus””

  1. Brian Croxall says:

    Interesting reflections, Jordan. We see here, perhaps, that writing is actually as formulaic as “research” in other fields. Did you see her making any corrections or was the list enough for her to get going?

  2. Reina Factor says:

    I find it so interesting that she writes by creating lists of rhyming words. It kind of makes sense when you think about it if she knew she wanted to use that noise throughout her poem. How do you think she chose the words to use? Do you think this is her way of writing on all poems, or was this unique to this poem?

  3. Zach Sold says:

    I really like that you acknowledge the ways in which Duffy’s writing process differed from what you were expecting. It is certainly important to recognize that literature at this level is not simply a stream of consciousness that come off the top of a writers’ head. As Duffy utilizes the various techniques of rhetoric and craft that we discussed in class, her poems all must have required a great deal of planning as well as revision. As a creative writing major, all our teachers tell us is that writing is entirely composed of revision and Duffy’s work is no exception.
    It is also interesting how she plans differently for this specific poem. As Professor Croxall showed us in class the “ark” sound that is repeated throughout the poem is meant to reflect the struggle of Sisyphus as he pushes his boulder. Thus, it seems that Duffy’s list of works with this sound is specific to the plan she had for this poem. This again is certainly evidence of Duffy’s forethought in the writing process and a unique aspect of her style.

  4. Tim Webber says:

    I too was surprised by the way Duffy seemed to work off of a grid-like pattern with several of her poems. In addition to the lists of words, I also noticed how she seemed to plot out some poems in terms of meter on a line-by-line basis. In cases like these, it seemed like Duffy was working more like she was putting a puzzle together than she was trying to write prose.

  5. Joe Dixon says:

    I thought about the process also. In the case of my poems I was surprised that she did not seem to write down her concepts. To me, it seemed as though she thought of a concept and poem in her head and writing it down was simply to edit and add. I think the grid like words could have been simply to help and expand on her thoughts.

  6. Michael Bolleter says:

    I find it interesting that the best writers plan and revise frequently. This process of constant revision seems at odds with the way that many students write. Putting words onto a page at the last minute, only writing one draft, with a focus on word count over impact. I wonder if students would be better writers if we were forced to work through multiple revisions before the final paper was graded, rather than turning it all in at once.

  7. Jordan Nissensohn says:

    Its really interesting to question whether Duffy wrote the lines around those words or simply used the words to neaten up a pre-composed piece. Since reading that bit in your post, I can’t stop thinking about the implications of such a question. For whatever uncontrollable reason, in my mind, I have to take away some of Duffy’s credibility had she written the poem around rhyme words. I also realize that this is an unfair disposition and isn’t warranted. I think this reaction is really dealing with the issue between art and artist. Does it really matter what the artist was thinking when they created the masterpiece? Should it be concerning what process the artist used to create the brilliant piece of work or is it only the viewer’s personal experience with the composition that is important? I’m starting to believe that the better, more inspring the final product, the more redundant the artist becomes.