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Joyce Sutphen, "Poems into Poems"


I began memorizing poems when I was old, but younger than I am now.   At first it was an attempt to fill time when I was working at a job that didn’t require much thinking or talking, so I memorized “The Tyger,” by William Blake, a poem that I had always loved for its rhythm and images.  The next thing I memorized was Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 60”— I can’t remember what prompted that choice, but I was fond of the way the sound of the first line, “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,” seemed to replicate (in a funny way) the sound of waves coming in on the shore.

Not long after the boring job, I decided to go to graduate school, where I took courses in literary studies, creative writing (emphasis in fiction and memoir), and began work on a dissertation in Shakespeare studies.   My topic turned out to be memory—Shakespeare and just about anything that had to do with remembering and forgetting.  I started out interested in the political aspects of memory in Hamlet, but I soon became intrigued with the lost “arte of memorie,” which seemed to have been buried by the printed page and the sands of time.  Along the way I learned how important it once had been to have texts archived in the mind, so that a person had their own private library always available—and, to make a long story very short, I decided that I would try to memorize as many poems as I could.

Since a major portion of my dissertation had to do with the way memory worked in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I thought it might be a good idea to memorize as many of those as I could—especially ones that had to do with my topic, figuring that if I knew a poem inside and out, I might have something interesting to say about it.  I also thought I might come to understand memory (and the process of memorizing) better if I was more actively involved—though it was disappointing to discover that I myself did not naturally have a good memory; I really had to work at getting a poem imprinted in the “book and volume” of my brain!

I had plenty of time for learning and relearning lines each morning and evening as I commuted to work at a small college about an hour away from my home.   I was ABD when I took the job –and it probably postponed the completion of my dissertation by a year or so, but two things about it were especially important to me as a poet:  the first was that from the start people at this college encouraged me as a poet (even though I had only published a few poems), and the second was that the commute gave me a perfect amount of time and space to memorize and think about poems.  I had begun writing poems a year or so earlier—partly because I wanted a break from the big prose project of the dissertation, and partly because learning those sonnets in the car had started me thinking in terms of the little room that a poem—especially one as structured as the sonnet.  I began to think of ways to fill that room.

My first poems weren’t formal, nor were they in form, but they were influenced (I can see that now) by the themes of the things I was archiving in my head:  for instance, when I began  a poem with the phrase “That is not the country” and ended the line with “for poetry,” I was thinking (although unconsciously) about Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” which begins with “That is not the country for old men,” and about the landscape of farms and small towns that I was seeing along my drive.  When I thought about Death, “checking me out,” it was, I realize now, a continuation of Emily Dickinson’s personification of Death, carried into my body.  There are all sorts of places in my first and second books where I see the influence of what I was memorizing and thinking about, sometimes to an almost excessive degree.  Take this poem from my second book (Coming Back to the Body)

                        Her Legendary Head


This is the way the woman in

a Picasso painting feels, with her

mobile nose holding two eyes

to one side, her quivering lip

ascending into a pointed chin.


The world is now (and she

can hear its roar) all a blood-

dimmed tide, things fall

apart and then together, banged

and whimpering they begin.


All her life, she was up to

her neck in marble, and

the gyres in her head.  Just

another woman in pieces,

inventory lost, instructions


too small to read. Broken

the lines of her, a memorially

reconstructed version, awaiting

the detection of each separate

and mysterious error.


The title, for starters, comes from Rilke.  I had recently memorized that lovely poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which begins with “We cannot know his legendary head,” and I’d fallen in love with the combination of “legendary” and “head.”  Who knows why—I just loved it, but actually, the title came last.  What came first was the absolutely genuine statement:  “This is the way the woman in / a Picasso painting feels,” followed by an attempt to evoke the distorted face of a Picasso woman. 

The next stanza has traces of “Dover Beach” (“she / can hear its ‘roar’”) and “The Second Coming” (“things fall apart”) and “The Hollow Men” (“banged / and whimpering”). It’s a very unfriendly world—a “Wasteland.”

The third stanza is partly Picasso again, thinking of the cubist (and often massive) shapes used to present women, partly Yeats (“gyres”) and partly pun (“gyres” evoking “gears”), ending  with another genuine statement:  “Just / another woman in pieces / inventory lost, instructions / too small to read.”

The last stanza isn’t so much an echo of memorized lines, but a reflection on the faultiness of memory—and the unsteady sense that despite a skillful glue job, this woman has been broken and someone—a very careful observer, a reader of poems perhaps—will be able to see that. 

As time goes by, I continue to memorize poems—my composition practices always lagging slightly behind what I’ve stored in my memory (and bones, I like to think).  It took years for me to write a (fairly) perfect Shakespearean sonnet, though I experimented voluminously with a whole array ways to arrange fourteen lines of (most often) ten syllables. I began to have an uncanny sense of iambic pentameter and a premonition when I had reached the penultimate line.  Meanwhile, I am memorizing longer things—Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore;”  I haven’t written anything like either of these, but I think about them often—as I do poems by Emily Dickinson and Theodore Roethke that live in my memory.  They make good company, if nothing else.



Joyce Sutphen’s first book of poetry, Straight Out of View, won the Barnard New Women’s Poets Prize (Beacon Press,1995). Her second book of poems, Coming Back to the Body (Holy Cow! Press, 2000), was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award, and her third book, Naming the Stars (Holy Cow! Press, 2004), won the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. Her latest collection is First Words (Red Dragonfly Press, 2010).   She is one of the co-editors of To Sing Along the Way, an anthology of Minnesota women poets (New Rivers Press, 2006), and her poems have appeared in The Great River Review, Water~stone Review, Magma,and online at The Poetry Foundation and The Writer’s Almanac.  She teaches literature and creative writing at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.



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