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Teaching May Swenson

The mentor/mentee relationship between Elizabeth Bishop and May Swenson as demonstrated by the May Swenson Papers allows an instructor to demonstrate not only women writing over time, but also how women interact in a community. Moreover, these materials situate May Swenson in her cultural and historical contexts, as well as introduce students to how Swenson and Bishop are received by scholars.

The digitized materials on this site provide instructors in either Women's Studies or Literature with a prepared teaching block that gives students not only a sense of who May Swenson was as a poet, but also who she was as a person. The selected materials enable students to follow the creative process from beginning to end and to see what comprises an archive: multiple drafts of original creative work; personal scholarly responses from friends like Elizabeth Bishop; as well as, published criticism from scholarly and/or academic books and journals. From this, students will understand what one can do with these irreplaceable materials and how these objects are the source for an abundance of scholarship, both good and bad. While using digitized materials is not a substitute for handling the originals, by making these documents available in electronic form, these digitized materials are available to all students at any time.

In addition to a sample syllabus, there are also other shorter suggested exercises that could be used in the classroom for one class period or over the course of two or three.

Sample Syllabus

One of the first challenges of teaching with archives is selecting a manageable and coherent set of materials. The following is a sample syllabus that covers about three weeks of classes and is appropriate for either a course in literature or Women and Gender Studies.

Materials to be Used

  • May Swenson, The Complete Love Poems, pp. ix, 10, 14, 21, 26, 76, 105, 127
  • May Swenson, The Complete Love Poems, pp. 18, 41, 50, 109, 133; "Dear Elizabeth," "Women"
  • Elizabeth Bishop, "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore," "The Shampoo," "One Art," "Roosters;" May Swenson, "In the Bodies of Words"
  • Finding aids for May Swenson Papers
  • "I'll be your Mirror, Reflect What you Are" by Marvin Taylor
  • "'In the Bodies of Words': The Swenson-Bishop Conversation" Parnassus 2002, Neil Arditi
  • Bishop-Swenson Letters in Special Collections Dated:
    • June 4, 1958
    • November 11, 1971
    • October 21, 1971
    • October 16, 1971
    • October 27, 1969
    • April 12, 1979
    • December 2, 1978
    • November 8, 1979 plus enclosed poem
  • "Bleeding," mss. (Series II.3.a. Box 43 Folder 306a Iconographs Drafts with titles beginning B to O (first folder) ca. 215 pp)
  • "Women," mss. (Series II.3.a. Box 44 Folder 307b Iconographs Drafts P to Z (second folder) ca. 200 pp) (See images below)
  • "Elizabeth Bishop-May Swenson Correspondence" Paris Review Summer 1994, Richard Howard
  • Bishop-Swenson letters in Special Collections dated
  • Dear Elizabeth [poem]. 1963:Sept 17-1965:June 9. Ts. 22 drafts, 22p.

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    Short Exercises

    Study the drafts of "Women"

    "Women," one of May Swenson's "shape poems" appeared in Iconographs in 1970. There are six versions of "Women" in the May Swenson Papers housed by Washington University in St. Louis. Study these images and analyze Swenson's revising process. How is the final "shaped" version of "Women" different from the earlier regular forms? Does it alter the reading and interpretations of the poem? How?

    Cover Page of "Women" manuscripts.
    Page one of a handwritten draft of "Women."
    Page two of a handwritten draft of "Women."
    Draft of "Women."
    Draft of "Women."
    Draft of "Women."
    Draft of "Women."
    Draft of "Women."
    Original versus Published, Edited Materials

    Compare and contrast the transcriptions and/or images of the letters related to the composition of "Dear Elizabeth" with the edited published version found in "Elizabeth Bishop--May Swenson correspondence" by Richard Howard in the Summer 1994 issue of the Paris Review beginning on page 171 (both the print and electronic full-text version should be used). Does Howard's editing influence your impression of the relationship between Swenson and Bishop? How so? Is it different from that gained by reading the full original letters? How so? Finally, did you notice any errors in the published text when you checked it against the original? Was it in the print version, the electronic text, or both? If you found errors, are they significant? Why or why not?

    Mentorship and Friendship between Poets

    Swenson and Bishop are just one example of poets collaborating in the creative process. Analyze other mentor/mentee relationships between poets and how they are represented in an author's poetry. Consider one of the following pairings or others that you discover.

    • Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, particularly as demonstrated by "An Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore" by Bishop.
    • Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, particularly three published poems "The Victor Dog," "Her Craft," and "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia" and "Three Dreams about Elizabeth Bishop," an unpublished poem found within the James Merrill Papers.
      For further information on James Merrill consult the Merrill site found within the Final Versions main site.
    • Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich as shown in Rich's "I Am in Danger--Sir--" available in the Norton Anthology of Women's Literature

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