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Elizabeth Bishop as May Swenson's Mentor

In a letter dated June 4, 1958, Elizabeth Bishop responds to May Swenson's request that Bishop criticize Swenson's poetry. As the images of this four-page letter demonstrate, after reading this letter, May Swenson marked ten points of criticism which she appears to have taken into consideration when writing her poem "Dear Elizabeth: A Reply to Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil."

  1. "I do think that you are old enough, developed enough, to know what you're trying to do."
  2. "One of my criticisms was several City poems came together at the end, and I thought they'd better be rearranged or else one or two should be left out for the next occassion-"
  3. "One or the other of these has probably been done already; and the omissions include most of the poems I felt least enthusiaism for ("Soothsayers", for one) - so some of my criticism was very stupid.-"
  4. "you are experimental and also prolific"
  5. "no one ever takes the trouble to criticise -and although one can't get much help about the big things I think help with the little things is always welcome"
    1. mis-use of words
    2. over-use of some words
    3. echoes of other people
    4. lack of grammatical clarity
    5. bad meter
  6. "You know already that I don't care for those forms that look as though the printer dropped them on the floor, or as if they had started sagging in his hands."
  7. "Robert Frost"
  8. "Another detail of form I don't care for is the use of numbers for stanzas or lines."
  9. "eccentricities of form"
  10. "My next point added to that one will make you think I'm a hopeless reactionary and a prude as well, probably. I don't like words like 'loins,' 'groins,' 'crotch,' 'flanks,' 'thighs,' 'umbilical,' etc."

Swenson also underlined Bishop's assertion that "finally one has to settle down with one's own style." Although Swenson consciously abided by Bishop's advice for the co-authored poem "Dear Elizabeth," as the subtitle "A Reply to Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil" implies, Swenson would continue with her own "eccentricities" of style, particularly her "shape poems" as demonstrated in her later work "Women" from Iconographs (1970). In a letter from Bishop to Swenson dated October 16, 1970, Bishop calls Iconographs "a large and impressive book of poems" and goes on to say that she saw "Women" in The New Yorker. While Bishop seems to have accepted Swenson's form, Bishop continues to take issue with Swenson's use of certain words, writing in this same letter: "I don't know whether I mentioned it at the time, but I liked the 'James Bond Movie' [also found in Iconographs] very much when I first saw it (all except the word 'boobs', but I suppose I'm an old prude. No, I'm NOT! -but I don't like certain slang words for things....)" In her October 21, 1970 response, Swenson begins: "Boobs, bubbies, tits, dugs, headlights, knockers...I am boxing your prudish ears with 'em all--and which would you substitute (in the Bond Movie) if you don't like the first?"

This continuing debate over the use of language beginning in 1958 and continuing into the 1970's hints at richness of the mentorship and friendship between Bishop and Swenson discovered within the 267 letters between the two found in the May Swenson Papers.