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Manuscript Collection

May Swenson Papers, 1919-1989. American Author.

May Swenson

Finding Aid for the May Swenson Papers [MSS111]

Anna Thilda May "May" Swenson (May 28, 1913 – December 4, 1989) was an American poet and playwright. Born in Utah, Swenson grew up as the eldest of 10 children in a Mormon household where Swedish was spoken regularly and English was a second language. She received a B.S. from Utah State University in 1939 and taught poetry at as poet-in-residence at Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University and Utah State University. From 1959 to 1966, she worked as a manuscript reviewer at New Directions publishers. Swenson left New Directions Press in 1966 in an effort to focus completely on her own writing. She also served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death in 1989.

Her poems were published in Antaeus, The Atlantic Monthly, Carleton Miscellany, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Saturday Review, Parnassus and Poetry. She received much recognition for her work, including: Guggenheim fellowship (1959), Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship (1960), Ford Foundation grant (1964), Bollingen Prize for poetry (1981), and MacArthur Fellowship (1987).

Since her first collection of poems, Another Animal, was published by Scribner in 1954. Swenson's other collections of poems include A Cage of Spines (1958), To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963), Half Sun Half Sleep (1967), Iconographs (1970), New & Selected Things Taking Place (1978), and In Other Words (1987). Posthumous collections of her work include The Love Poems (1991), Nature: Poems Old and New (1994), and May Out West (1996).
She is also the author of three collections of poems for younger readers, including Poems to Solve (1966) and More Poems to Solve (1968); a collection of essays, The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic (1964); and a one-act play titled The Floor, which was produced in New York in the 1960s. As translator, she published Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), which received a medal of excellence from the International Poetry Forum.

Collection Description

The May Swenson Papers contain manuscript and editorial material toward most of her books including Another Animal (1954), A Cage of Spines (1958), To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963), and Half Sun Half Sleep (1967). This material includes drafts of individual poems as well as letters to and from various editors, friends, and readers. Swenson’s correspondents include John Hall Wheelock, and Burroughs Mitchell, but the most fascinating portion of the May Swenson Papers is her correspondence with the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. The two were close friends and Washington University holds 268 of their letters written from 1950 to 1979, the year of Bishop’s death.