Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
The daughter of Swedish immigrants, Anne Thilda May Swenson grew up in Logan, Utah, a small college town. Her parents had left behind both their native land and their Lutheran faith to follow the teachings of the Mormon Church, which Swenson came to reject in spite of (or perhaps because of) her strict upbringing among the Latter-day Saints. As the oldest daughter in a large family, she learned early to value solitude, and at the age of thirteen, alone with her father’s typewriter, she pecked out with two fingers a short piece she had written. When she looked at the resultant shape of the words on the page, she said, “This is a poem”; her life’s work had begun.
Swenson’s father taught woodworking and carpentry at Utah State University, which at the time was known as Utah State Agricultural College. Swenson studied English and art there and received her B.A. degree in 1939. She then worked as a reporter for a Salt Lake City newspaper, but after about a year, she made her break with home and family and moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. Before gaining recognition as a poet, she worked at a variety of office jobs and, after a few years, began publishing in various magazines, including Poetry and The New Yorker. In 1954, a selection of her poems was chosen to appear with the work of two other poets (Harry Duncan and Murray Noss) in the first volume of Scribner’s Poets of Today series. Within the next few years, she...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
May Swenson, born and raised in Utah, graduated from Utah State University, where her father taught mechanical engineering. After working as a reporter in Salt Lake City, she moved to New York, where she was an editor for New Directions from 1959 to 1966. She resigned to devote more time to her writing.
In many ways, however, Swenson remained both reporter and editor throughout her writing life. Her poems observe the world closely and report back in detail. In “News from the Cabin” she describes a sequence of animal visitors (woodpecker, squirrel, jay, snake) in precise images and evocative sounds (“His nostril I saw, slit in a slate whistle”). But, characteristic of her playfulness, she gives the creatures nicknames (“Hairy,” “Scurry,” “Slicker,” “Supple”) and makes the poem a kind of easy riddle. In many other poems she presents nature through a field guide of the imagination.
Swenson’s reporting ranges from travel (“Notes Made in the Piazza San Marco”) to sports (“Analysis of Baseball”) to space exploration (“August 19, Pad 19”) to science (“The DNA Molecule”). Her interest in the topical suggests the importance of immediate experience to Swenson, and her volume of selected poems is titled New and Selected Things Taking Place. As Robert Frost sees each poem as a “performance,” Swenson...
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Swenson was born May 28, 1919, in Logan, Utah. Following her graduation from Utah State University, she worked as a reporter in Salt Lake City. In 1949, Swenson moved to New York City, where she held various jobs before becoming an editor for New Directions Press in 1959. She resigned the position seven years later to devote her time to writing. In subsequent years, Swenson was featured as poet-in-residence at several colleges, including Purdue University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Lothbridge University in Alberta, Canada, and the University of California at Riverside.
Best known for the complex wordplay of her poems, which often include riddles and unusual arrangements of type on the printed page, Swenson is generally praised for her technical abilities and explorations of the challenges and possibilities of language. She lectured and gave readings at more than fifty colleges and universities, as well as at the New York YM-YWHA Poetry Center and the San Francisco Poetry Center. In addition, Swenson conducted workshops at the University of Indiana Writers’ Conference and at Breadloaf, Vermont, and participated in the Yaddo and Mac- Dowell colonies for writers. Swenson also received numerous awards and grants for her writing over the course of more than three decades, including Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and MacArthur fellowships, and a translation medal from the International Poetry Forum in 1972. In 1970, Swenson was elected to...
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