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 began the round of fellowships, residencies, and visiting professorships that sustained her for the rest of her career. Among her more notable positions and appointments were the editorship of New Directions Press, 1959-1966; positions as poet-in-residence at Purdue University, 1966-1967, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1968-1969 and 1975, at Lethbridge University in the Canadian province of Alberta, 1970, and at the University of California, Riverside, 1973; she also held a position on the staff of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, 1976. In addition, she spent time at the Yaddo and MacDowell colonies, sojourned in Europe, and traveled widely in the United States, giving readings and teaching. From 1970 until her death in 1989, Swenson and her longtime friend and companion, Rozanne Knudson, made their home in what Swenson called an “Adirondack shack” in Sea Cliff, New York, on Long Island Sound.
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 sees it as a “thing taking place.”
Swenson does not limit her reporting to external facts. She is equally interested in her own subjective responses. After her death, a substantial volume of love poems was published, erotic in both language and sensibility. Swenson’s eroticism takes in everything she loves, from people to animals to whatever she finds around her, from the Long Island Railroad to the...
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