In his introduction to the first volume of the Poets of Today series, John Hall Wheelock assessed the task of the contemporary poet as one of rediscovery and revelation, in which a world gone stale must be renewed: “A poem gives the world back to the maker of the poem, in all its original strangeness, the shock of its first surprise. It is capable of doing the same for the rest of us.” That volume included May Swenson’s first book-length collection of poems, Another Animal. In the thirty-five years to follow, no voice in contemporary poetry showed more commitment to that task of poetic revelation and renewal. Although she was often spoken of as a nature poet, Swenson was as adept at celebrating the skyline of Brooklyn as a quiet wood. She was equally at home with astronauts and angels, with swans and subways. If she could bring her senses to bear upon a subject, it was the stuff of poetry.
Swenson’s verse can be classified as poetry of the senses—especially of and for the eye. A good starting point for a consideration of her work is “Horses in Central Park,” a celebration of light, color, and texture: “Colors of horses like leaves or stones/ or wealthy textures/ liquors of light.” A horse is not, at first glance, very much like a leaf or a stone, but Swenson always looks past that first glance to something more. The alliteration in the third line is only a mild example of her wordplay, which ranges from pure Anglo-Saxon to latter-day E. E. Cummings. Everything works together; the poem introduces a liquid tone, the sense suggests intoxication. What follows is no mere catalog of horses, but the play of light and words put through their paces. There is an autumnal truth, a lean horse the color of “sere October,” fall cantering through fall. The procession continues, as “mole-gray back” and a “dappled haunch” pass by, along with “fox-red bay/ and buckskin blond as wheat.” The reader takes in all the richness of the harvest and of October’s light, distilled into the colors and liquid movements of horses. One need only witness the “Sober chestnut burnished/ by his sweat/ to veined and glowing oak” to let one’s eyes at last convince the mind of what it may have shied away from at the poem’s opening. Not only does this comparison of horse to oak leaf work but also could not be better. This effortless rhetoric of the senses distinguishes Swenson’s verse. One cannot believe everything one sees or hears, she seems to say, but one had better believe in it.
Swenson’s verse is variously described as fierce, fresh, inquisitive, innovative, and sensuous. Her frequent experimentation with the physical appearance of her poems, however, has caused such adjectives to alight in the wrong places. Though she had dealt from the start in unorthodox punctuation, spacing, and typographic arrangements, Swenson’s experiments in this direction culminated in Iconographs. This collection of shaped poems—“image-writing,” as she described them—is mistakenly referred to by some as concrete poetry. Swenson makes it clear in an afterword that the poems were all finished down to the last word before being arranged into shapes that would enhance the words. In visual terms, the poems are the paintings, the shapes only frames. Thus, a poem on a José de Rivera mobile twists and turns on the page. In a poem called “The Blue Bottle,” the words outline the shape of a bottle; in “How Everything Happens,” a poem written after close observation of how ocean waves gather, break, and recede, the lines of the poem gather, break, and recede in a visual variation on the poem’s message. Such devices are certainly consistent with Swenson’s belief that words are, among other things, objects, and that a poem is itself an object, to be encountered by the eye and its companion senses, not merely by the intellect. These shaped poems are innovative enough in their appearance before they are even read, but it is not in their shapes that they succeed as poetry. When these or any of Swenson’s poems succeed, it is because of an absolute sureness of touch and rightness of language.
Her images are at times startling, but they work upon the senses and emotions in such a way that readers cannot help giving in to their aptness and inevitability. In “The Garden at St. John’s,” a mother caresses her baby, whose hair is “as soft as soft/ as down as the down in the wingpits of angels.” Any momentary hesitation over “wingpits” is lulled by the enchanting repetition of “soft” and “down,” and the image rings, or rather, whispers, true. “Water Picture,” the upside-down world reflected in the surface of a pond, would seem to be a conventional enough idea for a poem, but Swenson is not so interested in ideas as in things, and it is, indeed, the thing that finds expression here. Everyone has gazed into still water and watched the reflections, but when, in this poem, “A flag/ wags like a fishhook/ down there in the sky,” when a swan bends to the surface to “kiss herself,” and the “tree-limbs tangle, the bridge/ folds like a fan,” one is there with a powerful immediacy.
Again and again Swenson affirmed that the wonders of the world are too good merely to be described or talked about. They must be shared as directly as possible. Her mode of sharing experience was to involve herself completely in an experience, to “live into” the experience in order to express it. Thus, there is much more to poetry than the mere recording or labeling of experience. Some of Swenson’s most successful poems came out of the avoidance of simply giving a...
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