May Swenson 1919–1989
American poet, author of children's books, translator, dramatist, and critic. See also May Swenson Literary Crticisim (Volume 4), and Volumes 14, 106.
Respected for her colorful and perceptive observations of natural phenomena and human and animal behavior, Swenson playfully experimented with poetic language, verse form, and sound, making extensive use of such devices as metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and dissonance. Critics often compare Swenson's poetic style with those of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and e.e. cummings; like Moore and Bishop, Swenson used richly evocative language and exacting detail in descriptions of the complexities of nature, and, like cummings, she displayed a penchant for wordplay. Swenson's poems are typically related in an objective, detached voice that approaches everyday human concerns, scientific topics, and nature with a sense of curiosity and wonder. Dennis Sampson described Swenson as "mischievous, inquisitive in the extreme, totally given over to the task of witnessing the physical world."
Swenson was born in Logan, Utah. Her parents had emigrated from Sweden to join the Mormon church, and Swenson was raised in that faith. After receiving a degree in English from Utah State University in 1939, she became a newspaper reporter in Salt Lake City. Swenson soon moved to New York City, where she wrote poetry while working as a stenographer. By 1952 her poems had appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Saturday Review, and other distin guished journals. Her first collection, Another Animal, appeared in 1954 as part of the Poets of Today series published by Scribner's. Swenson received a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1955, allowing her to work on her second collection, A Cage of Spines, published in 1958. While she was an editor at New Directions publishers from 1959 to 1966, her poetry continued to garner her grants and awards. An Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship allowed her to travel to Europe in 1961, and several of her most highly praised poems are descriptions of landscapes and monuments she observed on this trip. Though she maintained a home in or near New York City for the rest of her life, Swenson was poet-in-residence at several universities, and read and lectured widely. She died in 1989.
Many of the poems in Swenson's first three volumes, Another Animal, A Cage of Spines, and To Mix with Time,
are carefully structured in sound patterns. Critics praised her verbal ingenuity, clear images, and skillful use of internal rhyme, all of which contribute a fresh perspective on human and animal characteristics, death, sexuality, and the art of poetry. Sven Birkerts commented upon Swenson's early work: "The complexities of animal life and natural form are eagerly seized upon, while the intricacies of the social order and the human emotions are not so much overlooked as proscribed. It is as if the greater part of Swenson's psychic endowment has been channeled into the sense organs, which then become capable of the most precise registrations." Swenson examined the world of nature and science in Half Sun Half Sleep and Iconographs. The latter title is the word Swenson used to describe typographically distinctive pieces, including her "shape poems," which are rendered in visual form and syntactical structures associated with the subjects being discussed. For example, the poem "Stone Gullets" is divided into three sections by vertically curving lines, providing a visual image to accompany words that describe the ebb and flow of water in a rocky seascape.
Visual and aural elements of language are prominent concerns in New and Selected Things Taking Place and In Other Words, which collect many poems originally published in periodicals, including Swenson's frequent contributions to The New Yorker magazine. The subject matter of these poems ranges from such ordinary activities as going to the dentist to contemplations of animals, trees, and landscapes. Swenson's continuing interest in science is reflected in poems about an eclipse and the passing of Halley's comet; the five-part "Shuttles" discusses the launches of spaceships and concludes with ruminations on the Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986.
Only about half of Swenson's poems were published in her lifetime, and her reputation has continued to grow with the publication of two posthumous collections, The Love Poems of May Swenson in 1991 and Nature 1994. Though most of the poems in the former volume first appeared in other collections, the thematic grouping revealed an erotic vein in Swenson's work that previously had not been fully appreciated. Similarly, Nature collects poems from earlier volumes as well as poems never seen before, and emphasizes Swenson's lifelong poetic mission of observing and describing the natural world.
While several critics have stated that Swenson adopted a more self-conscious voice in her later work that lessened the exuberance of her experiments with poetic form and language, and others comment on the lack of emotion and social consciousness throughout her writings, she is generally praised for her technical abilities and explorations of the challenges and possibilities of language. Mary Jo Salter commented: "Swenson provides comedy in two senses: marrying her words off in one happy ending after another, she makes us laugh as she does so. But whether she writes in jest or earnest, she belongs to that rare company of poets who convert the arbitrary correspondences among the sounds of words into what seems a preexisting order."
Another Animal 1954
A Cage of Spines 1958
To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems 1963
*Half Sun Half Sleep 1967
New and Selected Things Taking Place 1978
In Other Words 1987
The Love Poems of May Swenson 1991
Nature: Poems Old and New 1994
*Includes new poems and Swenson's translations of six Swedish poets.
Other Major Works
Poems to Solve (poems for children) 1966
The Floor (play) 1967; published in journal First Stage More Poems to Solve (poems for children) 1971
Windows & Stones: Selected Poems by Tomas Transtromer [with Leif Sjoberg] (translations) 1972
American Sports Poems (poems for children) 1988
The Complete Poems to Solve (poems for children) 1993
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SOURCE: "The Long Way to MacDiarmid," in Poetry, Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 1, April, 1956, pp. 52-61.
[Berryman is considered one of the most important modern American poets. His work developed from objective, classically controlled poetry into an esoteric, eclectic, and highly emotional expression of his personal vision. In the following review of Another Animal, Berryman finds some of Swenson's verse undistinguished but also cites indications of promise.]
[Swenson's Another Animal appears in a volume of the series Poets of Today with Poems and Translations by Harry Duncan and Samurai and Serpent Poems by Murray Noss.] Swenson … is described on the jacket as having come from Utah "to New York City where she holds an active job." One looks to the next sentence to hear what this may be. No: "Her poems have appeared" etc. It is hard to know whether to be pleased that she holds an active job, or sorry, for an inactive job is surely better for a poet. The difficulties in communication with which modern poetry is charged have reached the jackets. The energy of her verse-making, though, suggests that the job can hardly be too active for her; her first selection is as long as Harry Duncan's and Murray Noss's together, and franker, and more experimental, and vervier. She splits her eighty pages into four sections. With the first and the fourth let us dispense, as she might have...
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SOURCE: "Spines and Other Worlds," in The Village Voice, Vol. IV, No. 2, November 5, 1958, p. 12.
[Hentoff is an American novelist and critic. His nonfiction and young adult fiction reflect his passions for jazz, literature, and civil rights. In the following excerpt, he offers a favorable review of A Cage of Spines.]
In A Cage of Spines May Swenson continues to indicate she's a poet with an eye that cuts into essences and an ear for song, although the melodies are still rather constricted. It is as if one were listening to an intensely sensitive flutist (and a flutist certainly can be moving) with the cello solos still to come. I mean further that she does not yet—with some exceptions—plunge into the joy and pain of being with Roethke's wholeness of naked song. But perhaps she doesn't want to, and it is usually bootless to compare one artist with another too hortatorily. I feel simply that she can, and probably will, open up more.
What is in the volume is worth having—and buying. The end, for example, of "The Wave The Flame The Cloud and The Leopard Speak to The Mind." The Leopard says:
There is the so affectionately understanding a portrait of "R. F. at Bread Loaf His Hand Against a Tree"; the gentle but sadly clear humor of "A Two-Part Pearable"; the capacity to bring living things into her poems still alive, as in these lines from "The Tide at Long...
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SOURCE: "Has Anyone Seen a Trend?," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLII, No. 1, January 3, 1959, pp. 12-14, 32.
[A New England poet in the tradition of Robert Frost, Scott was a conventional lyricist who favored a straightforward, uncluttered style in his many biographical and story poems. In the following excerpt, he praises Swenson's talent but chastises her excessive cleverness in A Cage of Spines.]
May Swenson is a young...
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SOURCE: In a review of A Cage of Spines, in Poetry, Vol. 94, No. 3, June, 1959, pp. 190-94.
[Gibbs was an American poet. In this excerpt, she attempts to define the poetry of A Cage of Spines. Gibbs concludes her observations with a wish that Swenson would attempt more ambitious poetry.]
[How], on the basis of the poems in A Cage of Spines, would I, as a particular critic—not speaking at all for Miss Swenson, but putting myself as nearly as possible in the poems' posture—describe the view of poetry herein represented? Several questions that I might ask myself occur to me: (1) Does the poem have a subject, other than itself? (2) If it has such a recognizable subject, then in what relation to same does the poem stand (setting to jewel, pattern to thread, identity, jeu d'esprit to occasion, or some other that I cannot now think of)? (3) Or, another way of inquiring about what may well be the same thing, how seriously does the poem take, or commit itself to, its subject? Then (4) What is its language like, not in its personal and particular flavor, but as regards formality or lack thereof, crispness or sloppiness, tightness or looseness—these being the lines of division today? These four will do to start, and I may as well begin by saying that the answer to number one (does the poem have a subject other than itself?) will be yes in all cases here under consideration,...
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SOURCE: In a review of To Mix with Time, in The New York Review of Books, Vol. I, No. 2, 1963, pp. 33-4.
[Hecht is an American poet who is known for the elegant style, traditional form, and deep sense of tragedy that characterize his work. The recipient of numerous literary awards, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for The Hard Hours. In the following excerpt from a review of To Mix with Time, Hecht offers an enthusiastic endorsement of Swenson's ability.]
One way of indicating the distinction and quality of May Swenson's poetry is to say that she deserves to be compared to Elizabeth Bishop. And indeed there are things in [To Mix with Time], which contains new poems together with selections from two previous volumes, that sound a note of indebtedness. Miss Swenson's "The Totem," for example, about the Empire State Building, may vaguely remind the reader of Miss Bishop's "The Monument." But if there are points of kinship, the differences are still important; and May Swenson has an idiom and voice of her own, both more playful and baroque than Miss Bishop's.
In this ample volume of 183 pages, Miss Swenson exhibits several different kinds of poems. There is a small and excellent group of what are frankly called "riddle poems" in which objects like an egg or a butterfly are ingeniously described at a metaphoric remove. There is a group that entertains metaphysical...
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SOURCE: "Underestimations," in Poetry, Vol. CIII, No. 5, February, 1964, pp. 330-33.
[Recognized as a national authority on poetry, Kennedy is well respected as a poet for adults as well as children. His verse is written in traditional metric patterns and acknowledged for its amusing and incisive qualities. In the following review, Kennedy praises To Mix with Time.]
For once it is easy to agree with a jacket blurb, this by Robert Lowell, who declares that May Swenson's poems "should be hung with permanent fresh paint signs." In her vision Miss Swenson has become again as a child, but a highly sophisticated child who knows her way around both the Piazza San Marco and the New York subway system. Who but she would see the Statue of Liberty's torch as a tip of asparagus? The exactness of eye recalls that of Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop, but Miss Swenson is not to be filed among imitators. (Why, incidentally, do our best woman poets look at things closer-up than our best men do?) Often she strikes out past familiar forms, yet always comes upon new ones. Many—"The Fountains of Aix," the skyscraper-shaped "The Totem"—aren't mere experiment. They work. And if Miss Swenson obviously cares about how a poem looks on the page, she cares how it listens, too. In "The Word 'Beautiful,'" for instance, the subject is metamorphosed to a
Long, glossy caterpillar
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SOURCE: "May Swenson," in Tri-Quarterly, No. 7, Fall, 1966, pp. 119-31.
[Howard is an American poet, critic, and translator who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his poetry collection Untitled Subjects (1969). In the following essay, he traces the poetic style evinced in Swenson's verse, finding it magical and incantatory.]
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SOURCE: "The Experience of Poetry in a Scientific Age," in Poets on Poetry, edited by Howard Nemerov, Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1966, pp. 147-59.
[In the following excerpt, Swenson discusses poetry as an art and compares poetry to science.]
What is the experience of poetry? Choosing to analyze this experience for myself after an engrossment of many years, I see it based in a craving to get through the curtains of things as they appear, to things as they are, and then into the larger, wilder space of things as they are becoming. This ambition involves a paradox: an instinctive belief in the senses as exquisite tools for this investigation and, at the same time, a suspicion about their crudeness. They may furnish easy deceptions or partial distortions:
Hold a dandelion and look at the sun.
Two spheres are side by side.
Each has a yellow ruff.
Eye, you tell a lie,
that Near is Large, that Far is Small.
There must be other deceits….
W. B. Yeats called poetry "the thinking of the body" and said: "It bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrinks from … every abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only—from all that is not a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories, and sensations of the body." But sometimes one gets the...
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SOURCE: "New Poetry: The Generation of the Twenties," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 221, No. 2, February, 1968, pp. 141-42.
[Early associated with the confessional school of poetry, Davison is an American poet whose first collection of verse, The Breaking of the Day (1964), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. In the following excerpt, he finds Half Sun Half Sleep less successful than Swenson 's previous verse collections.]
May Swenson, with Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, is one of the most meticulous poets writing today. In Half Sun Half Sleep she extends even further the formal cunning and sensuous resilience that characterized her selected poems, To Mix With Time. Her new work (apart from some expert translations from the Swedish) falls into three categories: observation of natural objects, games played with word transformation, and poems in shapes (always a favorite device of Miss Swenson's). The eye and the hand are as cunning as ever, but the emotional freedom of the poems seems sometimes to have been cramped by the very elaboration of technique. The reader is too often made aware of being in the presence of the mot juste, as in this opening of a poem about a carrousel: "Under a round roof the flying / horses, held by their heels to the disk of the / floor, move to spurts from a pillar of / music. …" Though the garments are still beautiful,...
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SOURCE: "May Swenson: The Art of Perceiving," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. V, Winter, 1969, pp. 58-75.
[Stanford was an American poet, educator, and critic. In this essay, she discusses the roles of observation and description in Swenson's poetry.]
May Swenson is the poet of the perceptible. No writer employs with greater care the organs of sense to apprehend and record the surfaces of the world. She is the exemplar of that first canon of the poet—Behold!
From the time her poetry began appearing in the early 1950s in such places as New Directions in Prose and Poetry, Discovery, the New Yorker, and Poetry, Miss Swenson's work in its concentration on the sensible has been very much her own. The preoccupation with perception dominates the poetry of her successive volumes—Another Animal (1954), A Cage of Spines (1958), To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963), Poems to Solve (1966), and Half Sun Half Sleep (1967). One can name, however, if not influences, at any rate some poets whose work runs parallel to hers. Her development of visual detail has some relationship to the accurate reporting of Marianne Moore. It is sometimes close to that other remarkable declarer of what is there, Elizabeth Bishop. Her interest in nature, its small creatures and their large implications, is reminiscent of...
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SOURCE: "Iconodule and Iconoclast," in Poetry, Vol. CXIX, No. 2, November, 1971, pp. 107-09.
[Sullivan is an American educator, critic, and poet. In the following excerpt, she praises Iconographs: "These poems combine ecstasy with exactness, and speak the truth in truthful language. "]
Iconographs has deliberate visual appeal. Certain poems have "typed shapes and frames invented for this collection", as May Swenson tells us in a note appended to the book. Later in that note she admits, "I have not meant the poems to depend upon, or depend from, their shapes or their frames; these were thought of only after the whole language structure and behavior was complete in each instance. What the poems say or show, their way of doing it with language, is the main thing."
These poems say or show a lot. The variety in the book is wide and rare, and because I am not used to a strong vein of overt passion in May Swenson's poems, I was particularly taken with a series of love poems: "Feel Me," "A Trellis for R.," "Wednesday at the Waldorf," and "The Year of the Double Spring." The subjects of these poems are persons rather than the bird, the flower, or stunning artifact so often used as levers in her poems.
"Feel me to do right," is what her father said on his deathbed, the deathbed in the poem called "Feel Me", a beautiful, strong poem ending,
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SOURCE: "May Swenson and the Shapes of Speculation," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, March-April, 1978, pp. 35-8.
[A feminist critic and poet, Ostriker has published numerous studies on the relationship between gender and literature. In the following excerpt, she discusses the feminist power of Swenson's poetry, particularly the poems in Iconographs.]
Most humanists show very little curiosity about the physical world outside the self, and usually a positive antipathy to the mental processes we call scientific. This was not always the case. Although Western literature has only one De Rerum Naturam, persons of letters were once expected to take all knowledge as their province, and to interpret scientific understanding as part of a unified vision of the world. Despite the expanding post-Renaissance hostility between science and art, even as late as the nineteenth century, Blake was defining the implications of Newtonian mechanics for the human imagination, and apparently anticipating aspects of post-Newtonian physics, as he anticipated so much else. Shelley was thrilled by discoveries in electricity and magnetism. Tennyson registered the seismic shock of The Origin of Species. When William Carlos Williams in Paterson makes Madame Curie's discovery of radium a major metaphor for all artistic discovery, he bridges the supposed "two cultures" completely. Science will not go...
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SOURCE: "Owls, Monkeys and Spiders in Space," in The New York Times Book Review, June 12, 1988, p. 15.
[An American poet, educator, and critic, Heller has published a study entitled Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry (1984). In the following excerpt from a review of In Other Words, he calls attention to the combination of wordplay and seriousness in Swenson's poetry.]
In Other Words is anything but reticent. May Swenson concatenates elegant structures which, like the flora in her poem "In Florida," bloom into "extravagant blushes." It is no surprise that she is one of our best writers of poetry for young readers; her poems make use of dizzying repetitions and rhythms and wear the bright polychromes of play blocks. Yet this is not childlike poetry; the hard, sharp edges are nearly always vaguely menacing. Like the lurid green plastic shrubbery in shopping malls, the veneer of the poems seems to tell us more about ourselves than we like to know. Ms. Swenson can turn the simple, guiltless act of picking strawberries into an indictment of civilization:
My hands are murder-red. Many a plump head
drops on the heap in the basket. Or, ripe
to bursting, they might be hearts, matching
the blackbird's wing-fleck. Gripped to a reed
he shrieks his ko-ka-ree in the next field.
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SOURCE: "Poetic Voices," in Partisan Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 565-69.
[Collier is an American poet, educator, and critic. In the following excerpt, he admires the outlook expressed in In Other Words.]
The familiar voice in May Swenson's In Other Words: New Poems speaks with a naturalist's love for the variety and particularity of the world. In poems that take great delight in discovering the shapes and associations hidden in the natural world, Swenson pays homage to Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, yet her poems are quirkier, more playful and more celebratory than her two precursors. In "Three White Vases," Swenson suggests that the act of making a metaphor precedes the act of description so that the three white egrets she sees "On a lonely, reedy patch / of sand" are first vases, "each differently shaped." By such perceptions Swenson leads us from the surprises inherent in the world back to the world itself. In an elegy for Elizabeth Bishop, Swenson writes, "A life is little as a dropped feather. Or split shell / tossed ashore, lost under sand…. But vision lives! / Vision, potent, regenerative, lives in bodies of words." May Swenson's "bodies" are not metaphorical or symbolic but corporeal, shaped and formed in our mouths as we speak. These bodies make the vision which provides continuity to the human world. Swenson continues her elegy for Bishop, "… vision multiplies...
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SOURCE: In a review of The Love Poems of May Swenson, in the New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1992, pp. 12-13.
[Hirsch is the author of Wild Gratitude (1986), which received The National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Below, he lauds The Love Poems of May Swenson.]
"Listen, there's just one 'Don't,' one 'Keep Off,' / one 'Keep Away From,'" May Swenson advised the graduating class in her 1982 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Poem, "Some Quadrangles": "Don't be a clone." Whatever you do, she enjoined them, "make your own / moves. Go opposite, or upside down, or Odd." As a poet May Swenson, who died in 1989 at the age of 76, certainly took her own advice. She was an American original, and her poems—with their astonishing formal variety, their quirky visual shapes and incantatory rhythms, and their refreshingly odd, insightful observations about the natural world—stand by themselves in the ever-changing landscape of contemporary poetry. No one else could have created them.
The Love Poems of May Swenson is a sexy book. It is also a useful, even necessary addition to the 10 volumes of poems that Swenson published in her life-time. "In love are we made visible," she wrote, and indeed these 55 poems—13 of which are previously unpublished—help make visible an aspect of her work that has been obscure but nonetheless present all along. Rereading her...
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SOURCE: A review of The Love Poems of May Swenson, in Poetry, Vol. CLXI, No. 5, February, 1993, pp. 295-98.
[A noted contemporary American poet, Corn has received praise for the informal yet controlled style of his verse, which synthesizes traditional and modern elements. In the following review, he finds many poems in The Love Poems of May Swenson erotic and memorable.]
Maybe I had too high expectations for [The Love Poems of May Swenson] when it was first announced. A new book by May Swenson is always welcome, and this time normal anticipation was heightened by the possibility that her estate had decided to publish work that shyness or prudence had prevented her from making available during her lifetime. Hopes slipped a notch when the credits page stated that only thirteen of the poems were previously unpublished; five have before now appeared in magazines, but the remaining thirty-seven can be found in earlier volumes of her poetry.
The title isn't quite accurate. For "love" we should substitute "erotic." In a quite good poem called "Café Tableau," the eroticism involved is not even the author's but high-voltage description of the visible attraction between a white woman and a black waiter. Only in the poem "Year of the Double Spring" (one of the poems already collected) is the poet's beloved portrayed in non-erotic contexts so as to emerge as specific and...
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SOURCE: "A Mysterious and Lavish Power: How Things Continue to Take Place in the Work of May Swenson," in The Kenyon Review, n.s., Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 128-39.
[In the following essay, Russell compares Swenson to other women poets such as Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Emily Dickinson and considers Swenson's refusal of the label "lesbian poet. "]
May Swenson, who died in 1989 at the age of seventysix, was a lover of riddles. She liked to write them as well as to solve them—the harder the better. Like the riddle poems she assembled in two books for young readers, all her poems have the capacity to tease and delight. "A poem is a thing," Swenson tells us in her introduction to one of these collections, More Poems to Solve (1972). Often based on intricate mechanisms that are not easily replicated, Swenson's poems seem more to have been constructed than composed. Excerpting them is an extreme disservice, as it limits the reader's perspective of the overall design. The poems often take up space in every direction on the page, asserting their identity quite literally at every turn. Individual poems have the kinetic ability to spill over diagonally into stanzaic receptacles, embody the shape and spirit of paintings by De Chirico, and spin like a top around a still center. Although Swenson was clearly engaged in the experimental enterprise to a degree that would charm any scientist,...
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SOURCE: "Life's Miracles: The Poetry of May Swenson," in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 23, No. 5, September-October 1994, pp. 9-13.
[An American educator, poet, and critic, Schulman has served as the poetry editor of the journal Nation. Here, she gives an overview of Swenson's poetry, including her posthumous collections.]
The voice of May Swenson combines the directness of intimate speech and the urgency of prayer:
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount …
The magic of that lament, "Question," from Another Animal (1954), is in its contrasts: while the details are specific, the central situation is a mystery that terrifies with each new speculation. Here as elsewhere in her poems, Swenson dwells on the living body with an immediacy that heightens the dread of its loss. Other gestures that recur in Swenson's poetry are the insistent, unanswerable questions, "what will I do," "How will I ride," "What will I hunt," "Where can I go," all of them precise, all ironic, because futile. Here they are enhanced by obsessive rhyme ("house," "horse," "hound," "hunt," "mount"). Their futility is emphasized by the absence of...
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SOURCE: "Poetry in Review," in The Yale Review, Vol. 83, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 121-41.
[In the following excerpt, Hammer extols the lyricism of Swenson's poems in the posthumous collection Nature.]
May Swenson's Nature collects most of the major work of a master poet. The book's full title is Nature: Poems Old and New, and all of the poems in it in some way concern Swenson's great, lifelong subject, nature. The new poems include ten published for the first time and nineteen published for the first time in book form, perhaps as many as five of which are important additions to Swenson's achievement. The old poems include much of Swenson's New and Selected Things Taking Place (now long out of print), a few poems from In Other Words (the final book Swenson published before her death in 1989), and a selection from two posthumous volumes. Nature lacks the clarity of a compact "Selected Poems" and the comprehensiveness of a reliable "Collected"—its topical format makes it something different from (and I think something less than) either of those desirable things. But it is the best collection of Swenson's poetry yet published, and that means it is an extremely valuable book.
Swenson's work is so inward, independent, and intense, so intimate and impersonal at once, it has been difficult to place in the field of contemporary poetry. In some ways,...
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Gadomski, Kenneth E. "May Swenson: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources." Bulletin of Bibliography 44, No. 4 (December 1987): 255-80.
Indexes materials by Swenson, including her essays, interviews, book reviews, sound recordings, manuscripts, and archival materials, in addition to periodicals in which her poems first appeared. Gadomski's bibliography also lists critical commentary about Swenson.
Gould, Jean. "May Swenson." In Modern American Women Poets, pp. 75-96. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984.
Discusses Swenson's poetry in the context of her life and friendships, with much anecdotal material.
Knudson, R. R. The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson. New York: Macmillan, 1993, 112 p.
Account of Swenson's life, with special emphasis on her early years. Knudson includes material from Swenson's letters and diaries.
Birkerts, Sven. "May Swenson." In The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry, pp. 197-215. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989.
Perceives a transformation in Swenson's poetry: "Here is a poet who has, with patience and determination, made...
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