Swenson, May 1919–
Ms Swenson is an award-winning American poet and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[May Swenson's] distinction is that she is able to make poems of ordinary public realities, offering precise images of urban life with an amazed reporter's skill—a reporter with pity—making her reader see clearly what he has merely looked at before. The public squares, parks, subways, museums, and zoos of New York City provide the scenes and incidents for her scrutiny, though there are easy references to Rome, Venice, Paris, and Arles as well, for Miss Swenson has been traveling. She is at her strongest in poems about people riding a subway to work or driving along a highway or feeding pigeons or sitting in a park—lonely people in a world without anchor in the cosmic sea….
Miss Swenson works in a free verse that is supple but rather prosaic, despite her picturemaking efforts. She lacks formal subtlety and profundity of insight. And some of her poems are badly in need of pruning. But at her best she succeeds in giving the reader a sense of what it feels like to be alive in a large American city in the middle of the twentieth century.
Stephen Stepanchev, "May Swenson", in his American Poetry Since 1945: A Critical Survey (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 202-04.
May Swenson begins and ends in mannerism. She is forever tinkering, taking apart a cat, a watch, a poem…. She is endlessly feeling things and relentlessly fashionable about what there is to grab: "On Handling Some Small Shells From the Windward Islands"—the pretentious-unpretentious title tells the story, as does the chic disposition of words on the page,… in old-fashioned pentameter…. For May Swenson things exist so that poems can be written about them, and if most things have been discovered there's always "A Basin of Eggs"…. May Swenson has nothing to say, and her many ways of saying it drove me to exasperation.
William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer, 1967, pp. 307-08.
Existence, its mystery, and therefore, its reality [is the tantalizing subject of May Swenson's poetry]. Whatever is, is not and therefore is more when the poet apprehends it through the ever living word. This is her subject. She is forever in this world (her last collection is called To Mix with Time), and therefore apprehends the isness that is beyond, which is within—this world. She says this over and over again in her poetry as she moves from a city garden, the ocean, kites, a watch, an astronaut in his capsule, cats, shells, trees, a dentist's needle, lightning, Provincetown, the moon. It doesn't matter the whatness. Through her language she probes existence, takes what is apart (and not in a surrealistic way, but in a scientific way that becomes through accuracy seemingly metaphysical), puts it together again because she has set it down in words, and it then exists. There, look at it. It is behovely. It disappears. It begets other worlds. And is. Existence….
Apprehension is the magic, apprehension through the excitement of language. Ezra Pound found that a successful poetic presentation or rendering gave "that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art."… [The] tremendous sense of liberation in the poems of May Swenson, in her rhymes, her depiction of objects, her expert use of typography and line … is not a liberation away from time but into time, not esoteric in intention but descriptive, even analytic. The liberation, that metaphysical accompaniment, is that quivering equation that is reached when object and word are aptly mated.
Harriet Zinnes, "In This World," in Prairie Schooner (© 1968 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1968, pp. 86-9.
It is as an observer that May Swenson has become best known. Such a comment as Robert Lowell's "Miss Swenson's quick-eyed poems should be hung with permanent fresh paint signs," represents a common reaction. Miss Swenson achieves this freshness by a good eye enlivened by imagination. But however imaginative, her poetry is continually tied to accuracy of sight, to truth to the literal and concrete. This is so even when the truth is conveyed by metaphor or in a spirit of aesthetic play….
Though she revels in the world of objects and is concerned with surfaces, Miss Swenson is also aware of depths and changes. Her poems have many possibilities for interpretation on levels beyond the literal. In the introduction to Another Animal, John Hall Wheelock gave an elaborate summary of the levels in "The Greater Whiteness," and many of her other poems contain materials for such analysis. Some, like "The Primitive," are clearly symbolic, while remaining true to the literal. Starting with the line "I walk a path that a mountain crosses," the poem seems to present a primitive point of view, but the reader immediately wonders "who is the primitive?" All the comments of the poem apply to walking up any mountain, but they have to do also with the special mountain which this is. Is it the mountain on the other side of which is death? The primitive does not know. The poem ends with a series of questions and speculations, some contradictory, all of them subjects of a separate inquiry in relation to its symbolic structure. But the symbolism in this and other poems, like May Swenson's magic, grows most often out of a tangible phenomenon, like the path and the mountain, where the poet has an observably solid base.
Miss Swenson's involvement with the perceptibly solid is further seen in her placement of the poem on the page. Lines and spaces are carefully arranged in patterns appropriate to the subject. Some words are given typographical emphasis by being set off and repeated. Even punctuation and capitalization—or the lack of them—are arranged for visual effect.
There are several variants of the shaped poem. The shape may be that of the object involved as in "Out of the Sea, Early" where the poem is round to represent the rising sun. Or there may be an uneven margin which undulates or steps back and forth to give the poem a shape of a black figure against a white background as in "Fountain Piece." The margin may be placed at the right side of the page instead of the left. Or two columns of narrow stanzas may be placed on the page, their center margins straight.
Other poems use alphabetical devices or whole words which occur in a repeated pattern in a line, emphasized by the spacing of the line….
This linking of the parts of the poem, the care in its visual physical arrangement, is not related to form alone. It reflects the careful observation, the respect for the whole range of the senses, that goes into the language and concepts that Miss Swenson presents. Her poems are not limited to linear time; they are patterns in space as well. The shaped poem represents the poet's response to the aesthetic need for structure, a need met in other poets by the formal stanza or the syllabic or metric line. The enclosing of the poem within spatial boundaries rather than auditory-rhythmic limits is especially appropriate to the perceptual qualities of Miss Swenson's art.
Ann Stanford, "May Swenson: The Art of Perceiving," in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 58-75.
With all its virtues, Half Sun Half Sleep is not a completely successful book of poems. Miss Swenson abjures thematic or stylistic organization and, by printing the poems in alphabetical order, defers to the contingency she sees around her. While this is a perfectly valid theory of arrangement, the fact remains that some of the poems need the support of a definite context to make them work, or to make them less obtrusively second-rate; for this volume is uneven, varying greatly in quality not only from one poem to another, but also within individual pieces…. Miss Swenson's right to experiment with typography and repetition of elements must be respected; but it is only fair to say that the results are not always impressive. And elsewhere, otherwise successful poems are seriously damaged by ready-made imagery: "Farms are fitted pieces of a floor,/tan and green tiles" ("Flying House"); "buttermilk skies" ("On Handling Some Small Shells …"). Still other poems do not succeed because of less obvious faults; they simply lack the special sharpness of wit necessary to prevent the close detailing of experience from becoming mechanical. Nonetheless, when successful, as she often is, May Swenson is among the best of those poets who can effectively show us what all of reality is like by examining closely a small fragment.
Karl Malkoff, in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 574-75.
The variety in [Iconographs] 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…. There are [many] very fine poems in this collection; no clinkers, no duds. These poems combine ecstasy with exactness, and speak the truth in truthful language. May Swenson is an established, rather than an establishment, poet.
Nancy Sullivan, "Iconodule and Iconoclast," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1971, pp. 107-08.
May Swenson since her first collection, Another Animal (1954), obviously, even nervously has been devoted to craft. Formal sloppiness would be impossible for her…. Out of close observation of urban and rural landscapes, of faraway places and tourist spots, of birds, horses, waves or the sun, she has built her poems upon the page. It is the way May Swenson has built her poems that needs comment…. [The] poet typed the poems ([Iconographs] is a photo-offset publication). In effect, the photographed typescript creates an enclosed, graphic object upon the page. The whole is seen as a significant spatial object even before the eye relents and begins to read. The poem evolves into something almost plastic, a form of conceptual art. The words that are the poem do not lose their integrity within the poem, and the mold, the shape, is a possible new dimension….
May Swenson's solution is interesting because she seeks the form after the poem, the text, has been written. In other words, her mold does not determine the verbal structure. First the words are on the page, and then like a draftsman she draws her icon with her text as pencil and pen. The advantage of this method is that there is no distortion of the original language, and thus of perception. The poetic text has not been violated in any way. But what May Swenson is saying, in effect, is that language is not enough today, that poetry has suffered a diminution. She feels the need to "make an existence in space, as well as in time, for the poem."…
I would add, however, that this complex contains language, and the poetry of May Swenson reveals a brilliant use of language: definitions of visible and evocative worlds…. In May Swenson's shaped verse there is never a failure of form in the sense that William H. Gass meant when he recently commented that "an unfeelable form is a failure." But even May Swenson's shaped verse is at the least a distraction….
[Iconographs] is a triumph of poetry. I go backward as I read. I read the text before the shape has been imposed, and then I see that her singular devotion to her craft has led to a new dimension in her art. Through assonance and internal rhyme, she delicately maneuvers new feelings….
In this volume May Swenson's metaphysical wit has become less Dickinsonian and more like Beckett. Primarily interested in concrete experience ("No to and from/There is only here," as she writes in an earlier volume), she sees the here more firmly rooted in the now, without embellishment….
This new volume attests that May Swenson is one of the most distinguished poets writing. With an uncanny ear, a sense of line directed by an inner energy and a way with language that is ever a discovery, she stands almost alone as a poet who has triumphed over the continuing skepticism among her colleagues toward their own craft.
Harriet Zinnes, "No Matter What the Icons Say," in The Nation, February 28, 1972, pp. 282-83.