Swenson, May (Vol. 14)
Swenson, May 1919–
An American poet, playwright, critic, editor, and translator, Swenson is noted for her verbally sophisticated, tactile poetry. Howard Moss has said of her work: "Her surfaces are wonderfully painted and lead to surprising and mysterious depths. In the best of [her] poems, inner and outer vision meet." (See also CLC, Vol. 4, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 15.)
No one today is more deft and lucky in discovering a poem than May Swenson. Her work [in Half Sun Half Sleep] often appears to be proceeding calmly, just descriptive and accurate; but then suddenly it opens into something that looms beyond the material, something that impends and implies….
So graceful is the progression in her poems that they launch confidently into any form, carrying through it to easy, apt variations. Often her way is to define things, but the definitions have a stealthy trend: what she chooses and the way she progresses heap upon the reader a consistent, incremental effect. (p. 184)
In the continuing work of Miss Swenson the question becomes: will her luck provide worthy encounters? Will she become distracted by this poking so interestedly in a dilettantish way into stray things? Sometimes, as in The Secret in the Cat, you think that she is just clever, apt with diction, able to maintain a chosen topic and to rev it up. But that same cleverness often leads into wilder and more interesting regions, as in A Bird's Life. Some of the cleverest poems, just through their intense unity, succeed in becoming greater things, as in the heart poem mentioned earlier, or in Sleeping Overnight on the Shore, or in a wonderful poem about The Watch. Partly, the most successful poems succeed through the ambition, the scope of the curiosity, of the writer; she pursues remote...
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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…. Science will not go away because poets ignore it, and in fact we ignore any great human enterprise at our peril. Yet few poets presently venture beyond dread or annoyance toward the works and ways of physics, chemistry, biology, and fewer bring back more than a gimcrack souvenir or two….
[May Swenson] is known as a nature poet, "one of the few good poets who write good poems about nature … not just comparing it to states of mind or society," as Elizabeth Bishop has remarked. You can easily cull a bestiary from her work … and always with a wondering, curious eye, an intense concern about the structure and texture of her subject, an extraordinary tactility…. She watches things over long periods, and tracks her metaphors through itineraries of implications, with pleasure.
But beyond the naturalist's patient observation lies something else. What critics have called Swenson's "calculated naivete" or her ability to become "a child, but a highly sophisticated child," is actually that childlike ability to envision something freshly, to ask incessant questions and always be prepared for unexpected answers—required of the creative scientist. "What things really are we would like to know," she murmurs, and what else is the motive of the speculative...
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These poems [in New and Selected Things Taking Place] mutter in the passive voice: "it is observed"; "it happens." The event, the text, stands out even as our guide to it steps back so as not to block the view. May Swenson indeed camouflages herself marvelously, and her protective coloration conveys respect. So we see "The World" clarified but glean only hints of "her world." For the poetry has no heroine and no heroics….
Transparency of self can allow the meaning to shine through, yet it also may merely thin down the work. Often subjects beg for the author's presence, for an opinion to be voiced to add a bit of depth. In her more public roles Swenson needs to outfit herself more for the occasion. Camouflage, it turns out, is not always suitable.
Nor is knowledge without inspiration. Swenson does not exactly suffer from "ambition without understanding" but she comes close. She will try her hand at explaining the universe in brief. "Models of the Universe" sums up the expansion and contraction of everything that has been, is, or will be in twenty-seven lines….
Space exploration fascinates Swenson and she brings to the subject the involved detachment of a good on-the-spot reporter. (p. 47)
Swenson searches heaven and earth for a vantage point. The problem is, none exists. The meanings of God's spangled heavens have long since spilt out into the Einsteinian universe. Matter...
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[To describe her poems as clever and skeptical] is not to say that Miss Swenson has no heart, but that she keeps it strictly under the discipline of her brain. "New & Selected Things Taking Place" is a title that in itself demonstrates a certain skepticism about poetry. Her poems are not poems, but "things taking place." They take place in a number of shapes and are subject to a few too many tricks for my taste, and yet there is no doubt that underneath the verbal fireworks lies a sophisticated seriousness. Poems about her mother and father, their lives, their deaths, eschew the self-preoccupation of their genre and manage to be witty and moving at the same time. Miss Swenson is also a fine ornithologist; her birds and landscapes are distinct enough to make an exile weak with homesickness…. [She] is something of a philosopher, though her point of view is not mystical but analytical and detached. She takes a refreshing delight in the metaphysically absurd and is, in particular, a mistress of the poetic conceit. Writing of surfaces, of things, of ideas, she prefers to observe them rather than explore more obscure layers of their meaning. So in a poem, "Colors Without Objects," she writes:
I wait for a few
iridium specks of idea to thrive
in the culture of my eye.
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May Swenson's poems [in New and Selected Things Taking Place] aspire to the condition of jewels. At their crystalline best they are hard and bright, glinting of green, stargold and topaz.
Not to be confused with diamonds in the rough, Swenson's poems are polished to within an inch of their lives, and they live, from image to image, in tiny darts of frosty fire….
Swenson's subjects range from zoo animals to moon landings, from butterflies "in sequin coat / peacock bright" to Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, "Cerulean is solid. Clouds are tiles, or floats of ice / a cobalt spa melts."…
One comes to feel that nothing is lost that is visible, that there is nothing the poet's eye cannot see and describe. But May Swenson is a poet of light, not shadow. In this generous, retrospective sampling of her work, her eye is caught by surfaces, contours, textures. Again and again her images will take your breath away, but rarely will she trouble your thoughts or touch your heart.
Swenson is a poet who can say with Joseph Conrad, "I want to make you see." But Conrad could make us see into the heart of darkness. It is in that direction that Swenson must move as a poet if she wishes to press beyond surfaces, however jewelled, however exotic, however green, stargold or topaz.
Victor Howes, "Poems with Polish," in The Christian Science Monitor...
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[May Swenson's New and Selected Things Taking Place] is obviously meant to stand as a capstone to her career as a poet. Sixty poems come from the years since 1970, but the larger part of the book is a selection from five previous books of poems. We can thus, with New and Selected Things Taking Place, come to a full appreciation of her poetic goals and methods.
I think I might call May Swenson a meditative poet. However, it is the character of her meditations that ought to be distinguished here, however briefly. To do that, it may be useful to place her in the history of a certain kind of poetry during the 20th Century; that is, a kind of poetry [Imagism] that claimed attention during the first thirty years of this century…. The Imagist poets aimed at simplifying syntax, eliminating verbiage and thus getting rid of a whole accumulated weight of centuries of social ideas, conventions, sentiments and ways of taking the world and emotions for granted. To do this, they concentrated on objects, on the way things appeared, on elementary sensations, sight and sound and touch.
The classic Imagist anthology is full of severe and simple poems; but the movement soon developed in other ways. Swenson may be said to derive from Marianne Moore's poetry. And Moore made complex, prose-rhythmic structures, mostly descriptive and tightly intellectual in their forms and formulations. Moore furthermore hid her own emotions...
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The verse in May Swenson's "Snow in New York" which draws the speaker's reverie to its climax is the statement "Snow in New York is like poetry, or clothes made of roses."… It shocks in its combination of the ordinary and the unexpected: snow has been one of the surface subjects of the poem continuously, but "clothes made of roses" seems a sudden leap of the imagination. Of course, the poignance of the latter phrase strikes us as right because it extends the train of paradoxical or contrasting images Swenson has set in motion from the beginning of the poem…. And naturally, "clothes made of roses," by their seeming sheer impracticality, would fit right in with poetry as something one does not, ostensibly, "need," cannot "build" with, and probably would not use to "feed."
However, this same phrase possibly contains an allusion which not only serves to show that the "clothes" are necessary and useful but also binds the poem together, helps to characterize the speaker, and clarify Swenson's ironic point. I submit that "clothes made of roses" may leap unconsciously from the speaker's imagination as a remembrance of the famous dancer Nijinsky (1890–1950), the buried subject of the poem's second stanza. Specifically, the reference may be to one of the most memorable parts Nijinsky assumed with the Ballets Russes, that of the rose in the 1911 production of Le Spectre de la Rose. It was in this ballet that Nijinsky, according to...
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