Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 765
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 Atlantic Ocean.
The editor in Swenson serves as a balance to the passionate reporter. Her writing is careful and precise in its language and metaphors. In “Choosing Craft,” for example, she alternates descriptions of sailing with italicized comments on accuracy and the appearance of ease. She ends with a paradox: “How close-hauled, canted, apt to capsize/ you keep, must be why you don’t.” In the craft of her writing, Swenson prefers to sail precariously close to the edge, to be accurate through audacity, to make her turns by cutting them close.
Perhaps another outgrowth of Swenson’s editing is her interest in shaped poems, which she called “iconographs.” Some of her shapes are mimetic: a sun on the horizon (“Out of the Sea, Early”), the world seen from outer space (“Orbiter 5 Shows How Earth Looks from the Moon”), lightning represented by a diagonal streak of white space through the lines (“The Lightning”). Most of her iconographs, however, arrange their shapes abstractly or impressionistically; “Bleeding,” for example, uses space breaks within most of its lines to give an audible pause and the visual appearance of a gash. Her poems do not tip over into the entirely visual domain of concrete poetry, as they sound wonderful read aloud. The visual arrangements represent a sculptor’s chiseling of the composer’s music: an extension of the sensory ways in which a poem affects the reader.
In “The Truth Is Forced” Swenson declares, “I wish/ to be honest in poetry.” In her writing she can “say and cross out/ and say over” the truth she would hide in person; she can speak in symbols, riddles, and double meanings; she can remove masks and get under the skin—her own included. Poetry was a way for this private person to shed her protective layers. Even in a poem about a particular childhood memory, “The Centaur,” Swenson makes passionate connections. She recalls going to a willow grove and cutting herself a stick horse to play with. Most of the poem describes the ten-year-old’s wild ride. At the end, the mother notices green around the girl’s mouth. The poem ends: “Rob Roy, he pulled some clover/ as we crossed the field, I told her.” The horse may exist in the child’s imagination, but the galloping is a physical sensation, and the clover’s taste remains on the poet’s tongue. Ezra Pound once remarked, “Poetry is a centaur,” and for Swenson, too, the mind conjoins with the body in the act of the poem. Experience is multiple, both received and transmitted.
She is a poet open to experience, willing to strip down and be suffused by what she perceives, ready to try out anything as subject matter. In a poem about having her watch repaired, Swenson transforms something mundane into something comic (“‘Watch out!’ I/ almost said.”), vivid (“two flicks of his/ tools like chopsticks”), and metaphorically personal (“my/ ticker going lickety-split”).
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