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."