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
John Berryman (essay date 1956)
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 done; although the first, which consists of descriptive poems, contains one good description, a fair pastiche of Miss Moore ("Sketch for a Landscape"...
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Nat Hentoff (essay date 1958)
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...
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Winfield Townley Scott (essay date 1959)
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.]
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Barbara Gibbs (essay date 1959)
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...
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Anthony Hecht (essay date 1963)
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],...
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X. J. Kennedy (essay date 1964)
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...
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Richard Howard (essay date 1966)
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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May Swenson (essay date 1966)
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,...
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Peter Davison (essay date 1968)
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...
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Ann Stanford (essay date 1969)
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...
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Nancy Sullvian (essay date 1971)
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...
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Alicia Ostriker (essay date 1978)
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...
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Michael Heller (essay date 1988)
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...
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Alfred Corn (essay date 1993)
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...
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Sue Russell (essay date 1994)
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...
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Langdon Hammer (essay date 1995)
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...
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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.
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