May Swenson 1919(?)–1989
American poet, translator, author of children's books, dramatist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Swenson's career through 1996. For further information on Swenson's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 14, and 61.
Respected for her colorful and perceptive observations of natural phenomena and human and animal behavior, Swenson playfully experimented with poetic language, 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 May 28, 1919 (although some sources say she was born in 1913), in Logan, Utah, the oldest child in a devoutly Mormon family of ten children. She attended Utah State University and upon graduation worked as a reporter in Salt Lake City. Moving to New York in 1949, she held various jobs before becoming an editor for New Directions Press in 1959. She resigned the position seven years later in order to devote her time to writing and subsequently served as poet-in-residence at several colleges, including Purdue University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the University of California at Riverside. She spent the last two decades of her life with her companion, R. R. Knudson, and died on December 4, 1989, in Delaware.
Many of the poems in Swenson's first three volumes, Another Animal (1954), A Cage of Spines (1958), and To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963), are carefully structured in sound patterns and treat various themes, includ-ing human and animal behavior and features of life and death. Swenson examined the worlds of nature and science in Half Sun Half Sleep (1967) and Iconographs (1970). The latter title is the word Swenson used to describe typographically distinct pieces, including her "shape poems," which are rendered in visual form and syntactical structures associated with the subjects or objects 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 (1978) and In Other Words (1988), which collect many poems originally published in periodicals, including Swenson's frequent contributions to The New Yorker. 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 these spaceships and concludes with ruminations on the Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986. Since the time of her death in 1989, four volumes of Swenson's poetry have been published, most of which are comprised of both poems previously published and poems published for the first time. The Love Poems of May Swenson (1991) contains poems that address romantic and erotic subjects, and The Complete Poems to Solve (1993) contains poems for children, some of which appeared in Poems to Solve (1966). In Nature: Poems Old and New (1994), the poems examine various aspects of the environment, while in May Out West (1996) the focus is specifically on poems centered in the American West.
Critics have praised Swenson's 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." While several critics have maintained that Swenson adopted a more introspective, self-conscious voice in her later work that lessened the exuberance of her experiments with poetic form and language, and others commented on the lack of emotion and social consciousness throughout her writings, she has been 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."