May Swenson Swenson, May (Vol. 106) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Another Animal (poetry) 1954
A Cage of Spines (poetry) 1958
To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1963
Poems to Solve (juvenilia) 1966
Half Sun Half Sleep (poetry) 1967
Iconographs (poetry) 1970
More Poems to Solve (juvenilia) 1971
The Guess and Spell Coloring Book (juvenilia) 1976
New and Selected Things Taking Place (poetry) 1978
In Other Words (poetry) 1988
The Love Poems of May Swenson (poetry) 1991
The Complete Poems to Solve (juvenilia) 1993
Nature: Poems Old and New (poetry) 1994
May Out West (poetry) 1996

John Berryman (review date 1956)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Long Way to MacDiarmid," in Poetry, Vol. 88, 1956, pp. 52-61.

[In the following excerpt, Berryman provides a primarily positive review of Another Animal.]

[May Swenson is described] on the jacket [of Another Animal] 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 versemaking, 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, and she might have done; although the first, which consists of descriptive poems, contains one good description, a fair pastiche of Miss [Marianne] Moore ("Sketch for a Landscape" and "Horse and Swan Feeding" these are), and the least dramatic account of a lion's private parts that I have seen for some time. Nor is this an exceptional passage, and one hesitates to attribute it to the influence of her general master, Cummings, because other young poets have been doing the same...

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Barbara Gibbs (review date 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Cage of Spines, in Poetry, Vol. 94, 1959, pp. 189-91, 193-94.

[In the following excerpt from a review of poetry collections by five different authors, Gibbs characterizes A Cage of Spines as the best of the five volumes, but notes that Swenson could have been "less cautious" in presenting more than superficial topics in her poems.]

Here are five books of poetry [Swenson's A Cage of Spines, Donald Hall's The Dark Houses, Richard Lyons's One Squeaking Straw, Jon Silkin's The Two Freedoms, and John Heath-Stubbs's The Triumph of the Muse], one by a woman, four by men, two by British writers, three by...

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Jean Gould (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "May Swenson," in Modern American Women Poets, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1984, pp. 75-96.

[In the following excerpt from her Modern American Women Poets, Gould provides an overview of Swenson's life and career.]

It has been said that some people are born disillusioned—in the best sense of the word—and May Swenson might be considered one of the few. The eldest child in a brood of ten children whose Swedish parents had left the faith of their fathers to become ardent Mormons, May, born in 1913, on the twenty-eighth day of the month for which she was named, in Logan, Utah, was indoctrinated into Mormonism at the age of eight; but five years later, when...

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Thomas M. Disch (review date 22 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rhyme and Reason: Reading Poetry for Pleasure," in The Washington Post Book World, Vol. XVIII, No. 21, May 22, 1988, pp. 1, 14.

[In the following excerpt from a review of five books of poetry, Disch offers praise for In Other Words, noting especially Swenson's flair for writing poetry that deals with minutiae.]

We pick the poets we read (supposing we read poetry at all) as we pick our friends, for a disposition, sensibility and sense of humor that complement our own. This simple fact of readerly life is often a source of distress to particular poets and their partisans, who feel that esthetic merit should be commendation enough. They live in that...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "May Swenson," in The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989, pp. 197-215.

[In the following essay taken from his volume, The Electric Life, Birkerts explores Swenson's progression during her career from an emphasis on presenting detached, technically adroit poems treating outside objects to an emphasis on more introspective poems expressing an inner voice and treating themes such as the role of the self in the scheme of life. Birkerts concludes by asserting his contention that Swenson did not always utilize her full capacity as a writer in her poetry.]

Reverse chronology appears to be enjoying a vogue among...

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Richard Bernstein (essay date 5 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "May Swenson, a Humorous Poet of Cerebral Verse, Is Dead at 76," in The New York Times, December 5, 1989, p. D24.

[In the following obituary, Bernstein surveys Swenson's life and career.]

May Swenson, a poet known for her cerebral, playful verse, and a recipient two years ago of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, died yesterday in Ocean View, Del. She was 76 years old and had been suffering from chronic asthma.

Miss Swenson, who came to New York half a century ago from her birthplace, Logan, Utah, published her first collection of poems, Another Animal, in 1954. That book led the critic John Ciardi to declare: "May Swenson is not a...

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Mona Van Duyn (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Important Witness to the World," in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1990, pp. 154-56.

[In the following essay, Van Duyn, who was a friend of Swenson, offers a tribute to Swenson, reflecting on both Swenson's personal attributes and on her poetry.]

May Swenson twice warmly introduced me from the reading platform, but I never had the privilege of introducing her. When I was invited to write a "blurb" for her last book, my eager pen moved on and on, writing, I knew, too long a response to be useful; passages were, however, taken from that tribute and printed on the book, along with praise from some of her many other admirers. I will begin by repeating those relatively...

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Michael Collier (essay date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetic Voices," in Partisan Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 566-67.

[In the following excerpt, Collier applauds In Other Words: New Poems, asserting that the volume presents what he terms Swenson's "vision of incredible integrity."]

The familiar voice in May Swenson's In Other Words: New Poems speaks with a naturalist's love for the variety and particularity of the world. In poems that take great delight in discovering the shapes and associations hidden in the natural world, Swenson pays homage to Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, yet her poems are quirkier, more playful and more celebratory than her two precursors. In "Three...

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Richard Wilbur (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "May Swenson: A Memorial Tribute," in Gettysburg Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 81-5.

[In the following essay, Wilbur commemorates Swenson's contributions to poetry, providing an overview of her life and career.]

May Swenson was not much given to self-absorption or self-portraiture, but in one of her later poems we find her looking at herself and seeing the lineaments of her mother and father. "I look at my hand," she says—

I look at my hand and see
it is also his and hers;
the pads of the fingers his,

the wrists and knuckles hers.

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Edward Hirsch (review date 19 January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Turned Back to the Wild by Love,'" in The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1992.

[In the following review, Hirsch offers a highly laudatory assessment of The Love Poems of May Swenson.]

"Listen, there's just one 'Don't,' one 'Keep Off,' / one 'Keep Away From,' "May Swenson advised the graduating class in her 1982 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Poem, "Some Quadrangles": "Don't be a clone." Whatever you do, she enjoined them, "make your own / moves. Go opposite, or upside down, or Odd." As a poet May Swenson, who died in 1989 at the age of 76, certainly took her own advice. She was an American original, and her poems—with their astonishing formal...

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Doris Earnshaw (review date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Love Poems of May Swenson, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 1, Winter, 1993, p. 185.

[In the following review, Earnshaw praises The Love Poems of May Swenson.]

The posthumous publication of May Swenson's poems celebrating Eros adds luster to the reputation of a major American poet. Swenson (1913–89) came from Logan, Utah, to enter the world of honors, awards, and fellowships as her poetry became known. She writes a language rich in sensual texture, rich in rhyme, and strong in rhythm. Still, however enchanting her wordplay or music, what strikes the reader more deeply in these poems is the intelligence of her understanding. Love,...

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Alfred Corn (essay date February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Love Poems of May Swenson, in Poetry, Vol. CLXI, No. 5, February, 1993, pp. 295-98.

[In the following review, Corn applauds the poems in The Love Poems of May Swenson, which he asserts are, except one, all erotic in nature.]

Maybe I had too high expectations for this collection 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 had prevented her from making available during her lifetime. Hopes slipped a notch when the credits page stated that only thirteen of the poems were...

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The Horn Book Magazine (review date May/June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Complete Poems to Solve, in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LXIX, No. 3, May/June, 1993, p. 341.

[The following review offers a highly favorable assessment of The Complete Poems to Solve.]

Included in this volume are seventy-two poems for young readers, many of which appeared in Poems to Solve. In addition to several riddle poems, the collection contains a variety of verses that are evidence of the scope of Swenson's imaginative powers and verbal skills. Examples of her shaped poems, in which the placement of the words on the page suggests the subject, are represented by "Of Rounds" and "How Everything Happens (Based on a Study of the...

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Sue Russell (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Mysterious and Lavish Power: How Things Continue to Take Place in the Work of May Swenson," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 128-39.

[In the following essay, Russell examines Swenson's poetry, focusing on the author's approach to and treatment of lesbian themes.]

May Swenson, who died in 1989 at the age of seventy-six, 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 tells us in her introduction to one of these collections, More Poems to...

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Grace Schulman (essay date September/October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life's Miracles: The Poetry of May Swenson," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 23, No. 5, September/October, 1994, pp. 9-13.

[In the following essay, Schulman explores Swenson's treatment of the themes of life, love, and death in her poetry.]

The voice of May Swenson combines the directness of intimate speech and the urgency of prayer:

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my...

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Susan E. Gunter (review date Fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of May Out West and Nature: Old and New, in Western American Literature, Vol. 31, Fall, 1996, p. 270.

[In the following review, Gunter praises May Out West and Nature: Old and New, commending both Swenson's poetic voice and her technical mastery.]

The latest two books released by the late Utah poet May Swenson remind us of the scope and the precision of her gift. They are treasures for the Swenson enthusiast as well as for the general reader.

May Out West would be a starting place for readers new to Swenson's work. A carefully selected and beautifully presented edition of thirty-four poems, it...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Knudson, R. R. The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson. New York: Macmillan, 1993, 112 p.

Book-length biography of Swenson by her companion, R. R. Knudson, that contains excerpts from Swenson's poetry and photographs from her personal collection.


Gadomski, Kenneth E. "May Swenson: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources." Bulletin of Bibliography 44, No. 4 (December 1987): 255-80.

Bibliography of works by and about Swenson.


Clarence, Judy. Review of...

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