May Swenson Swenson, May (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Swenson, May 1919–

An American poet, playwright, critic, editor, and translator, Swenson is noted for her verbally sophisticated, tactile poetry. Howard Moss has said of her work: "Her surfaces are wonderfully painted and lead to surprising and mysterious depths. In the best of [her] poems, inner and outer vision meet." (See also CLC, Vol. 4, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 15.)

William Stafford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No one today is more deft and lucky in discovering a poem than May Swenson. Her work [in Half Sun Half Sleep] often appears to be proceeding calmly, just descriptive and accurate; but then suddenly it opens into something that looms beyond the material, something that impends and implies….

So graceful is the progression in her poems that they launch confidently into any form, carrying through it to easy, apt variations. Often her way is to define things, but the definitions have a stealthy trend: what she chooses and the way she progresses heap upon the reader a consistent, incremental effect. (p. 184)

In the continuing work of Miss Swenson the question becomes: will her luck provide worthy encounters? Will she become distracted by this poking so interestedly in a dilettantish way into stray things? Sometimes, as in The Secret in the Cat, you think that she is just clever, apt with diction, able to maintain a chosen topic and to rev it up. But that same cleverness often leads into wilder and more interesting regions, as in A Bird's Life. Some of the cleverest poems, just through their intense unity, succeed in becoming greater things, as in the heart poem mentioned earlier, or in Sleeping Overnight on the Shore, or in a wonderful poem about The Watch. Partly, the most successful poems succeed through the ambition, the scope of the curiosity, of the writer; she pursues remote things, how the universe started, what will happen when … if…. (pp. 184-85)

William Stafford, "A Five-Book Shelf," in Poetry (© 1967 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXI, No. 3, December, 1967, pp. 184-88.∗

Alicia Ostriker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…. Science will not go away because poets ignore it, and in fact we ignore any great human enterprise at our peril. Yet few poets presently venture beyond dread or annoyance toward the works and ways of physics, chemistry, biology, and fewer bring back more than a gimcrack souvenir or two….

[May Swenson] is known as a nature poet, "one of the few good poets who write good poems about nature … not just comparing it to states of mind or society," as Elizabeth Bishop has remarked. You can easily cull a bestiary from her work … and always with a wondering, curious eye, an intense concern about the structure and texture of her subject, an extraordinary tactility…. She watches things over long periods, and tracks her metaphors through itineraries of implications, with pleasure.

But beyond the naturalist's patient observation lies something else. What critics have called Swenson's "calculated naivete" or her ability to become "a child, but a highly sophisticated child," is actually that childlike ability to envision something freshly, to ask incessant questions and always be prepared for unexpected answers—required of the creative scientist. "What things really are we would like to know," she murmurs, and what else is the motive of the speculative intellect? Swenson's poetry asks as many questions as a four-year-old, and she wants to know not only how things are made and what they resemble, but where they are going and how we fit in. (p. 35)

While Swenson does not write on feminist themes most of the time, she does so occasionally, with electrifying results…. Most often, she blends, she balances. Science, technology, the mental life of observation, speculation: she has invaded these traditionally "masculine" territories. Yet her consistent intimacy with her world, which contains no trace of the archetypal "masculine" will to conquer or control it, seems archetypally "feminine." So does the way she lets herself be precise yet tentative and vulnerable about her observations …, and her affinity for the small-scale object, like Emily Dickinson's, also reads like a feminine characteristic….

To Swenson, everything in the world speaks body language…. If anatomy is destiny, Swenson is at home (and humorous) with that, knowing we share that fate, finding no discrepancy whatever between what some would call a woman's body and a man's mind….

Swenson has always had an individual style, though bearing traces here and there of Cummings, Marianne Moore, and especially Emily Dickinson. She has always been committed to formal experimentation, and she has often played with the shapes of poems. I would like to dwell here on one book, Iconographs, in which the composition of shaped poems has become systematic, in order to show how, apart from producing some beautiful things to look at, the method extends an observer's eyebeam to a new dimension.

Iconographs consists of 46 poems, each of which plays a typographical game. Each has been given a unique shape or frame. Verticals, angles and curves, quirky spacings and capitalizations have all been used. The intention, Swenson suggests in a note, has been "to cause an instant...

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Rosemary Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

These poems [in New and Selected Things Taking Place] mutter in the passive voice: "it is observed"; "it happens." The event, the text, stands out even as our guide to it steps back so as not to block the view. May Swenson indeed camouflages herself marvelously, and her protective coloration conveys respect. So we see "The World" clarified but glean only hints of "her world." For the poetry has no heroine and no heroics….

Transparency of self can allow the meaning to shine through, yet it also may merely thin down the work. Often subjects beg for the author's presence, for an opinion to be voiced to add a bit of depth. In her more public roles Swenson needs to outfit herself more for the occasion. Camouflage, it turns out, is not always suitable.

Nor is knowledge without inspiration. Swenson does not exactly suffer from "ambition without understanding" but she comes close. She will try her hand at explaining the universe in brief. "Models of the Universe" sums up the expansion and contraction of everything that has been, is, or will be in twenty-seven lines….

Space exploration fascinates Swenson and she brings to the subject the involved detachment of a good on-the-spot reporter. (p. 47)

Swenson searches heaven and earth for a vantage point. The problem is, none exists. The meanings of God's spangled heavens have long since spilt out into the Einsteinian universe. Matter is motion. Fixed viewpoints swirl away and Swenson so much needs a firm footing and a clear view at first hand of things taking place. The sun, moon, and earth spinning in space are for her, and nearly everybody else, news—acceptable hearsay—third-hand reports. Remote.

New and Selected Things Taking Place also offers many Town and Country poems describing the tasteful, civilized life…. In most of these her outline is blotted out. We get superb journalism with flair, somewhat like a non-Byronic Byron.

The citified tends to pale Swenson into urbane anonymity. She needs to separate herself from the criss-crossing of men for her negative capability to work. Then she is not forced into a role but may adopt a stance reminiscent of a certain sort of Victorian who toyed seriously with science and letters…. Some may say curiosity does not always constitute learning, but it's a fair substitute. May Swenson, for one, possesses an eye for detail and thrills at something felt to be observed for the first time. (p. 48)

May Swenson derives her prime inspiration not from Mother Nature but from nature; she is too empirical to be classified as a "nature-poet." Her close, first-hand observation of the external world, coupled with scrupulous attention to the particular, labels her, wittingly or unwittingly, as a "naturalist." She is also a poet and may lay claim as such to a literary tradition and to her own particular forebears (e.e. cummings and Emily Dickinson for sure, probably Blake and Herbert, Apollinaire perhaps), but she covers her trail well. The book contains, I believe, no direct references to literature and in her particular field of inquiry, the outside or the outdoors, she blithely slips away from the formal, well worn path of the pastoral … in order to plunge into new territory. She...

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Anne Stevenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[To describe her poems as clever and skeptical] is not to say that Miss Swenson has no heart, but that she keeps it strictly under the discipline of her brain. "New & Selected Things Taking Place" is a title that in itself demonstrates a certain skepticism about poetry. Her poems are not poems, but "things taking place." They take place in a number of shapes and are subject to a few too many tricks for my taste, and yet there is no doubt that underneath the verbal fireworks lies a sophisticated seriousness. Poems about her mother and father, their lives, their deaths, eschew the self-preoccupation of their genre and manage to be witty and moving at the same time. Miss Swenson is also a fine ornithologist; her birds and landscapes are distinct enough to make an exile weak with homesickness…. [She] is something of a philosopher, though her point of view is not mystical but analytical and detached. She takes a refreshing delight in the metaphysically absurd and is, in particular, a mistress of the poetic conceit. Writing of surfaces, of things, of ideas, she prefers to observe them rather than explore more obscure layers of their meaning. So in a poem, "Colors Without Objects," she writes:

                                I wait for a few
       iridium specks of idea to thrive
       in the culture of my eye.

To the culture of her eye she is devoted, and between eye and mind she takes in a great deal: DNA molecules, moon walks, seas, tides, cities, snows, people. Without at all meaning to be disparaging, May Swenson seems to be the ideal New Yorker poet—amusing, perceptive, expert with metaphor and unabashedly concerned with incidentals. (p. 13)

Anne Stevenson, "With Head and Heart," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1979, pp. 12-13.∗

Victor Howes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

May Swenson's poems [in New and Selected Things Taking Place] aspire to the condition of jewels. At their crystalline best they are hard and bright, glinting of green, stargold and topaz.

Not to be confused with diamonds in the rough, Swenson's poems are polished to within an inch of their lives, and they live, from image to image, in tiny darts of frosty fire….

Swenson's subjects range from zoo animals to moon landings, from butterflies "in sequin coat / peacock bright" to Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, "Cerulean is solid. Clouds are tiles, or floats of ice / a cobalt spa melts."…

One comes to feel that nothing is lost that is visible, that there is nothing the poet's eye cannot see and describe. But May Swenson is a poet of light, not shadow. In this generous, retrospective sampling of her work, her eye is caught by surfaces, contours, textures. Again and again her images will take your breath away, but rarely will she trouble your thoughts or touch your heart.

Swenson is a poet who can say with Joseph Conrad, "I want to make you see." But Conrad could make us see into the heart of darkness. It is in that direction that Swenson must move as a poet if she wishes to press beyond surfaces, however jewelled, however exotic, however green, stargold or topaz.

Victor Howes, "Poems with Polish," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 12, 1979, p. B11.

Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[May Swenson's New and Selected Things Taking Place] is obviously meant to stand as a capstone to her career as a poet. Sixty poems come from the years since 1970, but the larger part of the book is a selection from five previous books of poems. We can thus, with New and Selected Things Taking Place, come to a full appreciation of her poetic goals and methods.

I think I might call May Swenson a meditative poet. However, it is the character of her meditations that ought to be distinguished here, however briefly. To do that, it may be useful to place her in the history of a certain kind of poetry during the 20th Century; that is, a kind of poetry [Imagism] that claimed attention during...

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Charles Saunders

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The verse in May Swenson's "Snow in New York" which draws the speaker's reverie to its climax is the statement "Snow in New York is like poetry, or clothes made of roses."… It shocks in its combination of the ordinary and the unexpected: snow has been one of the surface subjects of the poem continuously, but "clothes made of roses" seems a sudden leap of the imagination. Of course, the poignance of the latter phrase strikes us as right because it extends the train of paradoxical or contrasting images Swenson has set in motion from the beginning of the poem…. And naturally, "clothes made of roses," by their seeming sheer impracticality, would fit right in with poetry as something one does not, ostensibly, "need,"...

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