May Swenson Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

May Swenson’s forays away from poetry included short fiction, drama, and criticism. A number of her short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies. A play, The Floor, was produced in New York in 1966 and published a year later. Her best-known critical essay, “The Experience of Poetry in a Scientific Age,” appeared in Poets on Poetry (1966). She also wrote the introduction to the 1962 Collier edition of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.

Several books for young people have expanded the audience for Swenson’s poetry. Poems to Solve (1966), More Poems to Solve (1971), and The Complete Poems to Solve (1993) are selections of her riddle poems. For still younger children, there is The Guess and Spell Coloring Book (1976). Many poets owe a heavy debt to their childhoods, and few have discharged that debt more gratefully or delightfully. As a child, Swenson learned from her immigrant parents the language that she would later render into English in Windows and Stones: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer (1972), a translation (with Leif Sjöberg) for which she won the International Poetry Forum Translation Medal. She recorded her own poems on both the Folkways and the Caedmon labels.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

As traditional as she was inventive, as alliteratively Anglo-Saxon as she was typographically contemporary, May Swenson was well respected among twentieth century American poets. Her thirty-five-year career was an ongoing celebration of language wed to life-as-it-is. Her sharp-eyed curiosity led her to address a broader and more diverse range of subjects than did many of her contemporaries: She was rural and urban, scientific and mythic, innocent and worldly, and, sometimes, even literary, and she could be any number of these within the same poem. Once she fixed her attention on something, she had a remarkable gift for letting that object of her curiosity find its voice and for allowing the poem to determine its own form. No poet wrote more perceptively or persuasively about birds—or about astronauts.

Swenson was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1970-1989) and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 to her death. She was awarded grants and fellowships by a number of agencies and organizations, including the Ford, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She received a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1960, the Shelley Memorial Award in 1968, and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1979. In 1981, she shared with fellow poet Howard Nemerov the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry, in recognition of her collection New and Selected Things Taking Place. She also served as a judge for the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets and for the National Book Awards. Her frequent readings and visiting professorships at a number of colleges and universities enhanced her contribution to American letters.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Crumbley, Paul, and Patricia M. Gantt, eds. Body My House: May Swenson’s Work and Life. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2006. A collection of critical essays that discuss many aspects of Swenson’s life and work, including her nature poems, her explorations of sexuality, and her friendships with other writers.

Doty, Mark. “Queen Sweet Thrills: Reading May Swenson.” Yale Review 88, no. 1 (January, 2000): 86-110. Doty discusses Swenson’s work, describing how, over the course of her eleven books of poetry, the poet developed a dramatic dialogue between revelation and concealment.

Gould, Jean. Modern American Women Poets. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984. Account of Swenson’s life includes details of her childhood, the influence—or lack of influence—of her parents’ Mormon faith, and her associations with other writers, especially Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop. Gould also explores Swenson’s longtime relationship with teacher and children’s author Rozanne Knudson.

Howard, Richard. Alone with America. New York: Atheneum, 1969. This book-length study of modern American poets includes a chapter on Swenson, “Turned Back to the Wild by Love.” Howard provides a fine, detailed study of Swenson’s poetics and technique, illustrated by dozens of examples from her early poems.


(The entire section is 433 words.)