New and Selected Things Taking Place Analysis

May Swenson

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

New and Selected Things Taking Place brings together more than a quarter-century’s worth of May Swenson’s best verse. Together with In Other Words (1989), a collection published two years before her death, this volume provides an excellent overview of Swenson’s skill, range, and development as a respected voice in contemporary American poetry.

The book, which contains works from Swenson’s five previous volumes of poetry, reveals the wide range of subjects and forms with which she worked. Although she was sometimes characterized as a nature poet because of her perceptive treatment of birds and other wild creatures, she was just as much at home writing about a flight into space or a visit to the dentist. Much of her work is witty and playful, showing the reader the world through a child’s eyes, as in “By Morning”:

Some for everyoneplentyand more comingFresh dainty airily arrivingeverywhere at once.

This poem, one of the several “riddling” poems in the book, scatters clues before the reader, but never mentions its subject—snow. Rather, Swenson leads the reader to discover the subject through images that are at once fresh and familiar: “By morning we’ll be children/ feeding on manna/ a new loaf on every doorsill.”...

(The entire section is 523 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Swenson was acknowledged to be one of the most gifted woman poets of this century, and her accomplishments were recognized by such awards as Yale University’s Bollingen Prize, and by grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She did not, however, call attention to herself as a woman poet. There is no particularly feminist point of view in her work, largely because her work directed the reader’s attention out upon the world, rather than in upon herself.

It is not particularly helpful to pursue questions of influence on Swenson. She felt a special kinship with poets such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as an affinity for the work of another master of wordplay, E. E. Cummings. There were, as well, poets whom she considered “healthy to read,” and they are rather a mixed bag—Theodore Roethke, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman. Among her contemporaries, Swenson expressed admiration for Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Anne Sexton, but this was not a matter of influence or imitation. Swenson acknowledged as much affinity with such visual artists as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marcel Duchamp as with any literary artist. In short, Swenson was a poet who resists easy categorization, just as her poems resist analysis and paraphrase. Her work speaks for itself.

New and Selected Things Taking Place

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

May Swenson has published six volumes of poetry for the adult audience as well as some volumes for children. In New & Selected Things Taking Place she provides the reader with more than sixty new poems, written since 1970, plus a selection from her previous volumes: Iconographs, Half Sun Half Sleep, To Mix with Time, A Cage of Spines, and Another Animal. The result is a collection of poems which reveals clearly how May Swenson has for more than twenty years been a clear-eyed observer and interpreter of the world around her. Born in Logan, Utah, she has developed the keen, clear vision of a Westerner, as well as the breadth of interest that is also the hallmark of men and women reared in the American West, with its broad expanse of blue skies and its remarkable distances across valleys and mountains.

It becomes readily apparent that Swenson is making a statement about her poetry through the title of the collection. Her poems, most of which look out to the world about her, seem to be taking place upon the page, to have an activity within themselves. The opening poem in this collection, “A Navajo Blanket,” sets the tone of the volume in this regard. Although an Indian blanket is usually regarded as an inanimate thing, Swenson gives her subject a life of its own. She suggests that the colors of the blanket are paths to pull the viewer into the maze of the pattern, where one can rest, calm as a hooded hawk, at the center, later slipping out, free of the zigzag of the pattern, by following the path of a green thread.

The nature of the West is explored in poems ranging in setting from the desert Southwest, home of the Navajo, to a highway near Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, to the Canadian prairies from Winnipeg to Medicine Hat. The poet’s life in the East (Sea Cliff, New York), where she now lives, is also important to her poetry, however. She sees life objectively; she is not afraid to speak satirically. For example, in “Fashion in the 70’s” she devotes a page to the fad of looking black, which is especially noticeable in New York City. She notes glasses with black frames, faces framed in black beards, black leather or plastic jackets and boots, floppy black pants and sleazy black body-shirts: everyone looking “hoody,” blacks and whites alike. The other side of it, she says, is that some whites want to look dead, especially the women. The result, she summarizes, is that everyone seems to want to look ugly, as if the ugly has somehow become the beautiful.

In reading the two sections of newly collected poems the reader is soon conscious of the importance of nature in Swenson’s poetry. She has written lovingly of bison, a whole herd of shaggy bulls, well-muscled cows, and honey-brown calves crossing a highway, as she has written of mating birds she once observed on a saltmarsh, the dead flicker she brought home from a walk, and the varieties of birds (angels, she calls them) one morning in her yard. The cycle of the seasons, too, is part of her interest in nature, as evidenced by such titles as “Shu Swamp, Spring,” “September Things,” “October,” “November Night.” But people are an important part of her life and art as well. In “Staying at Ed’s Place,” she describes how she reacts to her friend’s apartment, to the fold of a purple towel he left, to his small hexagonal table covered with dents, to the moon-white ceiling and its paint-layered surface. In reacting to these things, she is reacting to the absentee owner who made the apartment what it is. Again, in “Holding the Towel,” the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gould, Jean. Modern American Women Poets. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984. Gould’s volume of literary biographies contains the single most complete account of Swenson’s life. It includes details of her childhood and describes her associations with other writers, especially Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop. Gould also explores Swenson’s longtime relationship with teacher and 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, using dozens of examples from her early poems.

Salter, Mary Jo. “No Other Words.” The New Republic 201 (March 7, 1988): 40-41. This review of Swenson’s last volume of poems, In Other Words, offers a brief but perceptive discussion of Swenson’s strengths and limitations as a poet. Salter compares her work to that of poets as diverse as Elizabeth Bishop and George Herbert.

Stanford, Ann. “May Swenson: The Art of Perceiving.” The Southern Review 5 (Winter, 1969): 58-75. This essay treats Swenson as a master of seeing and perceiving. Through numerous examples, Stanford explores Swenson’s ability to surprise and delight the reader by observing the world from unexpected angles or by capturing the telling detail that most people miss.

Swenson, May. “An Interview with May Swenson: July 14, 1978.” Interview by Karla Hammond. Parnassus: Poetry in Review 7 (Fall/Winter, 1978): 60-75. In this piece, Swenson talks in some detail on a range of subjects, from her childhood and education to her writing habits, her approach to poetry, and her admiration for such poets as Elizabeth Bishop and E. E. Cummings.