100 Years of Poetry: May Swenson and the Life of Publication

Can visionary poetry be edited?

by Ange Mlinko
100 Years of <em>Poetry</em>: May Swenson and the Life of Publication

In December 1964, May Swenson wrote to the editor at Poetry, Henry Rago, with corrections to the proofs of her long, experimental poem “Gods. Children.” “I feel this to be quite an important poem for me. ...” the celebrated 51-year-old poet wrote. “... so I’m anxious for it to be right.” Swenson’s To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems had just come out from Scribner’s the year before; she was a successful mid-career poet, known for formally adventurous lyricism, who knew she had to continue pushing boundaries. Swenson had appeared in Poetry reliably for 13 years, but this was to be her most ambitious poem to date in the magazine. When the poem appeared in print the following month, it was the oddest and most interesting work in the issue. The poem was a theogony, a vision of the birth of the cosmos, hinging on a grammatical uncertainty: “They ... ‘Are God’s…children.’ ... Are gods children?” Swinging between the Christian idiom and a pagan mishearing, Swenson imagines that a new Genesis unfolds every time a new human life comes to pass:

Worlds are their heads;
oceans infants’ serene eyes.

Blue and green they invented.

Leaves did not grow,
or the wind blow
until their spine
lifted like a tendril,
their tongue curled,
their hand made a sign.

The language mixes semantic fields ecstatically. References range from biology (“on the brain’s map fixed / a junction, Infinity”) to physics (“And made Measure, / and the dance of the Particles”). Humans are at once gods and children, who tragically cannot fly and yet must heroically name themselves. The poem teeters on a fulcrum of doubt and indeterminacy, expressed in the caesura between two possible readings of its title.

What did Henry Rago make of it? He does not say much. “Dear May, It is good to see some new poetry from you, especially a poem we like as much as GODS. CHILDREN. I enclose our official acceptance-notice.” He goes on to suggest a number of books she might consider for review.

May Swenson had a long career with Poetry magazine, stretching from 1951 to her death in 1989, and the tone of her correspondence with her editors changed with the mores of each era. In the early to mid- ’60s, she and Rago stood on ceremony with each other. Each letter danced politely between invitation and bargaining: Will you consider these poems? By the way—congratulations on your new book. Thank you for your recent poems; we will take two and also, might you review for us? Henry Rago took over the editorship of Poetry in 1955 and would stay at the helm until his death in 1969. Swenson’s later correspondence with editors Daryl Hine and John Frederick Nims trades jokes and gossip, but arguably she published her most ambitious poems in Poetry under the stewardship of Henry Rago, who maintained a splendidly distant courtesy. Perhaps it was because these poems were ambitious in their attempt to marry science and theology. Rago himself was a poet of theological ambitions, whose later teaching at the University of Chicago would cover the nexus between poetry and religion. Rago—who also published Black Mountain, New York School, and Deep Image poets during the era of so-called “poetry wars” between traditionalists and avant-gardes—gave Swenson freedom. Perhaps we should speak of poetry curating rather than poetry editing: Rago seemed to trust Swenson's mind.

When Swenson returned her proof of “Gods. Children.” she submitted some corrections to the punctuation, simultaneously deferential and faintly chiding: “I’m glad that you are finally finding space for it. This poem has been with you so long (since March ’64) that I have meanwhile given it some revision—chiefly in the punctuation—and have indicated this on the proof. If you must charge me for these small changes, do so.” At the end of the letter, she writes, “Incidentally, was your latest book published in 1964? If so, I am going to ask to read it for the National Book Award....”

Was this added question meant to soften her the tone of her complaint? He begins his next letter by thanking her for her interest in his book, then goes on to the meat of the matter:

Alas, Poetry has to charge for author’s revisions, once a poem is set in galley. It would be wrong of me to interfere with a financial policy so long established. ... (The interval since March 23, by the way, is not unduly long. Our acceptance-notices, possibly the one you received, used to say that the usual time between acceptance and publication was at least eight months. ...) All my best greetings to you as ever, especially for your Christmas.

These delicate rhetorical moves surrounding the public emergence of “Gods. Children.” seem incongruous with the primal energies of the poem itself, a poem that defies the rules of rational discourse. Rago’s discretion can look on the one hand like matter-of-fact professionalism, or it could be a sign of deference to poetry's authentic source in inspiration. Swenson's more vatic poems seemed to attest to a higher power—not God but a demiurgical power of making that lay with the poet entirely.  

This power isn't rule-based—such poems can take any number of forms. “His Suicide,” another visionary poem Swenson sent to Rago in 1966, took a radical turn between submission and publication. “Are you interested in any of these five poems on ‘timely topics’?” she wrote, with her usual lack of preliminaries. “As you see, I am moving into areas rather far from the tight lyric—for ‘The Times they are A-Changing.’…”

In the first version of “His Suicide,” a dying man’s story is parceled out in neat tercets with lines of even length, while the published version, which sprawls across the page in lines and stanzas of wildly differing lengths. The difference in attitude is tremendous. The unpublished version of the poem looks too conventional for the violence its language is trying to contain:

He looked down at his withering body
and saw a hair near his navel, swaying,
And now he saw his other hairs rise up.

He felt a hectic current in his veins.
Looking within, he saw the bubbling
of his blood. He cursed his fever,

saying: “It is the chemistry of prayer.
It increases in frequency, seeding
panic to all my being. My cells swell

with the liquid of guilt they fabricate,
juices of hatred eat my belly, my
corpuscles make war in me as they devour

each other. My head heats in the
combustion of anxiety, I am polluted
by the secretions of my soul's decay,

while my brain wears away with the
scratching night and day on the
encephalograph of prayer. I grow

monstrous with the leukemia of the world.”

And here it is in its published form. Note that this version has all of the same words in the same order as the original, but the line breaks and stanza breaks have changed dramatically:

He looked down at his withering body and saw a hair
near his navel, swaying.

And now he saw his other hairs rise up.

He felt a hectic current in his veins.
Looking within, he saw the bubbling of his blood.

He cursed his fever, saying:
“It is the chemistry of prayer.
It increases in frequency,
seeding panic to all my being.
My cells swell with the liquid of guilt they fabricate,
juices of hatred eat my belly,
my corpuscles make war in me as they devour each other.
My head heats in the combustion of anxiety,
I am polluted by the secretions of my soul's decay,
while my brain wears away
with the scratching night and day
on the encephalograph of prayer.
I grow monstrous with the leukemia of the world.”

Swenson’s obvious struggle with form in “His Suicide” casts light on why many poets think free verse is the most difficult kind to write well. At first, the visionary and dramatic nature of Swenson’s poem may have prompted a reflex to fit the poem into tercets.

But the tercets were seemingly imposed by fiat rather than naturally flowing. Violent enjambments in the original version (such as “my / corpuscles” and “with the / scratching night”), enacting the violence of the suicide, break the rules for good tercets.  In other words, this was a modern poem (“the times they are a-changing”) badly fitted into overly formal attire. Swenson dropped the pattern, allowing the lines to flow according to colloquial rhythms and natural syntactic pauses with the occasional manipulation (as in the decay/away/day rhyme) to quicken the emotion. Given the visionary quality, even difficulty, of its subject, the reading experience is enhanced by this looseness: metaphors such as “while my brain wears away with the / scratching night and day on the / encephalograph of prayer” become the central focus.

The novelty of such a metaphor must have been as jarring in 1966 as Eliot's evening “like a patient etherized upon a table” in 1915. Perhaps encouraged by Rago's acceptance of these strange, vatic science poems, Swenson continued in this vein and two years later wrote to her editor:  “Under a Rockefeller grant I have been working on a series of poems with subjects from science, and the enclosed are a few of the results.” Among them was the 92-line “The DNA Molecule,” possibly the best poem she published in her whole career with Poetry. It begins with a meditation on Marcel Duchamp’s cubist painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”: while Duchamp dissects the motion of a woman either ascending or descending spiral steps, Swenson dissects the figure of a double helix with its four amino acids, suggesting that a model of the double helix as tall as the Empire State Building might help us ascertain the enormity of the meaning this molecule has for us. She pictures herself as the nude ascending and descending this superstructure, and taking on its power:

The Nude has “the capacity for replication
and transcription” of all genesis.

She ingests and regurgitates
the genetic material it being

the material of her own cell-self.
From single she becomes double and

from double single.

Swenson creates a kind of self-portrait as artist-goddess: it is herself she describes, the maker of worlds, doubling herself and becoming single again, bringing the heights of Modernist achievement in art and science into her vortex.

Finally the poem makes another leap, from the poet’s head, where she is like Wallace Stevens in his Tea at the Palaz of Hoon (“I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself”), to a world apart from the author in which she witnesses a butterfly hatching. As Swenson ecstatically, yet precisely, describes the tiny event, the principle of recycled life links modernity with our ancient religious past:

On each wing I saw a large blue eye

open forever in the expression of resurrection.
The new Nude released the flanges of her wings

stretching herself to touch
at all points the outermost rim of the noõsphere.

I saw that for her body from which the wings expanded
she had retained the worm.

Astonishingly, Swenson manages to see the Empire State Building in the tiniest nude butterfly “stretching herself to touch/ at all points the outermost rim” like a skyscraper. And for “she had retained the worm,” we can also read a triumphant “she had retained the form.” “Worm”is an ancient figure for the poetic line (even in French, the word for worm, ver, is homonymous with vers, verse). For Swenson, the fact that we retain our worm/form through the metamorphoses of history is a basic expression of our immortality—and a cause for optimism and joy.

Henry Rago wrote to Swenson: “I’ve been much interested in this new packet and have enjoyed such a rich choice. Two that we like especially on every reading are ‘Earth Will Not Let Go’ and ‘The DNA Molecule.’ I am keeping them for POETRY. Our more formal acceptance-notice is enclosed.”

Swenson would continue to publish with Poetry after Rago’s untimely death by heart attack in 1969, at the age of 53.  But something about the tenor of her work changed over the next few decades. Some might say she loosened up. In a 1979 letter to then-editor John Frederick Nims, she joked familiarly, “Thanks for the warning that The Pope will follow in my footsteps Oct. 4-5-6 in Chicago. I might have mistaken the crowds for fans of mine otherwise.” A year earlier, she had published the playfully casual “Fashion in the 70s”:

Like, everyone wants to look black
in New York these days.
Faces with black lenses, black
frames around the eyes,
faces framed in black
beards. Afros on all the blacks—
beautiful. But like,
everyone looks puff-headed.

If this social commentary bears little relation to Swenson’s existential, intense early work, it does point in the direction her later work was to take: more conversational, more mundane, and more humorous. One of her last books, In Other Words (1987), showcases this late style. It is still concerned with nature and wonder, as were her first books, but the tone is down-to-earth, engaged, and warm; the typographic experiments have given way to chatty blank verse. Perhaps this bears out the influence of Swenson’s friend Elizabeth Bishop, for whom Swenson wrote the elegy “In the Bodies of Words”:

Sky is clearest blue because so cold. Birds drop down
in the dappled yard: white breast of nuthatch, slate
catbird, cardinal the color of blood.

The emphasis throughout is, as in many of Bishop’s poems, on what the eye can see rather than what the inner eye beholds. Swenson’s former striving to integrate natural science and the poet’s insights are a thing of the past, a relic of a time where utopian optimism was at its height, and authority could be conceded to a visionary who wrote “Science and poetry are alike, or allied, it seems to me, in their largest and main target—to investigate any and all phenomena of experience beyond the flat surface of appearances.” (Made with Words, 96) In the spring of 2013, as the 100th anniversary of Swenson’s birth approaches, the Library of America will publish a long-awaited May Swenson: Collected Poems. As her oeuvre comes into clearer focus, it will be interesting to see whether the period coinciding with “Gods. Children.” and “The DNA Molecule” represents her most idiosyncratic and compelling contribution to American poetry. If so, her editorial relationship with Henry Rago, whose theological orientation made him a sympathetic audience for her demiurgic ambitions, will merit a closer look.


The published and unpublished versions of Swenson’s “His Suicide” are reprinted with permission of the Literary Estate of May Swenson. All rights reserved. Letters of May Swenson and Henry Rago courtesy, the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Permission to quote from the letters of May Swenson courtesy oftThe Literary Estate of May Swenson. Permission to quote from the letters of Henry Rago courtesy of the Literary Estate of Henry Rago. 

Originally Published: September 11, 2012


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 Ange  Mlinko


Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010), a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award; Starred Wire (2005), which was a National Poetry Series winner in 2004 and a . . .

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