May Swenson

1913–1989
May SwensonHenry Carlisle

During her prolific career, May Swenson received numerous literary awards and nominations for her poetry. Often experimental in both form and appearance, her poems earned her widespread critical acclaim. As Priscilla Long commented in the Women's Review of Books, "Swenson was a visionary poet, a prodigious observer of the fragile and miraculous natural world."

Swenson's poetry has been praised for its imagery, which is alternately precise and beguiling, and for the quality of her personal and imaginative observations. Swenson's poetry "exhibits . . . her continuing alertness to the liveliness of nature. Correspondences among all life forms pour from her work, confirming that nothing is meaningless. The universe's basic beauty and balance is the stuff and soul of her poems," observed Los Angeles Times reviewer Eloise Klein Healy.

Richard Howard emphasized in a Tri-Quarterly review that Swenson's enterprise is "to get out of herself and into those larger, warmer energies of earth, and to do so by liturgical means." Howard wrote: "When May Swenson, speaking in her thaumaturgical fashion of poetry, says that 'attention to the silence in between is the amulet that makes it work,' we are reminded, while on other occasions in her work we are reassured, that there is a kind of poetry, as there used to be a kind of love, which dares not speak its name." Thus Swenson's "orphic cadences," her "siren-songs, with their obsessive reliance on the devices of incantation," are the means by which she seeks to "discover runes, the conjurations by which she can not only apostrophize the hand, the cat and the cloud in their innominate otherness, but by which she can, in some essential and relieving way, become them, leave her own impinging selfhood in the paralyzed region where names are assigned, and assume instead the energies of natural process."

Book Week contributor Chad Walsh noted: "In most of Miss Swenson's poems the sheer thingness of things is joyfully celebrated." Walsh called her "the poet par excellence of sights and colors." Stephen Stepanchev, author of American Poetry since 1945, also thought that Swenson's "distinction is that she is able to make . . . her reader see clearly what he has merely looked at before." Stepanchev, however, is one of the few critics to find her poems less than completely effective. "Miss Swenson," he wrote, "works in a free verse that is supple but rather prosaic, despite her picturemaking efforts."

Howard, writing of Swenson's development as a poet, stated that "from the first . . . Swenson has practiced, in riddles, chants, hex-signs and a whole panoply of invented sortilege unwonted in Western poetry since the Witch of Endor brought up Samuel, the ways not only of summoning Being into her grasp, but of getting herself out of that grasp and into alien shapes, into those emblems of power most often identified with the sexual." Of the more recent poems, Howard wrote: "They are the witty, resigned poems of a woman . . . eager still to manipulate the phenomenal world by magic, but so possessed, now, of the means of her identity that the ritual, spellbinding, litaneutical elements of her art, have grown consistent with her temporal, conditioned, suffering experience and seem—to pay her the highest compliment she could care to receive—no more than natural."

Reviewing Half Sun, Half Sleep; New Poems, New York Times Book Review contributor Karl Shapiro wrote: "[Swenson's] concentration on the verbal equivalent of experience is so true, so often brilliant, that one watches her with hope and pleasure, praying for victory all the way." Poetry reviewer William Stafford observed: "No one today is more deft and lucky in discovering a poem than May Swenson. Her work 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." And Shapiro offered this analysis of Swenson's achievement in this book: "The whole volume is an album of experiments . . . that pay off. It is strange to see the once-radical carmen figuratum, the calligraphic poem, spatial forms, imagist and surreal forms—all the heritage of the early years of the century—being used with such ease and unselfconsciousness."

Swenson herself wrote that the experience of poetry is "based in a craving to get through the curtains of things as they appear, to things as they are, and then into the larger, wilder space of things as they are becoming. This ambition involves a paradox: an instinctive belief in the senses as exquisite tools for this investigation and, at the same time, a suspicion about their crudeness." Swenson also noted: "The poet, tracing the edge of a great shadow whose outline shifts and varies, proving there is an invisible moving source of light behind, hopes (naively, in view of his ephemerality) to reach and touch the foot of that solid whatever-it-is that casts the shadow. If sometimes it seems he does touch it, it is only to be faced with a more distant, even less accessible mystery. Because all is movement—all is breathing change."

Among the "strategies and devices, the shamanism and sorcery this poet deploys," as Howard admiringly described them, is Swenson's use of the riddle in Poems to Solve. The book may be enjoyed by both children and adults; the poems here are another serious attempt to accommodate "the mystery that only when a thing is apprehended as something else can it be known as itself." Swenson wrote of these poems: "It is essential, of course, with a device such as this to make not a riddle-pretending-to-be-a-poem but a poem that is also, and as if incidentally, a riddle—a solvable one. The aim is not to mystify or mislead but to clarify and make recognizable through the reader's own uncontaminated perceptions."

Nature: Poems Old and New, published four years after Swenson's death, emphasized Swenson's sympathy for and identification with the outdoors. "Swenson was an unrelentingly lyrical poet," wrote Priscilla Long in the Women's Review of Books, "a master of the poetic line in which similar sounds accumulate and resonate so that the poem exists, beyond its meanings, as a rattle or a music box, or, in moments of greatness, a symphony." Her collection Nature is "so inward, independent, and intense, so intimate and impersonal at once," wrote Yale Review critic Langdon Hammer, that "it has been difficult to place in the field of contemporary poetry." Several other critics, however, identified the work as an appreciation of Swenson's profound talent, collecting the best of her work between two covers. "The poetry thinks, feels, examines," observed a Publishers Weekly contributor; "it's patiently, meticulously sensuous, and adventurously varied in form, much as nature is." "These poems, harvested from her life's work and arranged in this delightful format," stated Rochelle Natt in the American Book Review, "promote a lasting vision of Swenson's valuable contribution to American poetry."

Career

Poet, 1949-89. Formerly worked as an editor for New Directions, New York, NY; writer in residence at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, 1966-67, University of North Carolina, 1968-69 and 1974, Lethbridge University, Alberta, Canada, 1970, and University of California, Riverside, 1976. Lectured and gave readings at more than fifty American universities and colleges, as well as at the New York YM-YWHA Poetry Center, and San Francisco Poetry Center. Conductor of workshops at University of Indiana Writers Conference and Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Vermont. Participant at the Yaddo and MacDowell colonies for writers.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • Another Animal, Scribner (New York, NY), 1954.
  • A Cage of Spines, Rinehart (New York, NY), 1958.
  • To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems, Scribner (New York, NY), 1963.
  • Poems to Solve (for young adults), Scribner (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Half Sun, Half Sleep; New poems (new poems and her translations of six Swedish poets), Scribner (New York, NY), 1967.
  • Iconographs; Poems (includes "Feel Me"), Scribner (New York, NY), 1970.
  • More Poems to Solve, Scribner (New York, NY), 1971.
  • (Translator, with Leif Sjoberg) Windows and Stones, Selected Poems of Tomas Transtromer (translated from the Swedish), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1972.
  • New and Selected Things Taking Place (includes "Ending"), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1978.
  • In Other Words, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
  • The Love Poems of May Swenson, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.
  • The Complete Poems to Solve (for young adults), illustrated by Christy Hale, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Nature: Poems Old and New, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
  • The Centaur, illustrated by Barry Moser, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.
  • May out West: Poems of May Swenson, Utah State University Press (Logan, UT), 1996.
  • Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, afterword by Kirstin Hotelling Zona, Utah State University Press (Logan, UT), 2000.
  • The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.

OTHER

  • The Floor (one-act play), first produced under the program title Doubles and Opposites in New York at American Place Theater, May 11, 1966, on a triple bill with "23 Pat O'Brien Movies," by Bruce Jay Friedman, and "Miss Pete," by Andrew Glaze.
  • The Guess and Spell Coloring Book (for children), drawings by Lise Gladstone, Scribner (New York, NY), 1976.
  • (Selector of poems, with R. R. Knudson) American Sports Poems, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1988.
  • Made with Words, edited by Gardner McFall, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1997.

CONTRIBUTOR

  • A Treasury of Great Poems, edited by Louis Untermeyer, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1955.
  • New Poets 2, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1957.
  • New Poets of England and America, edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson, Meridian (New York, NY), 1957.
  • A Country in the Mind, edited by Ray B. West, Angel Island Publications (Sausalito, CA), 1962.
  • Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1963.
  • 100 American Poems of the Twentieth Century, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 1963.
  • The Modern Poets, edited by John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1963.
  • The New Modern Poetry, edited by M. L. Rosenthal, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.

Works represented in other anthologies. Poems also included in translation in anthologies published in Italy and Germany. Contributor of poetry, stories, and criticism to Poetry, Nation, Saturday Review, Atlantic, Harper's, New Yorker, Southern Review, Hudson Review, and other periodicals. Swenson also produced sound recordings, including May Swenson Reading Her Poems in New York City, March 15, 1958; The Experience of Poetry in A Scientific Age, 1964; May Swenson Reading Her Poems with Comment in the Recording Laboratory, May 12, 1969; and Julia Randall and May Swenson Reading and Discussing Their Poems in the Coolidge Auditorium, February 16, 1970. Swenson's work is included in the sound recording Today's Poets: Their Poems, Their Voices, Volume 2, Scholastic Records, 1968, and recordings for the Library of Congress, Spoken Arts Records, Folkways Records, and others. Her poems have been set to music by Otto Leuning, Howard Swanson, Emerson Meyers, Joyce McKeel, Claudio Spies, Lester Trimble, and Warren Benson.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Brinnin, John Malcolm, and Bill Read, editors, The Modern Poets, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1963.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 4, 1975, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 61, 1990.
  • Contemporary Poets, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1980.
  • Deutsch, Babette, editor, Poetry in Our Time, 2nd edition, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1963.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Encyclopedia of American Literature, Continuum (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Hoffman, Daniel, editor, The Harvard Guide to American Writing, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA), 1977.
  • Nemerov, Howard, editor, Poets on Poetry, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Poems for Young Readers: Selections from Their Own Writing by Poets Attending the Houston Festival of Contemporary Poetry, National Council of Teachers of English, 1966.
  • Stepanchev, Stephen, American Poetry since 1945, Harper (New York, NY), 1965.
  • Untermeyer, Louis, editor, A Treasury of Great Poems, English and American, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1955.

PERIODICALS

  • American Book Review, September, 1995, p. 14.
  • Atlantic, February, 1968.
  • Booklist, June 1, 1993.
  • Book Week, June 4, 1967, Volume 4, number 30.
  • Book World, May 22, 1988, Thomas M. Disch, review of In Other Words, pp. 1, 14.
  • Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1979.
  • Library Journal, June 15, 1994, Judy Clarence, review of Nature: Poems Old and New, p. 72.
  • Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1979.
  • New Republic, March 7, 1988, Mary Jo Salter, review of In Other Words, p. 40.
  • New York Times, March 19, 1979; June 16, 1987.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 1, 1963; May 7, 1967; February 11, 1979; June 12, 1988; January 19, 1992.
  • Poetry, December, 1967; February, 1979; February, 1993; November, 2001, Christian Wiman, review of Nature, p. 97.
  • Prairie Schooner, spring, 1968.
  • Publishers Weekly, May 30, 1994, review of Nature, pp. 46-47.
  • Tri-Quarterly, fall, 1966.
  • Twentieth Century Literature, summer, 1998, Kirstin Hotelling Zona, "A 'Dangerous Game of Change': Images of Desire in the Love Poems of May Swenson," p. 219.
  • Wilson Quarterly, winter, 1997, review of May Swenson: Selected and Introduced by Anthony Hecht, p. 105.
  • Women's Review of Books, January, 1995, pp. 8-9.
  • Yale Review, January, 1995, pp. 121-41.

ONLINE

  • Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (June 3, 2003), author profile.
  • University of Michigan Press Web site, http://www.press.umich.edu/ (June 3, 2003), review of Made with Words.
  • Utah State University Press Web site, http://www.usu.edu/usupress/ (June 3, 2003), reviews of Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop and May out West: Poems of May Swenson.

OBITUARIES:PERIODICALS

  • Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1989.
  • Los Angeles Times, December 14, 1989.
  • New York Times, December 5, 1989.
  • Washington Post, December 8, 1989.

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LIFE SPAN 1913–1989

May Swenson

Biography

During her prolific career, May Swenson received numerous literary awards and nominations for her poetry. Often experimental in both form and appearance, her poems earned her widespread critical acclaim. As Priscilla Long commented in the Women's Review of Books, "Swenson was a visionary poet, a prodigious observer of the fragile and miraculous natural world."

Swenson's poetry has been praised for its imagery, which is . . .

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