May Swenson: Collected Poems, ed. by Langdon Hammer.
The Library of America. $40.00.
May Swenson’s centenary was marked this past year by a Library of America edition of her seven published volumes, with the addition of five prose pieces and more than a hundred pages of poems not collected before now. As editor, Langdon Hammer includes a chronology of her life and a brief, useful set of notes. Clearly it’s time for a close look at Swenson’s achievements, which have never been clearly defined.
Definition won’t be easy, and it has to begin by taking her biography into account. The profile of the provincial who comes to New York in hopes of becoming a celebrated artist is standard enough, but in Swenson’s case several non-routine factors should also be considered. Her parents were Swedish immigrants, Mormon converts come to the Utah homeland, who brought her up in their adopted faith. But at some point she realized she was a lesbian. This was one more reason to leave behind the Latter-Day Saints, a decision she made without ever publicly denouncing or deriding them. For her, leading a semi-bohemian life as a lesbian in Greenwich Village seemed to be a sufficient repudiation. And yet, despite her long residence in New York, where career affiliations are common, she never joined any poetic movement or literary coterie. It’s as though she was determined not to give up her individual perspective or be neatly pigeonholed.
One consistent, almost obsessive interest she displayed was in the person and the work of Elizabeth Bishop, whom she met at Yaddo in 1950. The pamphlet Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems & Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, published a decade after Swenson’s death, traces the contour of this relationship, which was conducted more or less at arm’s length, and not merely because Bishop moved to Brazil soon after they became friends. North & South had already been published when the two met, whereas Swenson’s debut had to wait four more years. Bishop was well connected to important poets of the day, she was a Vassar graduate, and her background was upper middle class. The letters between them, though friendly, at first show Swenson as the disciple and Bishop as the mentor. On at least one occasion Swenson typed a manuscript for the older poet, but there is no record of Bishop reciprocating. Would they have become fellow literary travelers at all if they hadn’t both been lesbians? In a letter to a friend, Bishop early on described Swenson as “awfully cute” and said she wrote “extraordinary poems.” There was never a love affair, but both the pamphlet mentioned above and the new volume give us an unpublished draft (“Somebody Who’s Somebody”) in which Swenson states her attraction in these terms:
I was nutsabout you. And I couldn’t saya word. And you never said theword that would have loosenedall my doggy love and let mejump you like a suddenlyunhobbled hound wild for love.
This is an unpublished, unpolished work, but the onrush of sincerity is unmistakable. I’m guessing that the unmentioned word is “lesbian,” and in all fairness to Bishop, the word never appears in Swenson’s work either. She wrote many love poems, always managing to leave the gender of the beloved vague. That will seem less bizarre once it’s recalled that, in the first part of Swenson’s life, same-sex acts were still listed in the law books as felonies. In later years, after Swenson had some success, Bishop’s epistolary tone changes, and she writes to Swenson as one does to a peer. Yet in a letter to Lowell, she said of Swenson’s poetry that she liked it “in spots.” On her side, Swenson says she admires Bishop’s poem “The Shampoo,” but says she doesn’t quite understand what is going on in it. Clearly the two poets were not each other’s ideal audience. Both were fascinated by the animal kingdom, both liked to use visual description in composing their poems, and both were able to hint in their poems at lesbian relationships. But the resemblance goes no further.
The other influence on Swenson was E.E. Cummings — not so much his content as his playfulness with typography, as well as his predilection for word fracture and reassembly. There is also a relationship to Gertrude Stein’s prose. Swenson clearly admired Stein, too, and adapted Steinian repetition and phrasal massage for many of her poems. If we keep these two influences in mind, a poem like “I’ll Be” will seem less eccentric:
I was too young
to see and think and say: “I am young
I am too young.”
I am too young
to see and think, and say: “I am old,
I was young.
I am too old.”
I’ll be too old
to see, and think, and say: “I was too young,
I’ll be too old
to . . . I’ll be dead,
too. Be dead
to . . . Dead
I’ll be! Dead,
The nonstandard formatting of this poem emphasizes its Steinian incantatory quality, an effect attained by recycling identical words in slightly varied phrasing. It may produce a feeling of tedium, but Swenson’s poem is staking a claim to something as grand as post-mortem survival, and our routine resistance to that idea is scrambled and beaten down by the disorienting presentation. The obstacle course of lineation induces an uncertainty that numbs what I’ll call the reflex of disagreement, the basic skepticism we bring to any new text. We can read the poem left to right (sometimes following an enjambment) and not be deterred by the anomalous spacing as we discover normal sense; or we can read the columns vertically down and be entertained by nonsemantic repetition and variations of sound. We may even be persuaded by the poem’s argument that the author, once dead, still continues to “be.” It’s also possible that some readers will hear the poem as an echo of a verse from the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 2:25), which says, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”
The placement of words on the page in “I’ll Be” isn’t wildly eccentric, but many of Swenson’s poems are a typesetter’s headache, particularly those in the volume titled Iconographs (1970). That book appeared one year after John Hollander’s Types of Shape, a series of poems conformed to the silhouette of various objects. The traditional term for this genre is carmen figuratum (shaped lyric), and we find examples of it in classical Greek, in poems of George Herbert’s like “Easter-wings,” Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, and the concrete poetry of the mid-twentieth century. Swenson’s shapes seldom correspond strictly (as Hollander’s do) to the silhouette of the objects being treated. The poems’ zigzags and gaps, deploying something that might be called lexical kinesis, suggest, rather than photocopy, their subject phenomena.
R.R. Knudson, Swenson’s last life companion, assembled (with Suzzanne Bigelow), a posthumous volume titled May Swenson: A Poet’s Life in Photos, gathering photographs, a summary of the main life events of the poet, and citations from some of her letters. In one of these, Swenson speaks of the Iconographs volume this way: “I get bored with the conventional stanza-and-verse look of poetry.... I wanted to make my poems do what they say.... The spaces between the lines are actively and visually important, too.” And so they are, in clever ways. But then, in her selected poems volume, Swenson recast a few of the shaped poems, giving them “the conventional stanza-and-verse look of poetry.” No explanation is given for the decision, leaving us with a question: Which is the true version of the poem? Here’s one opinion: The poem “Feel Me,” an account of her father’s death, is better in the traditional format because the implication of game-playing in the iconograph clashes a little with the seriousness of the narrative. On the other hand, “The James Bond Movie,” a wicked satire of 007’s machismo, is even funnier in her shaped format, where it is made to suggest the female pelvic region. I should mention that not all the iconographs are printed exactly as they originally appeared. A separate section of the volume gives facsimiles of several originals, typed in the Courier font of the traditional typewriter, which assigns an equal space to each letter and character. This makes for a graphic precision not perfectly reproducible in modern computer typesetting. Also, the page dimensions of the Library of America edition don’t work well for some of the iconographs. If you want to have all of Swenson and have it in perfect form, you will have to acquire Iconographs separately.
That book might be considered an aberration, yet some mild typographical experiments appear in her very first, where we find poems whose right-hand margin is justified and the left is not. Or poems whose left-hand margins slant at an angle down the page. Typographical play, word fractures, and homophonic punning recur throughout Swenson’s oeuvre, but seem to decrease in frequency over the decades. I speculate that, as public poetry readings became more and more common, Swenson came to view vocal performance of typographical poems as not fully effective and in some cases impossible. Her early poems mostly avoid traditional meter and end rhyme but ad hoc interlinear rhymes arrive often enough to constitute an earmark of her style. Toward the end of her career she occasionally tackled a poem in meter and rhyme, though the results sound a little offbeat, lacking the lyric inevitability of, say, Andrew Marvell or Heinrich Heine. Swenson’s default approach is to allow for split-second impulses, digressions, and disruptions, mental habits that can’t easily be made to harmonize with a sonic template established in advance.
As for her persistent preoccupations, the poem “An Unknown Island” seems to propose what Harold Bloom has called the internalization of quest romance — at least, to judge by a line that says, “The frontiers are internal now” and others invoking “the oceanic span of thought / the soul’s geography.” But this is an early work, and the bulk of Swenson’s later poetry instead takes up the task of describing the external world: landscapes, seascapes, fauna, and flora. She was a keen birdwatcher, and many of the poems describe avian species that appeal to her. She departs from the tradition of using birds as emblems for some human virtue or moral quality, content to render them simply as they are. Doing so implies that the mere appearance of natural phenomena is a sufficient subject. In such poems, the Aesop’s fables “moral” is successfully avoided, along with the Marianne Moore equivalent, but inevitably a question about the effectiveness of pure description arises. Wouldn’t a photograph or video convey visual information more completely and accurately? Traditionally, poetry incorporated description only as part of a more general argument. Most poets have felt that description is valuable when it involves surprising metaphors, engaging sonic texture, and unfamiliar combinations of words. A verbal art requires more than saying that, for example, a cardinal is bright red and has a fat beak. Sometimes Swenson gives us that overplus and sometimes not. Most effective of all are those Swenson poems that combine detailed observation, philosophical reflection, and autobiography. One example is “October,” which begins by describing the sea on a rainy autumn day and returns to the poet’s seaside house, the evocation supported by consonantal repetition and astute enjambment:
Knuckles of the rainon the roof,chuckles into the drain-pipe, spatters onthe leaves that litterthe grass. Melancholymorning, the tide fullin the bay, an overflowingbowl.
Memories of childhood and her father wash in on the tide of memory:
Dad used to darnour socks when we were small,and cut our hair and toenails.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .He built our dining table,chairs, the buffet, the bay windowseat, my little desk of cherry woodwhere I wrote my first poems.
She goes on to recall how he sliced off the tip of his thumb with an electric saw, the scar still visible at his funeral. The sense of service and obligation is comparable to what Robert Hayden recalls in “Those Winter Sundays.” The poem concludes by observing a red-winged blackbird, lingering near her house because it is too old to join in the seasonal migration. Swenson doesn’t say so directly, but we sense that she intends a symbolic fusion of her father and the bird, one sign of which is the patch of red on the bird’s wings. It’s a reminder of paternal sacrifice in a blend of observation and memory summoning up the first stirrings of a poet’s vocation. Just possibly the elder Swenson’s faith affects the poet’s portrayal of him. A passage in the Book of Mormon, in the thirty-seventh chapter of Alma, says, “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” This is said when the figure of Alma urges his son Helaman to keep an accurate record of his people and their doings. Much of Swenson’s poetry can be described as accurate record keeping, though secular and comparable to the work of a natural scientist or psychologist.
Her fascination with bird flight takes on an aeronautic inflection in a number of poems that deal with airships and the exploration of space. In his preface to the Knudson book cited previously, Richard Wilbur recalls his friendship with the poet and says, “Like Emily Dickinson, who much influenced her, May lived in the universe. No poet of our day has said and conjectured so much about stars and space.” An early poem speculated about the possibility of a moon landing, and a later one described that event from the astronauts’ point of view. Swenson poems describe no less than four space shuttle launches, and in exciting terms (“an elongated Taj Mahal jumps upward”). One of these is the disastrous Challenger launch of 1986, which exploded with the teacher Christa McAuliffe on board. Swenson had already registered some disenchantment regarding the previous launch, noting its pollution of the atmosphere and the accumulation of space debris in orbit around the planet. Also its sinister, macho role as propaganda in the Cold War:
We will equip (and expose) ourselves in space,the High Frontier, half of Earth showing the other halfwho’s biggest, stiffest, most macho, who canget it up, can get it off, the quickest.
Once Challenger has crashed, she never returns to the subject of space launches, content thereafter to observe celestial bodies from the viewing platform of Earth. More often, her subject is Terra itself and its living inhabitants. Given that most of her poems are less than two pages long, I’m guessing that the desire to have tried everything led her to write “Banyan,” a twenty-six-page fantasy sequence mixing prose and poetry as it narrates the adventures of two animal characters exploring a huge, labyrinthine banyan tree. The narrator is named Tanto, and his companion is Blondi, a white cockatoo he has liberated from its cage in a library. The tale has a certain whimsical charm, despite its wackiness and narrative incoherence. Unlike other Swenson poems, it concludes with a “moral,” the tag lines of the last book she published.
The purpose of life isTo find the purpose of lifeTo find the purposeOf life isThe purposeLife isTo find
A statement too bald for poetry, maybe, but echoing the beliefs of many sages. The word “invention” is from Latin — “invenire” — “to find.” Not as well known as other poets of her generation, May Swenson and her surprising inventions take us to new territory: earthly, lunar, or psychological. She is a good find.