May Swenson was born in Logan, Utah to Swedish immigrant parents—English was Swenson’s second language, and she grew up speaking Swedish at home. Swenson earned a BA from Utah State University and briefly worked as a reporter in Salt Lake City. She moved to New York City in the 1930s and in 1959 she began working at New Directions Press, the modernist publishing house founded by James Laughlin. Swenson is considered one of mid-century America’s foremost poets; her typographic innovations and exuberance earned comparisons to e.e. cummings and her careful attention to the suggestiveness of objects, persons, and events of ordinary life could recall Elizabeth Bishop, with whom Swenson corresponded for decades. Swenson’s numerous collections of poetry include Another Animal (1954), A Cage of Spines (1958), To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963), Half Sun Half Sleep (1967), Iconographs (1970), New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978) and In Other Words (1987). Further collections, including The Love Poems (1991), Nature: Poems Old and New (1994), and May Out West (1996) were all published after her death.

Swenson’s poetry was widely praised for its precise and beguiling imagery, and for the quality of its personal and imaginative observations. Taking inspiration from daily events, ordinary rituals, and the natural world, Swenson revealed “the larger, warmer energies of earth,” according to poet Richard Howard. 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.” And in the Los Angeles Times Eloise Klein Healy described how “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.”

The poet William Stafford once 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.”

Swenson’s ability to draw out the metaphysical implications of the material world were widely commented on; but she was also known for her lighthearted, even joyous, take on life in decades characterized by febrile “confessional” verse. Riddles, chants, and calligrams—experiments in typography and layout—dot Swenson’s oeuvre. Reviewing Half Sun, Half Sleep Karl Shapiro wrote: “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.”

Swenson also wrote poetry for children, including Poems to Solve (1966), More Poems to Solve (1968), and Spell Coloring Book (1976). Of Poems to Solve, Swenson acknowledged, “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.” In addition to these books and her many collections of poetry, Swenson also wrote a one-act play, The Floor (1960), and co-translated, with Leif Sjoberg, Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Transtromer (1972).

Swenson left New York City in 1967, when she moved to Sea Cliff, Long Island where she lived with her partner, the author R.R. Knudson. During her prolific career, Swenson received numerous literary awards and nominations for her poetry. She taught and served as poet-in-residence at many institutions in both the United States and Canada, and she held fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. She was the recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award, the Bollingen Prize, and Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She received an honorary degree from Utah State University as well as their Distinguished Service Gold Medal. Swenson was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980-1989.

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 Readings

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.