Born 28 May 1919, Logan, Utah; died 4 December 1989, Ocean View, Delaware
Daughter of Dan Arthur and Anna Margaret Hellberg Swenson
One of a large family, May Swenson grew up and was educated near the State University in Logan, where her father was professor of mechanical engineering. After graduation, Swenson worked as a reporter on the Salt Lake City Deseret News and then moved to New York where she held various jobs, becoming an editor for New Directions in 1959. In 1966 she resigned to devote full time to her writing, with interludes as poet-in-residence at several American and Canadian universities. Swenson received numerous honors for her poetry, including Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships, the Shelley Memorial Award, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1970 she was elected to membership in the institute.
Though Swenson did translations from the work of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer and wrote a play and some prose, she was best known as a poet. Her first book, Another Animal (1954), indicated the directions and methods much of her later work would follow; it demonstrates the qualities of freshness, vitality, and keen and often unusual observations of natural phenomena and a magical balancing of surface and interior meanings. Often the balancing takes the form of metaphor as in the equation between landscape and the human body in "Sketch for a Landscape." In this book she begins, too, the riddling pattern often followed later of refusing to name lest naming interfere with the observer's truly identifying the object.
Swenson's second book, A Cage of Spires (1958), a solid volume both in length and quality, continues the pressure upon the things of this world, turning them into emblems of other, deeper structures. For example, in "Promontory Moment," the poem evolves from the image of a yellow pencil tilted in sand like the mast of a ship, to the whole relationship of the works of man, nature, the sea, and sun where "little and vast are the same to that big eye / that sees no shadow." But Swenson's cosmic images are rarely solemn, so interspersed are they with vivid accounting of the immediate world. Depth and wit come together in this book described by Richard Wilbur as "happy throughout in both senses of the word."
To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963) reproduces most of the poems of her first two volumes, along with an entire new collection. Some of the poems came as a response to France, Italy, and Spain, which Swenson visited in 1960 and 1961 with an Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. Of particular interest is "Death Invited," in which Swenson combines an awareness of the ongoingness of death with the ritual of the bullfight.
Half Sun Half Sleep (1967) continues the search for "the clarities of Being" through the landscapes of city, country, and the sea. She continues also her experiments with unusual typography suited to the material of the poem which has marked her work from the beginning.
All the poems in Iconographs (1970) are in such shapes. It is important to notice, however, that Swenson has never sacrificed the sense of the poem to its iconography; the shapes are imposed upon the poems after composition. Iconographs marks too a further expression of passion in such poems as "Feel Me," "A Trellis for R.," "Wednesday at the Waldorf," and "The Year of the Double Spring." Here Swenson releases some of the intense feeling that remained as a strong undercurrent in many of the earlier poems.
Besides her original verse, Swenson has published several books for young readers. Most of the poems in the first two, Poems to Solve (1966) and More Poems to Solve (1971), have been chosen from her already published work.
Swenson has carried the perception of visual detail farther than any other contemporary poet, and probably none so successfully joins freshness of vision with serious undercurrents of ideas. Moreover, she is aware of the textural connotations of sound, consistently using them to enhance meaning. Wit, too, enlivens poem after poem in the metaphysical sense, being a play between intellect and object in a serious sleight of hand. As Richard Howard has said, "her attention is to the quality of being itself in order to encounter, to espouse form as it becomes what it is." Swenson's poetry is unique in such encounter and well deserves the high praise it enjoyed in a career spanning 35 years. Swenson published some 450 poems, and amid the many that speak of nature, science, and technology, there are also a number of love poems. Those originally published in earlier works, along with 13 not previously published, have been collected in The Love Poems of May Swenson (1991). Included in this volume are visual and nature poems that treat love and sexuality while also interpreting the world through human hearts. Swenson's metaphorical use of flowers to communicate a frank sexuality and sensuality has much in common with the more erotic interpretation of the Song of Songs. Love is not always pleasure, and Swenson is quick to point out the isolation occurring in a life without love as an anchor. "In love we are set free" certainly, and Swenson implies that without love we are truly imprisoned in ourselves.
The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic (1964). Windows and Stones: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Swenson, 1972). The Guess & Spell Coloring Book (1976). New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978). In Other Words: New Poems (1987, reprinted 1992). American Sports Poems (with R. R. Knudson, 1989). The Complete to Solve (juvenile, 1993). Nature (1993). The Centaur (1994). Nature: Poems Old and New (1994). May Out West: Poems of May Swenson (1996). Made with Words (1998).
Contributor to many journals, including: American Poetry Review, Nation, Paris Review, Parnassus, Poetry, and Yale Review.
Contributed to anthologies, most recently: No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Newly Revised and Expanded (1993); The Best American Poetry 1994 (1994); An Anthology of Great U.S. Women Poets, 1850-1990: Temples and Palaces (1997).
May Swenson's papers are housed at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Gilbert S. M., and S. Gubar, eds., Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (1979). Hotelling, K. R., "After Autonomy: The Feminist Poetics of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Swenson" (dissertation, 1998). Knudson, R. R., May Swenson: A Poet's Life in Photos (1996). Mullaney, J. P., ed., Truthtellers of the Times: Interviews with Contemporary Women Poets (1998).
AWP (1986). CA (1969, 1990). CANR (1992). CLC (1975, 1980, 1990). CP (1985). DLB (1980). FC (1990). MTCW (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). SATA (1979).
American Poetry Review (March-April 1978, Sept. 1994). Bulletin of Bibliography (March 1987). CSM (12 Feb. 1979). Explicator (Fall 1979). Hudson Review (Summer 1988). Nation (10 Aug. 1963, 28 Feb. 1972). NR (7 March 1988). NYT (obituary, 5 Dec. 1989). NYTBR (7 May 1971, 11 Feb. 1979, 19 Jan. 1992). Parnassus (Fall 1978, 1985, 1990). Paris Review (Summer 1993). Poetry (Nov. 1971, Feb. 1979, Feb. 1980, July 1989). Poetry Criticism (1996). Southern Review (Winter 1969). Twentieth Century Literature (1998). TriQuarterly (7 Fall 1966). Wilson Quarterly (1997). WRB (Jan. 1995).
UPDATED BY LINDA BERUBE