Swenson, May (1913–1989)

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Swenson, May (1913–1989)

Major American poet who presented much of her imaginative and sensual poetry using vivid visual patterns. Born on May 28, 1913 (often mistakenly given as 1919); died of a heart attack at Bethany Beach, Delaware, on December 4, 1989; daughter of Dan Arthur Swenson and Margaret (Hellberg) Swenson, members of a Mormon family of Swedish immigrants, in Logan, Utah; attended Utah State Agricultural College (later Utah State University), 1930–34; never married; lived with Rozanne R. Knudson; no children.

Moved to New York (1936); had initial stay at Yaddo writers' colony (1950); published her first volume of poetry (1954); became editor at New Directions Press (1956); received Guggenheim fellowship (1959); received Amy Lowell fellowship for travel in Europe (1960); received Ford Foundation fellowship (1965); resigned from New Directions Press (1966); was poet-in-residence at Purdue University (1966–67); received Rockefeller Foundation award, began relationship with Rozanne Knudson (1967); received Lucy Martin Donnelly fellowship from BrynMawr College (1968); elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters (1970); received Academy of American Poets fellowship (1979); participated in Rosalynn Carter's White House Salute to Poetry and American Poets (1980); received Bollingen Prize in Poetry from Yale University (1981); wrote and delivered Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard University commencement ceremony (1982); received MacArthur Foundation fellowship, received honorary degree from Utah State University (1987); gave Theodore Roethke reading at the University of Washington (1989); posthumous publication of her collection The Love Poems of May Swenson (1991); posthumous publication of her collection of poems, Nature (1994).

Major works—poetry:

Another Animal (1954); Cage of Spines (1958); To Mix with Time (1963); Poems to Solve (1966); Half Sun Half Sleep (1967); Iconographs (1970); In Other Words (1987); The Love Poems of May Swenson (1991); Nature (1994). Prose: Made with Words (1998). Drama: The Floor (1966).

With the appearance of her first volume of verse in 1954, May Swenson established herself as one of America's leading poets. Over the course of her career, she wrote between 800 and 900 poems and published 450 in 11 volumes of poetry, along with prose and translations. Two final volumes were published posthumously. She was deeply influenced by the poets Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop from whom she absorbed the principles of close observation and verbal precision. Swenson's own poetic voice, however, had a more unruly element than that to be found in the work of these mentors. Grace Schulman has summarized Swenson's literary work by noting that "the voice of May Swenson combines the directness of intimate speech and the urgency of prayer."

At times Swenson took up unlikely themes for her poetry, including the space program and the experiences of its astronauts. But she wrote poems describing nature as well. These sometimes contained what critic Edward Hirsch called "appropriate sexual metaphors, resonances and overtones." Her love poetry, however, was filled with an even stronger strain of sexual energy. In addition to the sensuality of her imagery, she became well known for her talent in presenting poetry in the visual shape of the theme she was pursuing. As Swenson herself said, she wanted "to cause an instant object-to-eye encounter with each poem before it is read word-for-word." First producing the poem itself, Swenson only then developed the shapes ("iconographs" as she called them) since, "the painting must be major, not the frame." In the view of critic Anthony Hecht, Swenson, in striving for visual effects in her poetry, put herself into "an elect coterie of writers that would include e.e. cummings and Guillaume Apollinaire." Swenson's work also included extensive critical writing, prose stories, translations, and children's books.

May Swenson was born the eldest of ten children to a Mormon family in Logan, Utah, on May 28, 1913. The Swenson parents were Swedish immigrants. May's father Dan Arthur Swenson had immigrated in 1894, and he met May's mother Margaret Hellberg Swenson when he returned to Sweden as a Mormon missionary. Dan Swenson attended the Utah Agricultural College (later Utah State University) and went on to become a professor of mechanical engineering there. The language of the Swenson home was Swedish, and the young girl did not begin speaking English until she entered primary school. Early pictures of her show May as a child and young teenager dressed in Swedish clothing with her hair braided in the style of her parents' homeland.

May Swenson wrote both poetry and prose as a child. It was the literary hero of her early years, Edgar Allan Poe, who inspired her to think of writing in several literary genres. She later recalled that her writing stemmed partly from being an unsocial person in a large family; she escaped into solitude and there, in her loneliness, she wrote to amuse herself. One of her first works of prose, a story entitled "Christmas Day," was published in the Logan High School newspaper in 1929. Swenson attended the Utah State Agricultural College from 1930 to 1934; there she published her first poem in The Scribble, the college's literary magazine. At college, she became increasingly detached from her family's Mormon heritage. After receiving a degree in English and art, Swenson remained in Utah for a year, working at a Salt Lake City newspaper. According to some sources, she was a reporter; according to others, she spent the year selling advertising. In 1936, she and an older cousin moved to New York, where the rest of her life was centered. Nonetheless, much of her poetry reflected her early life in the West and her continuing love of the outdoors.

In New York, Swenson was unable to find the work she desired as a newspaper reporter, and instead she took positions as a writer's helper, ghostwriter, and editor for others. For a year, she did research for the Writers' Project of President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA). There her job involved interviewing

members of the New York City working class. Her financial situation was so precarious that she and a young Czech immigrant whom she had interviewed, Anca Vrbovska , combined their meager resources and shared a succession of small apartments for several years. Some students of Swenson's life indicate that a romantic liaison developed between the two women.

Swenson worked for several publications in the drug industry between 1942 and 1949, writing poetry in her spare time. She advanced from typist to editor and speechwriter as she became more established. In 1949, she took the daring step of leaving this stable employment. With a reserve of $1,000, she planned to devote a year entirely to her poetry and the task of getting her work published. Her plan succeeded, and her poetry began to appear in The Saturday Review of Literature and New Directions 11. After numerous rejections, her work was accepted for the stellar outlet of the time, The New Yorker. The editor-in-chief of New Directions, James Laughlin, put her on his staff with the onerous tasks of reading manuscripts and writing rejection letters. She went on to become an editor for the magazine in 1956, a position that she gave up ten years later when her fame as a poet was established.

An early sign of her promise as a poet came when she reached the finals of the Yale Series of Younger Poets publication competition, and in 1950 she was invited to the Yaddo retreat near Saratoga, a gathering point for writers and other artists. There Swenson wrote a number of short stories, including one, "Appearances," set in a writers' colony. At Yaddo, she also began a longstanding friendship with the established poet Elizabeth Bishop. Their correspondence stretched from 1950 until Bishop's death in 1979. Initially Swenson played the role of apprentice poet receiving advice from an elder, but, in time, the two became equally confident in constructively criticizing the other's work.

May Swenson was that rarest of literary creatures in our century, an authentic poet of celebration and praise. An Orpheus fulfilled.

—Edward Hirsch

An important measure of success came for Swenson in May 1953 when John Hall Wheelock, the editor for Charles Scribner's Sons, accepted Another Animal, a collection of her work, for publication. In January 1956 at the Poetry Center in New York City, she gave her first public reading of her verse. Nonetheless, she remained dependent on various secretarial jobs to support herself until she could save enough money for a few months of concentrated literary production. As her friend and fellow poet Mona Van Duyn put it, "May was one of the most unmaterialistic people I know. Nunlike, she warmed and fed herself primarily with writing."

Another Animal set down many of the themes Swenson would explore throughout her career as a poet. Swenson "dwells on the living body with an immediacy that heightens the dread of its loss," writes Schulman. She presents a series of "insistent, unanswerable questions" about life and its possibilities. She also showed her incessant curiosity about such disparate topics as technology and nature. Moreover, in this earliest of her works, she began to experiment with shapes, putting her poems on the page in patterns that gave a visual expression to her ideas. These typographical devices often gave a dramatic force to her writing by splitting her poems or putting them in striking shapes. She employed this technique throughout her career. "[W]ith their profiles, or space patterns, or other graphic emphases," wrote Swenson, such poems "signal that they are to be seen as well as read and heard, I suppose."

In 1958, she published A Cage of Spines, her second collection of verse, and Swenson's growing eminence as a poet permitted her to supplement her always scant income with a reading tour that included an engagement at her alma mater, Utah State; she also read her work in San Francisco and Berkeley. Swenson found such public appearances a trial, and she never managed to bring her nervousness completely under control. Two grants, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and an Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship, freed her making such awkward public appearances, and the Lowell Scholarship facilitated a visit to Europe. With her roommate Pearl Schwartz , she toured France, Spain, and Italy, camping out in order to extend their stay.

With a growing literary reputation, Swenson was now offered a number of visiting professorships at institutions of higher learning. In the academic year 1966–67, she became poet-in-residence at Purdue University. Her persistent shyness in front of an audience made her a reluctant teacher, and she was also skeptical about the possibility of teaching students how to write poetry. Nonetheless, she took on that task at the Indiana university, informing her students at their first class, "I can't teach anyone how to write poetry but I can try to teach why the writing of poetry can't be taught." At Purdue, Swenson met Rozanne "Zan" Knudson , a member of the English faculty, and, in 1967, the two began a romantic friendship that lasted for the final decades of Swenson's life. After Swenson's year in Indiana was over, they bought a New York summer cottage in the small town of Sea Cliff on the north shore of Long Island.

Swenson continued to take on short teaching stints. In 1972, she taught a poetry workshop at her alma mater, Utah State University, partly to be near her siblings and old college friends in the stressful months after the death of her mother. She went on to teach at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, the Riverside campus of the University of California, and the Greensboro campus of the University of North Carolina. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Swenson's longstanding facility with the Swedish language gave her the opportunity to translate the works of such Swedish poets as Ingemar Gustafson, Erick Lindegren, and Thomas Tranströmer.

The decade of the 1980s brought the once obscure and financially pinched poet both a wave of public recognition and a novel burst of affluence. In January 1980, at the invitation of first lady Rosalynn Carter , Swenson joined more than 200 other poets who were received at the White House in "A Salute to Poetry and American Poets." The following year, she received the Bollingen Prize for poetry from Yale University, joining such eminent earlier winners as Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost. In 1982, she spoke at Harvard University's commencement ceremony, delivering the Phi Beta Kappa poem she had been asked to write for the occasion. In June 1987, she returned to Utah to receive an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Utah State University. While she was still on campus she learned that the MacArthur Foundation had chosen her for a fellowship, one of its so-called "genius" awards, in the amount of $380,000. Characteristically, she gave much of the money away to her nieces and nephews; then, she and her companion Rozanne Knudson took advantage of this unusual burst of affluence to travel to New Zealand.

In an interview given in 1978, Swenson defined the originality of her poetry. She said she felt no need to follow the contemporary trends for women writers in making psychological confessions or presenting social commentary. Instead, she wrote about nature, broadly conceived. "For me, nature includes everything: the entire universe, the city, the country, the human mind, human creatures, and the animal creatures." In her view, "Real poets don't follow the trend…. They may be leading the trend, but they aren't hooked up to it."

In an interview for the Los Angeles Times conducted in August 1989, five months before her death, Swenson noted how youth had promoted her productivity as a poet. Thus the wisdom of old age had not turned out to be a benefit to her writing, since "the best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree." She could, with greater effort, overcome her decreasing energy and the inevitable complexities of adult life. Nonetheless, she said, "Youth, naiveté, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness is necessary to the making of a poem."

Many critics find that Swenson's originality comes especially from those poems in shapes that create a visual image as a frame for her words and thoughts. White lines and curves move through much of her verse to make the form of her poem mirror the patterns of the real world. In Iconographs, her 1970 collection of verse, each of the 46 poems in the volume has a special shape incorporating angles, dramatic spacings, and curves. Swenson stated specifically that she wished "to make an existence in space, as well as time, for the poem."

She began Iconographs with a particularly striking and powerful poem entitled "Bleeding," a dialogue between the knife and the wound that it was creating. By using spaces in the text of the poem to slash the page, Swenson jolted the reader with a powerful image of a cut literally curving through the work's 44 lines. This was at a time when American women poets were writing extensively about bodily sensations, and some critics found the poem a powerful feminist statement. Nonetheless, it has been noted that "Bleeding" has no specific references to gender and could easily refer to pain and sickness in general as well as a knife cutting a male victim. In "Feel Me," another poem in Iconographs, Swenson explored and expressed her feelings upon the recent death of her father. Once again, she used a visual technique with devastating force, with spaces creating a diagonal line from the upper left hand to the lower right hand corner to present a picture of fracture and loss.

Swenson died of a heart attack at her winter home in Bethany Beach, Delaware, on December 4, 1989. She had been ill for some time with asthma and high blood pressure. Her body was returned to her home state for burial in Logan City. A measure of her obscurity was the confusion in various obituaries over her age and the size of the award she had received from her MacArthur fellowship. Some American newspapers listed her year of birth as 1919 and recorded her arrival in New York in 1949, ten years after the fact. Some listed her most prestigious award as bringing her $130,000, little more than one third of the actual sum she received.

Since only half of her poems had appeared in print during her lifetime, new works by Swenson continued to be published after her death, including The Love Poems of May Swenson in 1991 and Nature in 1994. The volume of love poems brought together 55 poems that had been written between 1938 and 1987. The poems, 13 of which had never appeared in print, were complex pieces that drew on both male and female imagery to express what Grace Schulman has called "intense love between women, written at time when that genre was rare in poetry…. the sexual love she dramatizes so brilliantly is Sapphic." Notes Edward Hirsch: "The birds, and especially the bees, have never been so slyly deployed." Rereading Swenson's larger body of work in the light of this new volume, Hirsch noted that "it becomes increasingly evident that a large number of Swenson's radiant nature poems are also love poems." Nature was described by one critic as "a dazzling posthumous collection of nature poems by a poet who epitomized the art of awareness." It presented 182 of Swenson's works including 10 poems published for the first time and another 19 that had not yet appeared in book form.


Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds. Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979.

Knudson, R.R., and Suzanne Bigelow. May Swenson: A Poet's Life in Photos. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1996.

"May Swenson: Selected and edited by Anthony Hecht," in The Wilson Quarterly. Vol. 21. Winter 1997, pp. 105–112.

Schulman, Grace. "Life's Miracles: The Poetry of May Swenson," in The American Poetry Review. Vol. 23. September–October 1994, pp. 9–13.

Swenson, May. Made with Words. Edited by Gardener McFall. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Van Duyn, Mona. "Important Witness to the World," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review. Vol. 16, no. 1. August 1990, pp. 154–156.

suggested reading:

Greiner, Donald, ed. American Poets Since World War II. Part 2: L–Z. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1980.

Howard, Richard. Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950. NY: Atheneum, 1969.

Zona, Kirstin Hotelling. "A 'Dangerous Game of Change': Images of Desire in the Love Poems of May Swenson," in Twentieth Century Literature. Vol. 44, pt. 2. Summer 1998, pp. 219–241.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California