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October 28, 1985Guggenheim MuseumFrom the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

May Swenson was born Anna Thilda May Swenson on May 28, 1913, in Logan, Utah. Her parents were Swedish immigrants, and her father was a professor of mechanical engineering at Utah State University. English was her second language, her family having spoken mostly Swedish in their home. Influenced early on by Edgar Allan Poe, she kept journals as a young girl, in which she wrote in multiple genres.

She attended Utah State University, Logan, and received a bachelor's degree in 1934. She spent another year in Utah working as a reporter, but in 1935 she relocated to New York, where she remained for most of her adult life. In New York City, she held various positions—including working as a stenographer, a ghostwriter, a secretary, and a manuscript reader—while writing and publishing her poetry. In 1959, she became a manuscript reader at New Directions Press.

Since her first collection of poems, Another Animal, was published by Scribner in 1954, Swenson's work has been admired for its adventurous word play and erotic exuberance. Her poems have been compared to those by poets E. E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein, as well as Elizabeth Bishop, with whom she was engaged in regular, often frequent correspondence from 1950 until Bishop's death in 1979.

Swenson's other poetry collections include A Cage of Spines (1958); To Mix With Time: New and Selected Poems (1963); Half Sun Half Sleep (1967); Iconographs (1970); New & Selected Things Taking Place (1978); and In Other Words (1987). Posthumous collections of her work include The Love Poems (1991); Nature: Poems Old and New (1994); and May Out West (1996).

She is also the author of three collections of poems for younger readers, including Poems to Solve (1966), More Poems to Solve (1968), and Spell Coloring Book (1976), and a one-act play titled The Floor, which was produced in New York in the 1960s. As a translator, she published Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), which received a medal of excellence from the International Poetry Forum.

She left New Directions Press in 1966, having decided to devote herself fully to her own writing. In 1967, she moved to Sea Cliff, New York. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, she served as poet-in-residence at several universities in the United States and Canada, including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University.

About her work, the poet Grace Schulman said, "Questions are the wellspring of May Swenson's art... In her speculations and her close observations, she fulfills Marianne Moore's formula for the working artist: 'Curiosity, observation, and a great deal of joy in the thing.'"

Swenson's honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

In 1967, she received a Distinguished Service Gold Medal from Utah State University, and in 1987 an honorary doctor of letters. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death. She died in Oceanview, Delaware, on December 4, 1989, and is buried in the city where she was born.

Four months before her death, Swenson wrote: "The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, 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."


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

May Swenson: Collected Poems (2013)
Complete Love Poems (2003)
Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems & Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop (2000)
May Out West (1996)
Nature: Poems Old and New (1994)
The Love Poems of May Swenson (1991)
In Other Words (1987)
New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978)
More Poems to Solve (1971)
Iconographs (1970)
Half Sun Half Sleep (1967)
Poems to Solve (1966)
To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963)
A Cage of Spines (1958)
Another Animal (1954)

Prose

Made With Words, edited by Gardner McFall (1998)

Translation

Windows & Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972)


Multimedia

 



From the Image Archive
May Swenson

Used With Permission of The Literary Estate of May Swenson.

That the Soul May Wax Plump

May Swenson, 1913 - 1989

"He who has reached the highest degree of
emptiness will be secure in repose."
A Taoist saying

My dumpy little mother on the undertaker's slab
had a mannequin's grace. From chin to foot
the sheet outlined her, thin and tall. Her face
uptilted, bloodless, smooth, had a long smile. 
Her head rested on a block under her nape,
her neck was long, her hair waved, upswept. But later,
at "the viewing," sunk in the casket in pink tulle,
an expensive present that might spoil, dressed
in Eden's green apron, organdy bonnet on,
she shrank, grew short again, and yellow. Who
put the gold-rimmed glasses on her shut face, who
laid her left hand with the wedding ring on
her stomach that really didn't seem to be there
under the fake lace?

Mother's work before she died was self-purification,
a regimen of near starvation, to be worthy to go 
to Our Father, Whom she confused (or, more aptly, fused)
with our father, in Heaven long since. She believed
in evacuation, an often and fierce purgation,
meant to teach the body to be hollow, that the soul
may wax plump. At the moment of her death, the wind
rushed out from all her pipes at once. Throat and rectum
sang together, a galvanic spasm, hiss of ecstasy.
Then, a flat collapse. Legs and arms flung wide,
like that female Spanish saint slung by the ankles
to a cross, her mouth stayed open in a dark O. So,
her vigorous soul whizzed free. On the undertaker's slab, she
lay youthful, cool, triumphant, with a long smile.  

From New & Selected Things Taking Place by May Swenson and published by Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright © 1978 by the Literary Estate of May Swenson. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of May Swenson. All rights reserved.

From New & Selected Things Taking Place by May Swenson and published by Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright © 1978 by the Literary Estate of May Swenson. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of May Swenson. All rights reserved.

May Swenson

May Swenson

May Swenson was born Anna Thilda May Swenson on May 28, 1913

by this poet

poem
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do 
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof
poem
Little lion face
I stopped to pick
among the mass of thick
succulent blooms, the twice

streaked flanges of your silk
sunwheel relaxed in wide
dilation, I brought inside,
placed in a vase.  Milk

of your shaggy stem
sticky on my fingers, and
your barbs hooked to my hand,
sudden stings from them 

were sweet.
poem
Blue, but you are Rose, too,
and buttermilk, but with blood
dots showing through.
A little salty your white
nape boy-wide.  Glinting hairs
shoot back of your ears' Rose
that tongues like to feel
the maze of, slip into the funnel,
tell a thunder-whisper to.
When I kiss, your eyes' straight
lashes down crisp go