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."