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 relocated to New York, where she remained for most of her adult life. In New York City, she worked in various jobs while writing and publishing her poetry, including employment as a stenographer, ghostwriter, secretary, manuscript reader, and, in 1959, she became the editor of 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 of 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 collections of poems 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) and More Poems to Solve (1968); a collection of essays, The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic (1964); and a one-act play titled The Floor, which was produced in New York in the 1960s. As 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. 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. She then moved to Sea Cliff, New York, where she lived for the remainder of her life.
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 work shows strong use of imagery and use of eroticism. She continually questions existence and writes much on the topic of love. Her love poems concerned “human nature, the natural world, geography, and invention. They are poems of intense love between women, written at a time when that genre was rare in poetry” (Schulman). A self proclaimed lesbian, much critique has been done on her heterosexual imagery. Although she did not go out of her way to make known her sexual identity, she also did not hide it. Perhaps she did not promote her sexuality because of the times, religion, or maybe just personal preference not to. In her career she has turned down publication offers to use her poetry in a compilation of lesbian writing, yet she did agree in one case, which she explained as a tasteful collection she did not mind contributing to. Her biography The Love Poems of May Swenson focused mostly on poems in which sexual imagery is especially abundant. It is considered her book of strongest love poems. One example, the poem “In the Yard” reads:
some fruit. Split me
an apple. We'll
get red, white
halves each, our
juice on the
Indian spread. (Nature 94)
Swenson's style is described as rhythmic. Her creative style merges in her writing with her interest in plant and animal behavior with works such as "The Cross Spider". As well as natural themes, some of her work focuses on scientific research, for example the exploration of space. Fascinated by perception, much of Swenson's work contains key themes of how this human perception can be found in landscapes and wider contexts. One source comments that her use of nature and sexuality are not used separately, but that nature is something we are all part of, and in that commonality we share energy derived from sexuality.
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, in 1989, and is buried in the city she 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."
A Selected Bibliography
Another Animal (1954)
A Cage of Spines (1958)
To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963)
Poems to Solve (1966)
Half Sun Half Sleep (1967)
More Poems to Solve (1971)
New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978)
In Other Words (1987)
The Love Poems of May Swenson (1991)
Nature: Poems Old and New (1994)
May Out West (1996)
The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic (1964)
Landing on the Moon
When in the mask of night there shone that cut,
we were riddled. A probe reached down
and stroked some nerve in us,
as if the glint from a wizard's eye, of silver,
slanted out of the mask of the unknown-
pit of riddles, the scratch-marked sky.
When, albino bowl on cloth of jet,
it spilled its virile rays,
our eyes enlarged, our blood reared with the waves.
We craved its secret, but unreachable
it held away from us, chilly and frail.
Distance kept it magnate. Enigma made it white.
When we learned to read it with our rod,
reflected light revealed
a lead mirror, a bruised shield
seamed with scars and shadow-soiled.
A half faced sycophant, its glitter borrowed,
rode around our throne.
On the moon there shines earth light
as moonlight shines upon th earth…
If on its obsidian we set our weightless foot,
and sniff no wind, and lick no rain
and feel no gauze between us and the Fire
will we trot its grassless skull, sick for the homelike shade?
Naked to the earth-beam we shall be,
who have arrived to map an apparition,
who walk upon the forehead of a myth.
Can flesh rub with symbol? If our ball
be iron, and not light, our earliest wish
eclipses. Dare we land upon a dream?