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Best known for her shape poems, which she called “iconographs,” and her work incorporating riddles and wordplay, May Swenson was considered one of the most imaginative and innovative contemporary American poets. Though she was often compared to Emily Dickinson, her subject matter was unique and ranged from the ordinary to the metaphysical. As Priscilla Long comments in The Women’s Review of Books, ”Swenson was a visionary poet, a prodigious observer of the fragile and miraculous natural world.”
Biographical and Historical Context
May Swenson was born in Logan, Utah, on May 28, 1913. Her full name, Anna Thilda May Swenson, gives some indication of her Swedish heritage; her father, a professor of mechanical engineering at Utah State University, and her mother immigrated from Sweden. They spoke Swedish at home, and, therefore, English became May Swenson’s second language. She demonstrated the habits of a writer at an early age, keeping a journal in which she wrote in multiple genres.
Swenson attended Utah State University and received a bachelor’s degree in 1934. Upon graduation, Swenson went to work as a reporter in Salt Lake City. After only one year, she relocated to New York City, where she would live for most of the remainder of her life. She held various jobs—including working as a stenographer, ghostwriter, secretary, and manuscript reader—to support herself while she wrote poetry and worked toward publication.
Swenson’s first volume of poetry, Another Animal, was published by Scribner in 1954 to widespread acclaim. Her poetry was admired for its ”adventurous word play and erotic exuberance” and came to be compared to the writings of Emily Dickinson, E. E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein, and Elizabeth Bishop. With this first volume, however, she had not yet delved into the experimental forms that would mark her later work.
Swenson’s second volume, A Cage of Spines, appeared in 1958. The following year she took a job as an editor for New Directions Press. However, her success as a poet was exceptional, and seven years later she was able to leave the job in order to fully devote her time to writing. over the following two decades she served as poet-in-residence at several colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, including Bryn Mawr, Purdue University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and her alma mater, Utah State University. Swenson also received numerous awards and grants for her writing during this time, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and in 1970, was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Swenson’s best-known and most experimental volume of poetry, Iconographs, appeared in 1970. it was considered an experimental masterpiece, successful in that her experimentation—in language and subject, but most importantly in form—was not an end in itself but instead a useful means of discovering something new. Coming out of the 1960s, a decade during which experimentation had come to be known as valuable in itself, Swenson’s work demonstrated that the purpose of experimenting was to create results that could not be reached by any other means.
After the resounding success of Iconographs, Swenson went on to produce several more volumes of poetry, including a number of collections for young adults and a translation of Tomas Transtromer’s work entitled Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Transtromer. In 1980, she was chosen as chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, a position she filled until her death in 1989.
In the last decade of her life, Swenson lived in Sea Cliff, New York, on the north shore of Long Island. She was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine, and many of her poems published therein were included in the collection New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978). With this volume, Swenson retreated a few steps from her earlier experimentalism and devoted her energies instead to more in-depth, personal reflection. Some critics found that this and the last collection published in her lifetime, In Other Words (1988), lacked the exuberance of her earlier, more experimental works; others found the poems contained therein to be the ruminations of a woman who has explored her outer limits and is now reaching towards her core. She died in Ocean View, Delaware in 1989.
Works in Literary Context
Swenson is often compared to Emily Dickinson, not only for her irregular typesetting, but also for her interest in the subject of death. However, her shape poems, for which she is best known, recall the art and craft ofEnglish seventeenth-century poet George Herbert: both she and Herbert are equally concerned about making the shape a functional and essential feature of a poem’s sense. Swenson is also noted for her use of wordplay and riddles in her poetry.
Swenson’s shape poems, “iconographs,” were crafted in a particular shape that somehow related to its subject. One of the most famous examples of a shape poem is George Herbert’s ”Easter Wings” (1633), which is shaped like a pair of butterfly wings and addresses the subject of rebirth. The twentieth-century American poet Carl Sandburg is another noted author of shape poems.
The use of riddles, or puzzle questions, in literature is ancient and universal to all cultures. Their use in poetry, however, has been limited to mystic poets who wish to suggest links with ancient prophecies or mysteries. As a woman riddler, Swenson follows in the tradition of the sibyls, female prophets in Greek and Roman mythology, whose prophecies were riddles that had to be interpreted by priests. The use of riddles in her poetry lends it a sense of mysticism akin to that of modernist poets T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats.
Works in Critical Context
Often experimental in both form and appearance, Swenson’s poetry has earned widespread critical acclaim. As Priscilla Long comments in The Women’s Review of Books, ”Swenson was a visionary poet, a prodigious observer of the fragile and miraculous natural world.” Renowned poet Ann Stanford has called Swenson the poet of the perceptible” and stated, No writer employs with greater care the organs of sense to apprehend and record the surfaces of the world.”
Iconographs is Swenson’s most experimental volume in terms of typography. In it she explores to the fullest extent the uses of shape poetry, from icons to irony. Sven Birkerts stated in The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry, ”By insisting that the poem function visually, [Swenson] drew the elastic to its limit.” In other words, she took the concept of image and text as far as it could go.
Not all critics are pleased with the result. Dave Smith has complained that the wit so often praised in her poetry feels artificial: ”For me [Swenson] has too strong a willingness to keep work marked by visual puns . . . work less felt and sustaining than contrived and biodegradable.” Indeed, puns and play form such an integral part of Swenson’s poetry that the ability to enjoy them may be necessary to the appreciation of her work.
Nature: Poems Old and New
This posthumous collection of Swenson’s work is almost universally praised for its lyricism, imagery, and wit. Priscilla Long, writing for The Women’s Review of Books, remarks, ”Swenson was an unrelentingly lyrical poet, a master of the poetic line in which similar sounds accumulate and resonate so that the poem exists, beyond its meanings, as a rattle or a music box or, in moments of greatness, a symphony.” Such glowing descriptions are common among criticism of the work: Donna Seaman called it ”a dazzling posthumous collection of nature poems by a poet who epitomized the art of awareness.” Widely acclaimed in her lifetime, Swenson appears only to have grown in reputation since her death.
- Review of Nature: Old Poems and New. Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 22 (May 30, 1994): 46.
- Clarence, Judy. Review of Nature: Poems Old and New. Library Journal (June 15, 1994): 72.
- Long, Priscilla. Review of Nature: Poems Old and New. Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 12, no. 4 (January 1995): 8-10.
- Salter, Mary Jo. Review of In Other Words. New Republic (March 7, 1988): 40.
- Seaman, Donna. Review of Nature: Poems Old and New. Booklist, Vol. 90, no. 19-20 (June 1, 1994): 1763.
- Smith, Dave. ”Perpetual Worlds Taking Place.” Poetry, Vol. CXXXV, no. 5 (February 1980): 291-6.
- Wiman, Christian. Review of Nature. Poetry (November 2001): 97.
- Zona, Kirstin Hotelling. ”A ‘Dangerous Game of Change’: Images of Desire in the Love Poems of May Swenson.” Twentieth Century Literature (Summer 1998): 219.
- ”Famous Women Poets and Poetry.” Famous Poets and Poems. Accessed November 24, 2008, from http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets_ women.html.
- ”May Swenson.” Poets: From the Academy of American Poets. Accessed November 21, 2008, from http:// www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/168.
- ”Women in Education.” Women’s Issues Then and Now: A Feminist Overview of the Past Two Centuries. Accessed November 21, 2008, from http://www. cwrl.utexas.edu/ ~ulrich/femhist/education.shtml #history.
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