May Swenson (1913 - 1989)

May Swenson looking out the window

May Swenson expressed her literary credo in her 1961 poem “The Truth is Forced” when she wrote, “One must be honest somewhere. I wish / to be honest in poetry.”  The result, writes fellow poet Cynthia Ozick, is that “Swenson sees more minutely than anyone, and with a nearly holy exactitude.”

Swenson was a major twentieth-century American poet, best known for her sensitivity to sensual detail and her experiments with poetic form. Her work was characterized by exuberance, precise imagery, and keen metaphysical insights gleaned from her observation of ordinary human rituals and engagement with the natural world. Her writing defies easy categorization due to her many formal innovations and wide range of subject matter that includes romantic love, athletics, space exploration, investigation of gender and sexual identity, and an embrace of scientific discovery. Although best known for her work as a poet, Swenson was also an accomplished translator, essayist, and dramatist. 

The Swenson Family

Swenson's Childhood and Family

I remember hearing that the first day May came home from kindergarten, she told everyone that all the fountains had lemonade…. May had a very active imagination. I remember sitting on the high stool in the kitchen, May scrubbing the floors. She would tell us made-up stories while she scrubbed.” –May’s sister Beth Hall.

Anna Thilda May Swenson was born in Logan, Utah, on May 28, 1913, to Dan Arthur and Margaret Swenson. Dan was a Swedish convert to Mormonism who met Margaret Hellberg in 1909 while serving a church mission to Sweden. The two married in Utah on August 12, 1912, and settled in Logan, where Dan was employed as an assistant in the woodworking department at Utah State Agricultural College (later Utah State University). May was the oldest of ten children who all lived in the house Dan built at the foot of Old Main Hill on the western edge of campus. The family moved into the house that stood at 669 East 500 North in 1922, the year May turned nine. Dan built the house himself and constructed much of the furniture, including a large dining room table and an intricately carved oak cellarette that he made in 1907 while a student at Utah State Agricultural College. The entire family benefited from Dan’s large vegetable garden and the fruit orchard that surrounded it. May enjoyed a happy, stable childhood, presided over by devoted parents who raised their children according to the tenets of the Mormon faith.

During the first six years of her life, May spoke only Swedish, and did not learn English until she entered the first grade at Webster Grade School, the neighborhood public school. She enjoyed being a student, picked up English quickly, and began writing poetry around the age of twelve. Her father encouraged her to write, and he even built a small room in the house for her to focus on her poetry. Her first published work was a short story that appeared in the Logan High School newspaper, The Grizzly, in 1929. Swenson published her first poems while a student at Utah State Agricultural College from 1930 to 1934, where they appeared in the campus literary journal, The Scribble.

May Swenson as a Young Adult

Swenson's Career

Two years after graduating from Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) as an English major with a minor in art, Swenson moved to New York City with the aim of making a life for herself as a poet. Life in New York was not easy for an aspiring but unknown poet during the closing years of the Great Depression. Swenson held numerous jobs and moved frequently in the first years of her residence in the city. She worked briefly for the Polish writer Anzia Yezierska, and from 1938 to 1939, she collected oral histories for the Living Lore Unit of the Federal Writers’ Project. Swenson’s job prospects gradually improved, which enabled her to pay for an apartment in Greenwich Village, strengthen her ties with the New York artistic community, and devote more of her time to writing and circulating poems. After years of frustration and rejection, Swenson’s hard work paid off in 1949 when William Rose Benet accepted her poem “Haymaking” for publication in The Saturday Review of Literature. This proved a turning point in Swenson’s career and the beginning of her ascent into the ranks of leading American poets. In 1950, she accepted an invitation to Yaddo where she met Elizabeth Bishop and entered a friendship that produced over 270 letters and lasted until Bishop’s death in 1979. 1953 was a particularly momentous year for Swenson first publications: The New Yorker accepted her poem “By Morning” for publication (the first of fifty-nine poems she would eventually publish with them) and on Swenson’s fortieth birthday, the Scribner’s Poets of Today series accepted her first book, Another Animal. Swenson would travel repeatedly to Yaddo and the McDowell Colony during these years, and in 1957 the poet John Ciardi, then director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, appointed her as the Robert Frost Fellow, enabling her to meet Frost during the summer session. From the late 1950s on, Swenson enjoyed a period of great productivity, marked by many of her most noted publications. In 1987, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and an honorary doctorate at Utah State University. At the time of her death in 1989, Swenson had served as Chancellor for the Academy of American poets for nine years.

May Swenson as an adult

Swenson's Literary Reputation

Swenson’s life and work serve as a compendium of major historical and cultural influences that impacted the lives of Americans during the twentieth century and continue to do so at the present moment. The more than 500 poems that appear in the 2013 Library of America centennial edition of her collected work testify to the breadth and depth of her continued appeal. Poems like “The Centaur” and “Question” are widely anthologized in mainstream academic texts while sports poems, such as “Analysis of Baseball,” appear in more specialized collections. The many Swenson poems investigating gender and sexuality have strong ties to the feminist movement that gathered strength at midcentury and the LGBTQ+ movement of today. The extensive number of poems about the natural world are a rich source of interest within the burgeoning field of ecopoetics that emerged in the 1990s. Of equal relevance is Swenson’s interest in scientific discovery and its power to shape human life. 

Swenson has been most closely associated with poets from the second half of the twentieth century, such as Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Mary Oliver, Maxine Kumin, and Robert Lowell. Over the course of her life, she published eleven books of poetry and won many major awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Bollingen Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. From 1980 to 1989 she served as Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets. Although she was born and raised in Utah, Swenson spent the majority of her writing life in and around New York City where she became active in the arts community and attended artist’s retreats at Yaddo and the McDowell Colony. However, as Richard Wilbur has pointed out, Swenson “remained Western in many ways,” as seen in her “relish for wild nature and knowing sympathy with wild creatures” (2). Her western heritage is perhaps even more visible in her ceaseless efforts to open new frontiers for poetic exploration and discovery.

May Swenson's Bench at her Grave

Swenson's Relationship to Her Roots

“The life, work, and literary reputation of May Swenson are firmly grounded in Utah’s cultural and actual soil,” writes biographers Paul Crumbley and Patricia M. Gantt. In a 1951 letter to her father in which she addresses his concern that she may seem to live “outside the fold” (that is, both in terms of living far from Utah and holding beliefs and attitudes quite different from the rest of her family), Swenson emphasized how much her life was a fulfillment of values her family exhibited. With characteristic playfulness, she wrote her father, 

[J]ust as you and mother were not content with inherited knowledge and belief, with the traditional way of life of your parents and ancestors and felt the need to find a new faith and even a new land for yourselves, I had this same impulse. It is a healthy impulse—it is really the evolutionary impulse itself at its root, which accounts for all progress (for decay as well, perhaps)—let us say for change, which is the dynamics of life. I do not know whether I am making a big circle with my life (I hope it is not a zero!) simply to arrive, in the end, where I started—but even if this turns out to be the case the journey would not be entirely foolish because every sensitive human being is confronted with the necessity of learning by himself, or discovering through experience, and is simply incapable of taking his course in life for granted as pointed out by parents and others in authority (Quoted in Crumbley and Gantt biography, Body My House: May Swenson’s Work and Life).

Ultimately, May Swenson did circle back to Logan—not as a “zero” but as a famous poet whose work helped shape modern American poetry.  Upon her death in 1989, she was buried in a family lot in the Logan City Cemetery. Her grave is marked by a marble bench engraved with a line from her poem, “The Wonderful Pen”: “Read me. Read my mind.”  Her grave is a stop on the May Swenson Poetry Path, a self-guided tour of Swenson-related sites in her hometown of Logan, Utah.