During her long career, May Swenson was loved and praised by writers from virtually every major school of poetry. She was one of America’s most imaginative, insouciant, and vital poets.
May Swenson belongs to that select group comprising our century’s foremost poets. But even among such rarefied company, Swenson stands out in her joyful and sensuous lyricism. Just what makes her so special? Cynthia Ozick declared that “Swenson sees more minutely than anyone, and with a nearly holy exactitude.”
Critic Susan Mitchell wrote, “What Swenson responds to and values in the world, its essential freedom, is the very quality that is most striking in her as a poet. When I read Swenson’s poems, I feel that she is putting her face very close to the world, she has her cheek pressed against the tree she is looking at, her lips graze the petals of a flower she is admiring.”
May Swenson was born on May 28, 1913, in Logan, Utah, and died on December 4, 1989, in Ocean View, Delaware. In that lifetime she worked as a newspaper reporter, ghostwriter, editor, secretary, manuscript reader for the publisher New Directions, and poet-in-residence, but always and mainly as a poet. Eleven volumes of her poetry were published during her lifetime. These earned for her much praise from fellow poets, a place in the hearts and minds of poetry lovers, and many awards, among them the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and Ford fellowships, the Bollinger Prize for Poetry, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, an honorary doctor of letters degree from Utah State University, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
May Swenson is buried on College Hill in Logan, Utah, with a marble bench placed on her grave. Her poem “The Exchange” is carved on the bench’s seat. On the bench’s pedestal are cared these words from her poem “The Wonderful Pen”:
“Read me. Read my mind.”
What Others Have Said
Karl Shapiro: “May Swenson leaps to the love of language and has a ball.”
Anthony Hecht: “One of the surest of poets, clear-eyed and absolute in her delineations, inventive beyond any expectations, deeply American.”
Maxine Kumin: “In every Swenson poem is the surprise of the metaphor, brand new, apt, and often witty as well.”
Elizabeth Bishop: “A great part of one’s pleasure in her work is in her work.”
Richard Howard: “The refusal . . . to name in order that she may the more truly identify is what we notice first…”
Robert Frost: “It reeks of poetry!”
John Hollander: “Her poems are among the most important evidences we have of the American imagination.”