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About this poet

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."


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

May Swenson: Collected Poems (2013)
Complete Love Poems (2003)
Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems & Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop (2000)
May Out West (1996)
Nature: Poems Old and New (1994)
The Love Poems of May Swenson (1991)
In Other Words (1987)
New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978)
More Poems to Solve (1971)
Iconographs (1970)
Half Sun Half Sleep (1967)
Poems to Solve (1966)
To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963)
A Cage of Spines (1958)
Another Animal (1954)

Prose

Made With Words, edited by Gardner McFall (1998)

Translation

Windows & Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972)

Bleeding

Stop bleeding          said the knife.
I would if I          could said the cut.
Stop bleeding          you make me messy with this blood.
I’m sorry          said the cut.
Stop or          I will sink in farther said the knife.
Don’t          said the cut.
The          knife did not say it couldn’t help it but
it          sank in farther.
If          only you didn’t bleed said the knife I wouldn’t
have          to do this.
I know          said the cut I bleed too easily I hate
that I          can’t help it I wish I were a knife like
you and          didn’t have to bleed.
Well          meanwhile stop bleeding will you said the knife.
Yes you          are a mess and sinking in deeper said the cut I
will have          to stop.
Have you          stopped by now said the knife.
I’ve almost          stopped I think.
Why must you          bleed in the first place said the knife.
For the same          reason maybe that you must do what you
must do said          the cut.
I can’t stand                 bleeding said the knife and sank in farther.
I hate it too said         the cut I know it isn’t you it’s
me you’re lucky to be       a knife you ought to be glad about that.
Too many cuts around         said the knife they’re
messy  I don’t know how          they stand themselves.
They don’t said the cut.
You’re bleeding again.
No I’ve stopped said the cut          see you are coming out now the
 blood is drying it will rub          off you’ll be shiny again and clean.
If only cuts wouldn’t bleed          so much said the knife coming
out a little.
But them knives might become          dull said the cut.
Aren’t you still bleeding a          little said the knife.
I hope not said the cut.
I feel you are just a little.
Maybe a little but I can          stop now.
I feel a little wetness still          said the knife sinking in a
little but then coming out a          little.
Just a little maybe just enough          said the cut.
That’s enough now stop now do    you    feel better now said the knife.
I feel I don’t have to bleed to      feel I      think said the cut.
I don’t I don’t  have to       feel said       the knife drying now
becoming shiny.

From The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson. Copyright © 1991. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

From The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson. Copyright © 1991. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

May Swenson

May Swenson

May Swenson was born Anna Thilda May Swenson on May 28, 1913.

by this poet

poem
Blue, but you are Rose, too,
and buttermilk, but with blood
dots showing through.
A little salty your white
nape boy-wide.  Glinting hairs
shoot back of your ears' Rose
that tongues like to feel
the maze of, slip into the funnel,
tell a thunder-whisper to.
When I kiss, your eyes' straight
lashes down crisp go
poem
In the pond in the park 
all things are doubled:
Long buildings hang and 
wriggle gently. Chimneys 
are bent legs bouncing 
on clouds below. A flag 
wags like a fishhook 
down there in the sky.

The arched stone bridge 
is an eye, with underlid 
in the water. In its lens 
dip crinkled heads with hats 
that don't
poem

     "He who has reached the highest degree of
     emptiness will be secure in repose."
     —A Taoist saying

My dumpy little mother on the undertaker's slab
had a mannequin's grace. From chin to foot
the sheet outlined her, thin and tall. Her face
uptilted, bloodless, smooth, had a long