poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

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)

Strawberrying

My hands are murder-red. Many a plump head
drops on the heap in the basket. Or, ripe
to bursting, they might be hearts, matching
the blackbird’s wing-fleck. Gripped to a reed
he shrieks his ko-ka-ree in the next field.
He’s left his peck in some juicy cheeks, when
at first blush and mostly white, they showed
streaks of sweetness to the marauder.

We’re picking near the shore, the morning
sunny, a slight wind moving rough-veined leaves
our hands rumple among. Fingers find by feel
the ready fruit in clusters. Here and there,
their squishy wounds. . . . Flesh was perfect
yesterday. . . . June was for gorging. . . .
sweet hearts young and firm before decay.

“Take only the biggest, and not too ripe,”
a mother calls to her girl and boy, barefoot
in the furrows. “Don’t step on any. Don’t
change rows. Don’t eat too many.” Mesmerized
by the largesse, the children squat and pull
and pick handfuls of rich scarlets, half
for the baskets, half for avid mouths.
Soon, whole faces are stained.

A crop this thick begs for plunder. Ripeness
wants to be ravished, as udders of cows when hard,
the blue-veined bags distended, ache to be stripped.
Hunkered in mud between the rows, sun burning
the backs of our necks, we grope for, and rip loose
soft nippled heads. If they bleed—too soft—
let them stay. Let them rot in the heat.

When, hidden away in a damp hollow under moldy
leaves, I come upon a clump of heart-shapes
once red, now spiderspit-gray, intact but empty,
still attached to their dead stems—
families smothered as at Pompeii—I rise
and stretch. I eat one more big ripe lopped
head. Red-handed, I leave the field.

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

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

poem
Little lion face
I stopped to pick
among the mass of thick
succulent blooms, the twice

streaked flanges of your silk
sunwheel relaxed in wide
dilation, I brought inside,
placed in a vase.  Milk

of your shaggy stem
sticky on my fingers, and
your barbs hooked to my hand,
sudden stings from them 

were sweet.
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