May Swenson

One of the most accomplished poets of her time, May Swenson was born Anna Thilda May Swenson on May 28, 1913, in Logan, Utah, to Swedish immigrant parents. Fluent in Swedish, May Swenson learned English in school but spoke Swedish at home. Swenson's father worked as a mechanical engineering professor at Utah State University, where Swenson herself later studied as an undergraduate, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1934. Swenson then moved to New York City in 1935 where she worked as a stenographer, ghostwriter, secretary, news reporter, and as a manuscript reader at the modernist publishing house New Directions Press.

During her lifetime, Swenson published eleven volumes of poetry, including three for young people, and co-edited an anthology of sports poems. Her work won her much critical acclaim and put her in contact with other prominent mid-century poets, such as Elizabeth Bishop, with whom Swenson corresponded until Bishop’s death in 1979. Swenson also translated the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer with Leif Sjoberg; the book, Windows and Stones (1972), received a medal of excellence from the International Poetry Forum. Collections of Swenson’s own poetry that were published posthumously include The Complete Love Poems (1991), Nature: Poems Old and New (1994), and May Out West (1996). In honor of Swenson's 100th birthday, the Library of Congress published May Swenson: Collected Poems, edited by Langdon Hammer. 

Swenson’s poetry was acclaimed for its rigorous attention to the natural world, for its eroticism and imaginative power, and for its formal experiments. Swenson’s poems often take concrete forms and also play with typography and spacing; her work in both imagist and surrealist modes earned her wide praise from peers and critics alike, and drew comparisons to poets like E.E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein. Swenson’s many literary awards include fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. Swenson was also the recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award, the Bollingen Prize, and Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Utah State University as well as their Distinguished Service Gold Medal. From 1980 to her death in 1989, Swenson served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Swenson lived in New York City until 1967, after which she moved to Sea Cliff, Long Island, to live with her partner, the author R.R. Knudson, and pursue her writing full time. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, she taught 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.

May Swenson died on December 4, 1989 in Ocean View, Delaware, and is buried in Logan, Utah.

Works

Bibliography

  • Another Animal, Scribner (New York, NY), 1954.
  • A Cage of Spines, Rinehart (New York, NY), 1958.
  • To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems, Scribner (New York, NY), 1963.
  • Poems to Solve (for young adults), Scribner (New York, NY), 1966.
  • Half Sun, Half Sleep; New poems (new poems and her translations of six Swedish poets), Scribner (New York, NY), 1967.
  • Iconographs; Poems, Scribner (New York, NY), 1970.
  • More Poems to Solve, Scribner (New York, NY), 1971.
  • (Translator, with Leif Sjoberg) Windows and Stones, Selected Poems of Tomas Transtromer (translated from the Swedish), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1972.
  • New and Selected Things Taking Place (includes "Ending"), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1978.
  • In Other Words, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
  • The Love Poems of May Swenson, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.
  • The Complete Poems to Solve (for young adults), illustrated by Christy Hale, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Nature: Poems Old and New, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
  • The Centaur, illustrated by Barry Moser, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.
  • May out West: Poems of May Swenson, Utah State University Press (Logan, UT), 1996.
  • Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters to Elizabeth Bishop, afterword by Kirstin Hotelling Zona, Utah State University Press (Logan, UT), 2000.
  • The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.