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Swenson, May (1913-1989)  

Born in Logan, Utah, on May 28, 1913, May Swenson became one of America's most inventive and incisive poets. English was actually her second language since Swedish was spoken in her childhood home.

Beginning in 1954, she published ten collections of poetry during her lifetime and one book of translations of the poems of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. These include works such as Another Animal (1954), To Mix With Time (1963), Iconographs (1970), New And Selected Things Taking Place (1978), and In Other Words (1987). Swenson died in Ocean View, Delaware, on December 4, 1989.

Swenson's work is wide and varied. Many of her poems delight in the natural world. Others incorporate scientific research, particularly that having to do with space exploration. Others root themselves in love and eroticism, especially lesbian sexuality. Many of her love poems were published as a single collection in 1991 as The Love Poems of May Swenson.

Nature and sexuality are not separate categories in her work; to be a part of Nature, as we all are, joins us to a common sexual energy. Her strongest love poems, such as "Fireflies," "Dark Wild Honey," and "Wednesday at The Waldorf," rely on Nature imagery for much of their vitality and beauty.

The couple in "Wednesday at The Waldorf," for example, sits in the hotel restaurant under whales that cavort overhead. When the couple goes to their hotel room, the whales are still playing. The poem ends with a hush, a descending peace. The erotic transforms even a busy and anonymous place into one of joy and desire.

Windows and Stones, her translations of Transtromer's poetry, helped introduce English-speaking audiences to his work. Transtromer is a psychologist as well as a poet; his interest in human perception and in our relationship with the landscape and place suggests Swenson's own interest in these areas.

Perception, for a poet like Swenson, is also a matter of how a poem looks to the eye. How a poem shapes the page (and vice versa) helps determine our perception of subject and sound. In "A Trellis for R" the design of Swenson's poem suggests a trellis. The reader sees the trellis both pictorially and emotionally. Landscape and place are not decorative so much as they are atlases, maps to lead us inward and outward.

An amusing poem from her last collection, In Other Words, is called "The Gay Life." Here Swenson rearranges the traditional family's building blocks: mommy, daddy, and baby. One slips into the others' roles. In this poem, people desire a more fluid response to their assigned roles: Mommies don't always want to be mommies, and daddies don't always want to be daddies. In this fluidity, joy can sneak in. Life can become "gay" in more than one way.

For Swenson, desire bursts free in such fluidity the way rain bolts free from clouds. It is liberating. What we see and feel isn't rain alone; it's language, urgent and dynamic.

Kenneth Pobo


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Collier, Michael. "Poetic Voices." Partisan Review 58 (Summer 1991): 565-569.

Packard, William. The Poet's Craft. New York: Paragon House, 1987.

Swenson, Paul. "May In October." Weber Studies 8 (1991): 18-31.

Transtromer, Tomas. Windows And Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Transtromer. Trans. May Swenson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.

Van Duyn, Mona. "Important Witness To The World." Parnassus: Poetry In Review 16.1 (1990): 154-156.


    Citation Information
    Author: Pobo, Kenneth  
    Entry Title: Swenson, May  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 23, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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