May Swenson and the Absence of the Absence of Form
by Marilyn L. Taylor
uminous, innovative, often exuberantly erotic, the poetry of May Swenson (1913-1989) has earned consistent acclaim from many of the most exalted critics of the last century, and continues to do so for a new generation of readers. Anthony Hecht has simply and unequivocally proclaimed her "one of America's finest modernist poets" (Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1997), while Robert Hass, in selecting Swenson's poem "Question" as his Poet's Choice for his syndicated Washington Post column in 1998, called her a "wonderful and not very well-known poet...in the quirky tradition of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop" (88). John Hollander was dazzled by her as well, and marveled at how "[h]er verse itself--rhymed, free in various modes, internally rhymed with unnotated rhythmic patterns, playing to eye and ear at once--confounded trivial classification" (289).
But for all the critical accolades, it must be added that widespread celebrity for this "not very well-known poet" and her singular achievements has been limited. Of course, she is widely anthologized. Her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Yet, despite her having won several of the most prestigious awards in American letters, among them the Bollingen Prize and foundation fellowships from Ford, MacArthur and Guggenheim, it has only been in recent years that Swenson's astonishing stylistic innovations have become acknowledged in academia as the singular works of virtuosity that they are. The recent formation of the May Swenson Society (www.mayswensonsociety.org) also indicates that readers can look forward to more critical attention to Swenson's work in the future. The website provides helpful information such as where her papers are held (Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri), how to contact her literary executor for assistance in finding further resources, and a charming photograph of her home shared with novelist Rozanne Knudson on the North Shore of Long Island overlooking Long Island Sound.
Like a number of literary artists whose genius took root in a somewhat unlikely setting (Whitman, Millay, and Brooks, might serve as examples), Swenson's background is also worthy of note, primarily for the quintessentially American tale it tells. She was born in Logan, Utah, in 1913--a year that places her in the middle of the great "middle generation" of poets that included Roethke, Nemerov, Lowell and Berryman, as well as Elizabeth Bishop, who was later to became Swenson's close friend and correspondent. Christened Anna Thilda May Swenson, she was the eldest of ten siblings. Her parents, Dan and Margaret Swenson, were Swedish émigrés who spoke only their native language at home, and who had converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints before leaving their native country. Dan taught woodworking at the local agricultural college; Margaret tended to her considerable domestic duties, often relying upon her eldest child for help.
Clearly not contemplating a future in this environment, Swenson moved to New York City shortly after graduating from Utah State University, carrying with her the sensibilities of the American West--a facet of her psyche that is clearly discernible in many of her poems about the natural world. Once settled, she took on a variety of jobs, including temporary stints as a stenographer, secretary, interviewer and editorial assistant, and wrote poems at night. She didn't begin placing them until 1949 when she was finally published in The Saturday Review of Literature, thirteen years after her arrival in New York.
Swenson's first book, titled Another Animal, was published by Scribner's in 1954. It was followed by five more collections in her lifetime; three additional volumes were released after her death in 1989. Her other published writings include three volumes of poetry for young readers, a collection of essays, translations of the work of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, and a one-act play.
For nearly twenty years, Swenson carried on a regular and lively correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop. They met at Yaddo in 1950, after which an exchange of letters continued until shortly before the death of Bishop in 1979. It's clear that the two poets deeply admired each other's work, although neither necessarily acted upon all of the advice that the other provided. The overall nature of the relationship reflected in these letters seems to have been friendly and mutually respectful.
Swenson worked as a typist and then reader of manuscripts for New Directions Press in 1959, but resigned in 1966 in order to devote more time to her writing, and to serve as writer-in-residence at a number of American universities, including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, UC-Riverside, Purdue, and her alma mater, Utah State. She eventually moved back east again, settling in upstate New York where she spent the remainder of her life.
Swenson was a lesbian, and although she certainly did not shy away from writing sexually-oriented poems, they appear to characterize her work to a somewhat lesser extent than what might be assumed from her critical legacy. If John Hollander, on the one hand, emphasizes her "allegorizing,. . . formal invention, interplays of genres, and powerful emblematic vision" (288), a number of feminist scholars see her poetic output in an entirely different light. There are some who write from the conviction that aspects of Swenson's sexual relationships permeate many, if not most, of her poems. Others have suggested that by carefully avoiding "gender-specific narratives," she widens her potential readership. Still others emphasize Swenson's unconventional approaches to matters of gender and sexuality, noting in particular that many of her nature poems serve as metaphors for matters erotic.
Reconciling these various critical takes can present a challenge to the literary critic. The primary difficulty seems to inhere in the notion that the reader is to select one of these approaches as a philosophical/critical fulcrum, without acknowledging that there are other alternatives. Among them: is Swenson's poetry primarily self-analytical and confessional in nature--or does much of it amount to erotic fantasy? Or, conversely, is the erotica secondary to begin with, and ought she to be viewed primarily as a poet with a memorably idiosyncratic prosodic technique? These are questions that might well be taken up more fully in forthcoming critical writings on Swenson.
Regarding methods: Swenson herself claimed that it was "inspiration" that motivated many of her poems, which she identifies as "received poems." Three of these are "The Pure Suit of Happiness," "A Navajo Blanket," and "Bison Crossing Near Mount Rushmore." (The latter two are reflective of her ongoing spiritual attachment to the American West.) In an unpublished essay titled "A Poem Happens to Me" (75-79), she describes at some length the experience of being "seized" by "a poem that demands to be given voice"--and how the act of getting of it down on paper is akin to taking dictation. "I feel my hand writing," she states, "as if it were not part of me, but a tool held and directed by my mind."
Almost parenthetically but quite tellingly, she adds: "the rest of the poem may then be born quite consciously, simply through a logical, workmanlike persistence" (5).
One could argue that this very persistence is what brings to so many of her poems their singular distinction. The remarkable precision and polish of Swenson's body of work reflects a degree of technical skill that might well be unsurpassed in American letters. It can be argued further that in Swenson's case, at least, the more explicitly crafted the poem in question, the more successful and memorable it tends to be. Many of her best, in fact, are heavily influenced by the time-tested conventions of traditional English prosody: rhyme, rhythmic regularity, and/or careful patterning on the page.
This is not to suggest that Swenson was a "formalist" in the orthodox sense. This was borne out in a 1977 interview in the New York Quarterly, during which she was asked if she had ever tried her hand at writing a sonnet, or a villanelle. She replied flatly that she had not, nor had she at any time consciously set out to invent a form or a system of her own for a poem in progress.
The reader must conclude, then, that the undeniably formal elements in Swenson's work probably got there as a result of what she had internalized over a lifetime of exposure to traditional verse. She was, of course, deeply familiar with the English and American canon. This familiarity is reflected often in her own versification, even if the presence of traditional elements was more the result of intuition than intention. Anthony Hecht pointed out, in fact, that "[Swenson] can be perfectly traditional when she chooses" before adding that "she delights in writing experimental poetry, aiming for the unexpected and the surprising"(6). Swenson's youngest sibling, Paul Swenson (a well-known Utah journalist, film critic, and writer), also places considerable emphasis on her playful manipulation of the rules, or what he calls "an insinuating, tickling use of language that had long characterized her style"(7)--but they are rules she knew well, rules she was confident enough to break gracefully. One suspects, in fact, that the playfulness would not have come across nearly so effectively had it not been for her mastery of craft.
This can be illustrated with excerpts from a traditionally rhymed poem that can be found in Swenson's 1978 collection, New and Selected Things Taking Place, titled "The Blindman":
The blindman placed
From the thematic perspective, the poem's vivid and highly sensory diction evokes all that the blindman of the title lacks, i.e., the ability to experience visual imagery. And yet even without sight, or perhaps especially without it, Swenson shows that the blindman is able to "know" these intense sensory images by turning to his other four senses: touch, taste, smell, and hearing, in that order. This is subject-matter of a distinctly traditional kind, calling to mind the keen descriptive sensibilities that she shares with certain other poets, e.g., Marge Piercy, Diane Ackerman, Pattiann Rogers.
a tulip on his tongue for purple's taste.
Cheek to grass, his green
was rough excitement's sheen
of little whips.
In water to his lips. . .
Yet by infusing The Blindman with traditional prosodic devices, Swenson creates and maintains an elusive but clearly perceptible music, an effect from which the poem benefits considerably and which would not otherwise exist. Structurally as well, she provides an innovative variation on both the pattern and the rhyme-scheme of traditional terza rima: aab / bcc, which she repeats twice to make a total of six stanzas.
Although the poem is metrically irregular in terms of number of stresses per line, a rising rhythmic profile prevails until the last two lines, at which point the cadence abruptly changes, turns emphatically trochaic, and produces a fanfare of a rhymed ending:
a pomegranate lets me hear
Trumpets tell me yellow. Only ebony is mute.
This is a finale that has capitalized on metrical rhythm to provide a sustained and definitive sense of closure. It becomes particularly evident when read aloud.
"Almanac" is another Swenson poem that is deeply informed by traditional prosody, but is neither linguistically nor rhythmically restricted by it. Woven through with internal rhyme, the poem is only a syllable or two away from blank verse, which the opening pentameter lines will serve to illustrate:
The hammer struck my nail, instead of nail,
A moon flinched into being. Omen-black,
it began its trail. Risen from horizon
on my thumb (no longer numb and indigo). . .
The work also features a startling turn a few lines later at the very center of the middle stanza, where the metaphorical fingernail-moon abruptly becomes the destination for a journey into outer space: an electrifying flight of the imagination. (The text in its entirety can be found at www.google.com/books; search there for Nature: Poems Old and New by May Swenson. "Almanac" appears on page 31.)
The reader will also be struck by the number of internal rhymes in this poem, and by their precision. Some examples:
Reaching whiteness, this moon-speck waned
while an April rained. . .
Across the street,
a vine crept over brick up 14 feet. . .
Einstein (who said there is no hitching
post in the universe) at 77 turned ghost.
Perhaps only a poet blessed with Swenson's extraordinarily musical ear would dare to rhyme with so much bravado, weaving it lavishly through 21 lines of nearly-regular iambic pentameter as if it were a musical leitmotif.
Even when the poet moves well beyond traditional versification, which is more often than not, Swenson's innate command of the conventions remains apparent. This is particularly true when she chooses to subvert them, to experiment with radical shapes and configurations. As Karl Shapiro noted in a review of her 1967 collection, Half Sun, Half Sleep, "It is strange to see the once-radical carmen figuratum, the calligraphic poem, spatial forms, imagist and surreal forms--all the heritage of the early years of the century--being used with such ease and unselfconsciousness" (Poetryfoundation.org, archive). It seems, in other words, that Swenson simply knew when to stop. For example, her poems that are arranged iconographically on the page--and there are many of these--are never so inscrutable that they become obscure. Avant-garde as they may first appear, there is nothing random or cryptic about their shapes. Never do they favor concrete design over theme, radical form over insightful content. On the contrary, the special-effects might serve to underscore the poem's poetic impulse, but never to the point of obliterating it. The very small selection of these poems that are accessible on line (see www.books.google.com/books) will speak to this; they include:
"Come In Go Out"
"I Look At My Hand"
Despite their experimental behavior on the page, the reader realizes immediately that the content of each one of these poems is engaging and accessible. A vertical caesura slicing down the center, a wavy margin, or a stair-step stanza arrangement only serves to underscore the worthy thematic intentions of these good poems.
Another good example that demonstrates how the elements of traditional prosody work energetically in Swenson's favor: her well-known and widely anthologized meditation on mortality, titled "Question." (The full text is available at several sites on the Web, including www.poets.org.) This is a poem that has been subjected to a great deal of critical analysis of its content, but there has been very little discussion of its form, which is in many ways its most admirable aspect.
Neither end-rhymed nor strictly metrical, "Question" nevertheless features a number of formal prosodic elements that could have come directly from the pages of the Princeton Encyclopedia. To wit:
1. The poem is a fine example of accentual verse--which is, of course, the oldest rhythmic tradition in the language. Two strong stresses are clearly evident in every one of its twenty-one lines--no more, no less. The result: a certain not-quite-subliminal rhythmic pattern, the pattern of the heartbeat--accompanied by a forward pulsation that seems to pick up speed as the speaker's anxiety increases.
2. The poem capitalizes on the iconic effects of sound. Alliteration and assonance are everywhere, the former evidenced most notably in the very first stanza's breathy initial /h/'s: house/horse/hound--and the latter in the many internal rhymes and near-rhymes throughout: do/you; without/mount; danger/treasure; lie/sky/eye/hide--among others.
3. Third, the omnipresence of epistrophe--what will I/where will I/when will I/how will I, etc.--lays a syntactic grid over the entire poem, lending it structure and symmetry.
4. Finally: the gradual piling up of unanswerable questions--a potent way of communicating the speaker's profound uncertainty and fear. In this unusual context, no "stage directions," in the form of commas and question-marks, are needed; they might, in fact, serve as dispensable distractions. This lack of punctuation anywhere in the poem (until the very end) was clearly a conscious stylistic choice on the part of Swenson, and serves the poem well.
Although these very few brief examples of May Swenson's poetry cannot possibly be seen as conclusive evidence that her poems that incorporate traditional prosodic characteristics are her most successful. But it is difficult to deny that many of her finest works--including those that are presented in decidedly untraditional ways--owes at least a portion of their success to their rock-solid underpinnings, their borrowings from the time-tested traditions of English versification.
All quotations from May Swenson's poetry are protected by US copyright and used with permission of the Literary Estate of May Swenson.