Have you ever heard of May Swenson?
Most people haven’t.
And yet she’s undoubtedly one of America’s greatest poets — a poet and playwright, I should say, though it’s for her poetry that she’s most properly praised.
She was born May 28th, 1913, in Logan, Utah, the oldest of ten children. She was raised Mormon. She graduated from Utah State Agricultural College and worked for a year as a journalist on a Salt Lake City newspaper.
She moved to New York City in 1938 and there worked for several years as a stenographer. She was well into her forties before her first book of poems appeared.
She died December 4th, 1989.
As a poet, May Swenson is often uneven, and she plays too many typographical games. Yet, despite her unevenness, she is at her best shockingly original, a stupefying technician — one of those writers you read, envy, and admire all at the same time.
She was good friends with Elizabeth Bishop — a fine writer as well, who lacks, however, May Swenson’s sensibilities and her joy.
May Swenson didn’t treat poetry as tragic expression, or a mode of despair. She delighted in language. She delighted in life.
When she’s at her best, her poems are among the most closely observed pieces of literature I’ve ever read. They are frequently erotic, but in unexpected ways:
in the yellow
invite his hairy
in her creamy
A bullet soft imposes
her spiral and, spinning, burrows
to her dewy
Does his touch
at her matrix,
unrumpled on her stem.
A bee and a flower — isn’t that remarkable?
Yet it was the first poem I ever read by her that remains my favorite:
Dream After Nanook
Lived savage and simple, where teeth were tools.
Killed the caught fish, cracked his back in my jaws.
Harpooned the heavy seal, ate his steaming liver raw.
Wore walrus skin for boots and trousers. Made knives
of tusks. Carved the cow-seal out of her hide
with the horn of her husband.
Lived with the huskies, thick-furred as they.
Snarled with them over the same meat.
Paddled a kayak of skin, scooted sitting over the water.
Drove a skein of dogs over wide flats of snow.
Tore through the tearing wind with my whip.
Built a hive of snow-cubes from the white ground.
Set a square of ice for window in the top.
Slid belly-down through the humped door hole.
Slept naked in the skins by the oily thighs
of wife and pup-curled children.
Rose when the ice-block lightened, tugged the chewed boots on.
Lived in a world of fur — fur ground — jags of ivory.
Lived blizzard-surrounded as a husky’s ruff.
Left game-traps under the glass teeth of ice.
Snared slick fish. Tasted their icy blood.
Made a sled with runners of leather.
Made a hat from the armpit of a bear.
Pretty pulpy, n’est ce pas?
(Note: until I just now typed those poems into this post, they were nowhere to be found online.)
May Swenson, 1913–1989