May Swenson: the best poet you’ve never heard of
  • may

    Have you ever heard of May Swenson?

    Most people have not.

    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 often 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 for one year worked as a journalist at 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 as frighteningly original as she is obsessive in her typographical games. At her sustained best, she’s a stupefying technician whose lines dance and dazzle, whose poems never cease yielding up meaning, no matter how many times you reread them, who crafted her literature like a clock. She’s one of those writers you read, admire, envy, and applaud all at the same time.

    She was friends with the Canadian-born poetess Elizabeth Bishop — an excellent writer as well, who lacks, however, May Swenson’s joy and playful sensibilities.

    May Swenson did not treat poetry as tragic expression. Neither did she treat it as harangue, rant, or a mode of despair. She delighted in life as she delighted in language, which, as she herself said, is the human means of comprehending life. In the language of her literature, the great May Swenson seems always, at the root of it all, to be thinking: how magical is this life, how wonderful, how surprising and how fantastically, beautifully strange!

    The best of her poems — and there are too many to count — are among the most closely observed pieces of literature I’ve ever read. They are frequently erotic, but in subtle, lovely, unexpected ways. Here’s an example:

    A Couple

    A bee
    in the yellow
    Does she
    invite his hairy
    He scrubs
    in her creamy
    A bullet soft imposes
    her spiral and, spinning, burrows
    to her dewy
    The gold
    grooves almost
    the yellow
    Does his touch
    or scratch?
    When he’s
    his honey-
    at her matrix,
    whirs free
    tall, chill,
    unrumpled on her stem.


    A bee and a flower — isn’t that remarkable?

    And this one:

    Four-Word Lines

    Your eyes are just
    like bees, and I
    feel like a flower.
    Their brown power makes
    a breeze go over
    my skin. When your
    lashes ride down and
    rise like brown bees’
    legs, your pronged gaze
    makes my eyes gauze.
    I wish we were
    in some shade and
    no swarm of other
    eyes to know that
    I’m a flower breathing
    bare, laid open to
    your bees’ warm stare.
    I’d let you wade
    in me and seize
    with your eager brown
    bees’ power a sweet
    glistening at my core.


    Yet it was the first poem I ever read by her, many years ago now, which for personal reasons that are only partly nostalgic remains my favorite of all her poetry:

    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 a 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.

    Delightfully, deliciously, playfully pulpy, n’est ce pas?

    May Swenson, 1913–1989, who crafted the language of her literature like an intricate clock, which will forever keep time. RIP.

    (Note: until I just now typed those poems into this post, they were nowhere to be found online.)


About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

4 Responses and Counting...

  • L 09.12.2013

    Thank you…I really like the first one, “the couple”. Evocative -. I get a veneer of modesty and curiosity, beneath that a deep yearning and slight jealousy; all held at bay by long cultivated detachment and hard-won wisdom. She is a wordsmith, this poet. I imagine she spent many hours alone, almost happy, with her own thoughts.

    Second, has beautiful imagery, but did not evoke the kind of sentiment as the first.

    Again, thank you for sharing.

  • Thank you, L. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and thank you for dropping by.

  • Best poetry I’ve ever read. I want more!
    Gorgeous. Thank you!

  • Thank you, Joan!

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