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:
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?
And this one:
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.)