May Swenson

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May Swenson
Shoulder high portrait of woman perhaps in her sixties resting on her right hand, causing wrinkles in her right eye
Born May 28, 1913
Logan, Utah
Died December 28, 1989(1989-12-28) (aged 76)
Bethany Beach, Delaware
Occupation Poet and Playwright, Chancellor of Academy of American Poets
Nationality American
Alma mater Utah State University

Anna Thilda May "May" Swenson (28 May 1913 – 4 December 1989) was an American poet and playwright. She is considered one of the most important and original poets of the 20th century, as often hailed by the noted critic Harold Bloom.[1]

The first child of Margaret and Dan Arthur Swenson, she grew up as the eldest of 10 children in a Mormon household where Swedish was spoken regularly and English was a second language. As a lesbian, she was somewhat shunned by her family for religious reasons. Much of her later poetry works were devoted to children (e.g. the collection Iconographs, 1970). She also translated the work of contemporary Swedish poets, including the selected poems of Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer.

Personal life[edit]

Swenson attended Utah State University in Logan, Utah, graduating in the class of 1934 with a bachelor's degree. She taught poetry as poet-in-residence at Bryn Mawr College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California, Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University. From 1959 to 1966 she worked as an manuscript reviewer at New Directions Publishing. Swenson left New Directions Press in 1966 in an effort to focus completely on her own writing.[2] She also served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death in 1989. For the last twenty years of her life, she lived in Sea Cliff, New York.

In 1936, Swenson worked as an editor and ghostwriter for a man called "Plat," who became her "boyfriend." "I think I should like to have a son by Plat," she wrote in her diary, "but I would not like to be married to any man, but only be myself."[3]

Her poems were published in Antaeus, The Atlantic Monthly, Carleton Miscellany, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Saturday Review, Parnassus and Poetry. Her poem Question was also published in Stephenie Meyer's book The Host.

Awards and recognition[edit]

She received much recognition for her work. Some of which include:

  • American Introductions Prize in 1955;
  • William Rose Benet Prize of the Poetry Society of America in 1959;
  • Longview Foundation Award in 1959;
  • National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1960;
  • Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in 1967;
  • Lucy Martin Donnelly Award of Bryn Mawr College in 1968;
  • Shelley Poetry Award in 1968
  • Guggenheim fellowship in 1959,
  • Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship in 1960,
  • Ford Foundation grant in 1964
  • Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1981,
  • MacArthur Fellowship in 1987.

Style, imagery and eroticism[edit]

Swenson's work shows strong use of imagery and use of eroticism. She continually questions existence and writes much on the topic of love. Her love poems concerned "human nature, the natural world, geography, and invention. They are poems of intense love between women, written at a time when that genre was rare in poetry. Although she did not go out of her way to make known her lesbian sexual identity, she also did not hide it. In her career she has turned down publication offers to use her poetry in a compilation of lesbian writing, yet she did agree in one case, which she explained as a tasteful collection she did not mind contributing to. Her poetry collection The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson focused mostly on poems in which sexual imagery is especially abundant. Swenson's style is described as rhythmic.[by whom?] Her creative style merges in her writing with her interest in plant and animal behavior with works such as "The Cross Spider". As well as natural themes, some of her work focuses on scientific research, for example the exploration of space. Fascinated by perception, much of Swenson's work contains key themes of how this human perception can be found in landscapes and wider contexts. One source[who?] comments that her use of nature and sexuality are not used separately, but that nature is something we are all part of, and in that commonality we share energy derived from sexuality.


Washington University in St. Louis, MO, houses most of the poet's documents and original manuscripts. This is the primary location for all scholarly materials on May Swenson. Information on May Swenson is also available from The Literary Estate of May Swenson, c/o of All of Ms. Swenson's poems are covered by copyright and may not be used without written permission of The Literary Estate.

Utah State University also has some archives that are part of the university's Olin Library State University (USU). The University has created the "May Swenson Project." Supported by students and teachers, it has publicized Swenson's work at USU, as well as her influence across the nation. In her name, USU has dedicated a May Swenson room in the English Department and another in the USU Merrill-Cazier Library. Funds are being sought to establish an endowed chair in Swenson's name.

The May Swenson Poetry Award, sponsored by Utah State University Press, is a competitive prize granted annually to an outstanding collection of poetry in English. Open to published and unpublished writers, with no limitation on subject, the competition honors May Swenson as one of America's most vital and provocative poets of the twentieth century. Judges for the competition have included Mary Oliver, Maxine Kumin, John Hollander, Mark Doty, Alice Quinn, Harold Bloom, Garrison Keillor, Edward Field and others from the first tier of American letters.




  • Another Animal (Scribner, 1954);
  • A Cage of Spines (Rinehart, 1958);
  • To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (Scribner, 1963);
  • Poems to Solve (for children "14-up") (Scribner, 1966);
  • Half Sun Half Sleep (Scribner, 1967);
  • The Shape of Death;
  • More Poems to Solve (Scribner, 1968);
  • Iconographs (Scribner, 1970);
  • New & Selected Things Taking Place (Little, Brown, 1978);
  • In Other Words (Knopf, 1987);
  • Collected Poems (Library of America, 2013).


  • Made With Words, ed. Gardner McFall (U of Mich Press, 1998).


  • Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972)


  1. ^ Blood, Harold. "They have the numbers; we, the heights," Boston Review. Accessed Feb. 15, 2012.
  2. ^ - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More - May Swenson
  3. ^ May Swenson: A Poet's Life in Photos by R. R. Knudson & Suzzane Bigelow with a foreword by Richard Wilbur (Utah State University Press, 1996), ISBN 0-87421-218-9, p. 39.

This article comes directly, word for word, from does not have legal authorization to reprint May Swenson's poems.

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