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May Swenson

By Richard Wilbur

May Swenson was not much given to self-absorption or self-portraiture, but in one of her later poems we find her looking at herself and seeing the lineaments of her mother and father. “I look at my hand,” she says—

I look at my hand and see

it is also his and hers;

the pads of the fingers his,


the wrists and knuckles hers.

In the mirror my pugnacious eye

and ear of an elf, his;


my tamer mouth and slant

cheekbones hers.

That gives us a glimpse of May Swenson, though I should like to qualify it; she did indeed inherit a brow and set of eyes which were capable of pugnacity, but what I mostly saw in her blue eyes was forthrightness, independence, good nature, and a great power of attention. She had an appealing and sociable Swedish face, with fair hair cut in a “Dutch bob” across the forehead.

May’s parents came over from Sweden and settled in Logan, Utah, were converted to Mormonism, and had ten children of whom she was the eldest. After her graduation from the college where her father taught mechanical engineering, and after a spell of journalism in Utah, she came east and lived, for most of her writing life, in the New York area. Nevertheless she remained Western in many ways. She had a great relish for wild nature and a knowing empathy with wild creatures; her poems are full of tents and cabins and the out-of-doors; when an Amy Lowell fellowship took her to Europe for the first time, at the age of forty-one, she and a companion “bought a small French car and tenting equipment” and, in their travels through France, Spain, and Italy, spent most of their nights under canvas. Effete Easterners do not make the grand tour in that fashion. The poems are Western, too, in their openness of tone and diction; even at their trickiest, they are made out of plain American words. The breezy spontaneity of their technique—the lineation and spacing, the playful random rhyming—makes sometimes for a lack of finish, but more usually seems in perfect accord with the swift vigor of her spirit.

One thing she did bring east was Mormonism, or any other kind of church religion. This did not result in any sense of loss, or any want of scope. What May put in the place of any supernatural view was a truly knowledgeable awareness, rare among poets of our time, of the world as perceived and probed by contemporary science. An initial reaction to the mention of science, in connection with May’s poetry, might be to think of her famous descriptive power, her ability to make us see objects sharply and in new ways: it was this talent which led Robert Lowell to say: “Miss Swenson’s quick-eyed poems should be hung with permanent fresh-paint signs.” When we talked about Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop, we soon find ourselves quoting their brilliant captures and sightings of things, and so it is with May Swenson, who admired them both: one thinks of how, in a poem of May’s, young skunk cabbages rise up out of a swamp like “Thumbs of old / gloves, the nails / poked through / and curled.” Or one remembers the lines in which she conveys the shape, motion, and wake of an East River tugboat: “A large shoe / shuffles the floor of water, / leaving a bright scrape.”

But this power to observe things keenly is not all that May Swenson shares with the scientist, as may be learned from an essay which she wrote for the Voice of America in the sixties, and entitled “The Experience of Poetry in a Scientific Age.” What’s central in that essay is its acceptance, as a model for poetry, of our cognitive situation as described by the atomic physicist, for whom the swarming particles which constitute the cosmos are not knowable in themselves, but are inevitably altered by our instruments of perception. If that is the way we know the universe, then the unit of reality is not an objective recording of data, or an imposition of order, but an occasion of interplay or dialogue between perceiver and world—what Whitehead called a “prehension.” May’s poetry is full of such moments of interplay—perceptual games and experiments in seeing which are grounded in a serious theory of knowledge. Her little poem “Forest,” for example, begins this way:

The pines, aggressive as erect tails of cats,
bob their tips when the wind freshens.

It then proceeds to depict the pine-forest entirely in the key of cat—discovering a feline character in its brindled colors, its humped and springy floor, its lashed and winking boughs, and the purring sound of the wind going through them. This might seem merely a fanciful imposition, a virtuoso feat, were it not for the fact that the poet’s accurate metaphors realize the forest more vividly than any botanist’s language could do—so that the poet in her turn is acted upon, and the revealed strangeness of the scene creates in her a mood of forest-fear, of panic. The poem thus ends with these lines:

My neck-hairs rise. The feline forest grins

behind me. Is it about to follow?
Which way out through all these whiskered yawns?

At the beginning of the essay to which I’ve referred, May Swenson says this about the poetic experience: “I see it based in a craving to get through the curtains of things as they appear, to things as they are, and then into the larger, wilder space of things as they are becoming.” That sentence contains the whole drama of May Swenson’s poetry, the passion which underlies her playfulness. Though she knows that the senses can deceive us, it is through the alert, surprising use of those instruments that she seeks to break through to reality, refusing (as she says) “to take given designations for granted” or “to accept without a second look the name or category of a thing for the thing itself.” Her poetry is, in fact, at war with names and designations, insofar as they can occlude our vision or foreclose our curiosity. God, she tells us in one of her poems, is a name which men have given to the idea of changelessness, and such a name is delusive in a world where everything moves and alters, where all is “breathing change.” As for lesser names—such as stream, flower, or roller-coaster—it is a special and frequent strategy of hers to withhold them, so that the poem may look more closely, naively, and inquiringly at the things to which they refer.

The riddle is an ancient poetic form in which an object is darkly described and its name withheld. May wrote a good many fine riddles about such objects as egg and fire and butterfly—enough so that a selection could be made “for young readers” and published in 1966 under the title of Poems to Solve. We are foolishly inclined nowadays to look at such poems as kid stuff; but to see May Swenson’s riddles as part of her whole enterprise is to rediscover the dignity of the form. Richard Howard was right to say that, in this aspect of her work, May wrote “a poetry that gives back to Orpheus.” A riddle is at first a concealment, the withholding of a name; but as and when we solve its dark metaphor, the riddle is a revelation, giving us not only a name, but an object freed from clichés of perception and seen with wonder as if for the first time. Most of May’s poems, of course, are not riddles, yet again and again they make use of riddling strategy to produce their revelations, and to enforce an intense participation in the reader. In a poem called “Motherhood,” we seem at first to be looking at an unusually ugly naked woman, who is holding a skinny, louse-ridden child to her breast; yet by the end of the poem, when the mother is proudly swinging from bar to bar with the infant clinging to her armpit-hair, we have somehow been led to see her as beautiful. One reason for the success of the piece is that nowhere in title or text are we given such words as “ape” or “zoo” or “cage”—words which would allow us to relax into preconceptions. The poem is by no means obscure; one begins rather early to know the “answer”; and yet this withholding of a few clinching words prompts one to look hard at the object, be limber in one’s response to it, and rejoice at last in another creature’s splendid life.

That is what May meant by getting through, a process in which the poet transforms the object by some imaginative approach, draws closer to it by repeated acts of attention, and is at last, herself, transformed by the object. We have this pattern at its simplest in a poem called “While Seated on a Plane.” There, the poet looks out of a plane-window and sees the cloudscape as a great parlor full of soft chairs and couches; she then dreams of walking out to make herself comfortable in that “celestial furniture,” but is perplexed of course, by its vast, turbulent changes of form; the solution is a further act of imagination, in which she forsakes her own shape and substance, and conceives herself as perpetually “deformed and reformed.” “One must be a cloud,” as the poem says, “to occupy a house of cloud.” Playful and charming as the poem is, it is like many another poem of May’s in its passionate wish to cancel the distinction between subject and object, and to be at one with the portion of reality described. That is the impulse behind the “shaped poems” of which she wrote so many, and of which my favorite is a study of wave-behavior called “How Everything Happens.” These creations, which dispose their words on the page to suggest the form or motion of the subject, represent not only pictorial wit but the desire of the poem to become what it is about.

Like Emily Dickinson, who much Influenced her, May lived in the universe. No poet of our day has said and conjectured so much about stars and space. But whereas Dickinson’s soul could expand to the limits of space and beyond, May’s universe is ultimately that of the astronomer and physicist—a storm of galaxies and particles still uncharted by the mind, in which the mind itself may seem anomalous and lonely. Such a reality can be frightening, and May’s poems have their moments of Pascalian dread; but her prevalent mood is one of delight. That needs no explaining, I think: when art is morose, we want to know why, but joy requires no reasons. It is clear, however, that she trusted her craving to get beyond the self, and her rapture in making imaginative fusions with the other. In consequence, her poems find the erotic in all forms of natural energy, and whether they speak of nebulae or horses or human love, are full of a wonderfully straightforward and ebullient sexuality. As for death, she approaches it often in a spirit of Whitmanian merging. Here are the opening lines of a sprightly later poem called “Ending”:

Maybe there is a Me inside of me
and, when I lie dying, he
will crawl out. Through my toe.
Green on the green rug, and then
white on the wall, and then
over the windowsill, up the trunk
of the apple tree, he
will turn brown and rough and warty
to match the bark…

She is poking fun, there, at conventional notions of the soul, but there is no missing the fact that blessedness, for her, would be a state of perfect transparency. I don’t know where May is now, but her poems continue to mix with time, and to be part of the vitality of the world.

Read at the Institute Dinner Meeting on November 8, 1990.

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