POETRY by May Swenson
Selected and introduced by Anthony Hecht
In his introduction to the October 1947 issue of the English literary magazine Horizon, Cyril Connolly remarked on the evanescence of literary celebrity in America, the fleetingness of reputations, commenting that "the crucial factor is the high cost of book production which renders the printing of small editions (under 10,000) uneconomic; the tendency is therefore to go all out for the best sellers and, with a constant eye on Hollywood, to spend immense sums on publicity to bring about one of those jack-pots.... The American public are cajoled into reading the book of the month, and only the book of the month—and for that month only. Last year’s book is as unfashionable as last year’s car.... Last year’s authors are pushed aside." If that was true in 1947, it is even truer today, and if it was (and is) true of fiction, what must it mean for the comparatively marginal authorship and readership of poetry? The poetic giants (Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens) excepted, as well as those such as T. S. Eliot, who have retained a curiously scandalous claim upon continuing attention, most poets upon their deaths disappear into fogbanks of oblivion, occasionally to be rediscovered as novelties (like H. D. or Mina Loy) by some enterprising historian. Who now reads Mary Aldis, Walter Conrad Arensberg, Skipwith Cannéll, Arthur Davison Ficke? Or Charles Mackey, William Mickle, or even Samuel Rogers, the richest poet of his day, who the Encyclopædia Britannica asserts "played the part of literary dictator in England over a long period"?
Must the same be said of May Swenson (1913–89)? She is one of America’s finest modernist poets. She can be perfectly traditional when she chooses, but she delights in writing experimental poetry, aiming for the unexpected and the surprising, not infrequently with an eye to securing important visual effects. In this she belongs to an elect coterie of writers that would include e. e. cummings and Guillaume Apollinaire, though it can boast an ancestry tracing itself as far back as the Hellenistic poets Simias and Dosiadas, and would include such 17th-century–style poems as George Herbert’s "Easter Wings." As for Apollinaire, he wrote a poem in the shape of the Eiffel Tower, and another in which the letters and words stream downward in irregular lines in a work called "Il Pleut." This typographical dexterity can be found as well in the work of John Hollander (see his volume called Types of Shape) and in some of the surrealists, as well as in poems by Kenneth Patchen. Yet it should not be surprising to find poets with an active interest in the immediate visual aspect of writing and typefaces. William Blake was a printer and etcher as well as a publisher and poet; William Morris was a poet as well as a publisher and designer of texts, fabrics, tiles, and wallpaper.
May Swenson was born in Logan, Utah, into a Mormon family. After graduating from the Utah State University, she moved to New York City and worked with the Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. She served as an editor of the avant-garde New Directions Press for 10 years beginning in 1956, after which she held a series of visiting professorships at various colleges and universities throughout the country, including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California (Riverside), Purdue, and Utah State. Her many honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations. In the course of time she managed, between teaching appointments, to travel widely and imaginatively, as the titles of some of her poems suggest: "Above the Arno," "Notes Made in the Piazza San Marco," "The Pantheon, Rome," "Italian Sampler," "Camping in Madera Canyon," and " ‘So Long’ to the Moon from the Men of Apollo." She was a student and friend of Elizabeth Bishop, from whose example she developed a singularly accurate eye and a gently modulated sense of humor, along with an appreciation of what may be thought of as (to vary a Freudian locution) the surrealism of everyday life. Viewed in retrospect, her work seems more and more original and richly rewarding.