Partner Pearl “Blackie” Schwartz, R.R. Knudson
Bryn Mawr College, 101 N Merion Ave, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 500 Tate St, Greensboro, NC 27412
University of California, Riverside, CA 92521
Purdue University, 535 W Michigan St, Indianapolis, IN 46202
The Kestrel’s Nest, 73 The Blvd, Sea Cliff, NY 11579
23 Perry St, New York, NY 10014
Logan Cemetery, 1000 N 1200 E, Logan, UT 84321
Anna Thilda May "May" Swenson (May 28, 1913 – December 4, 1989) was an American poet and playwright. Harold Bloom considered her one of the most important and original poets of the 20th century.
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. Although her conservative family struggled to accept the fact that she was a lesbian, they remained close throughout her life. 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.
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 Greensboro, 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. She also served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death in 1989. She is buried in the Logan City Cemetery, and her grave is marked by a granite bench on which is etched some of her poetry. 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."
For a time she lived at 23 Perry Street, New York. Swenson met Pearl “Blackie” Schwartz. Swenson's second of three companions, May of 1949, when she was 36 and Schwartz was 26. Schwartz quickly moved in with Swenson and her roommate Trudie Lubitsch in their New York apartment. In the first year of their romance, Swenson wrote a number of love poems, some of which, like He That None Could Capture portrayed her lover as a man and were published in Another Animal (1959). Others, including To A Dark Girl in which the lover is revealed to be a woman, were not published until after her death in a posthumous collection called The Love Poems (2003). In the seventeen years that Schwartz and Swenson were together, they felt they had to keep their relationship relatively secret. In a late interview, Schwartz reveals that It was dangerous at the time to be gay and that the two were afraid that Swenson would not be published if her sexuality was revealed. In her diary and other manuscripts, Swenson would refer to Schwartz by the code names Blackie (because of Pearl’s dark hair), Jay or simply J. Swenson dedicated her third collection of poetry, Half Sun Half Sleep (1967), to J, and she also wrote a poem titled Coda to J that was published posthumously in The Love Poems. Even in letters they wrote to one another, Schwartz and Swenson use the codenames Jay and Miken, Schwartz’s name for Swenson. Schwartz and Swenson’s relationship ended sometime in the mid-1960s, but the two remained friends. Swenson next partner was Rozanne Zan R.R. Knudson, the author of the Zan series.
In the fall of 1967, May Swenson and Rozanne Knudson, bought a cedar summer cottage on the North Shore of Long Island, in the village of Sea Cliff. Swenson had met Zan Knudson while the former was working as writer-in-residence at Purdue University in 1966.
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.
Swenson created poems in "iconograph" style, first published in her 1970 book Iconographs, in which Swenson shaped lines of her poetry to create images relating to the poem's content. Her work "The Lowering", for instance, a memorial poem for Robert Kennedy, explored the late Kennedy's military funeral, with lines arranged in the shape of a folded flag. Swenson is known for her heavy use of natural imagery, mixed with religious and philosophical themes. Her poem "By Morning", which was published in The New Yorker compares a snowfall to the biblical fall of manna. Swenson's sense of imagery also lends itself to erotic poems, as she describes human bodies, breasts and limbs and the "pelvic heave of mountains." Author Jean Gould describes Swenson's work as "sensual as well as sexual."
Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, houses most of Swenson's documents and original manuscripts. This is the primary location for all scholarly materials on Swenson.
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.
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