May Swenson Centennial Celebration to Preserve a Legacy

Apr 17, 2013

May Swenson is one the most prolific writers to graduate from Utah State University. Joyce Carol Oates called her “a poet of dazzling gifts … quite simply, one of the most inventive, imaginative, intelligent and provocative poets of the era.” Swenson’s centennial birthday will be commemorated with readings by fans including Garrison Keillor—the voice and creator of A Prairie Home Companion—and Katharine Coles—Utah’s former poet laureate.

May Swenson is one the most prolific writers to graduate from Utah State University.

Swenson’s centennial birthday will be commemorated with readings by fans, including Garrison Keillor — the voice and creator of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” — and Katharine Coles — Utah’s former poet laureate — at the culminating event of the May Swenson Centennial Celebration April 25.

It wasn’t until Coles was studying poetry at the University of Washington that she discovered the work of May Swenson. While standing in a bookstore Coles said she plucked a volume off the shelf and began reading in the aisle.

“I was transported,” she said.  “I read the whole book.”

Coles said she later realized that Swenson, like herself, was a Utah girl, and  she brought a different perspective to contemporary American poetry. Coles said she felt a sense of  kinship with Swenson upon learning of her background.

“I was so used to reading these urban New York poets emphasizing those kinds of landscapes,” Coles said.

Swenson came of age with her writing while living in the Greenwich Village. Yet she never entirely stopped writing about the West. Her keen eye and ability to make the reader see from her perspective won her respect by both readers and critics.

“It’s like she lives in her eyes. She sees everything,” Coles said. “She really is a poet’s poet. She’s a poet who is very rigorous. I don’t think she’s difficult. But you have to be paying attention all the time. If you’re not willing to pay attention to the details then you won’t be able to enter into the poem.”

Coles, an English professor at the University of Utah, said she occasionally incorporates Swenson’s work into her classrooms — particularly when she wants to distract her students from themselves. Swenson doesn’t dwell on her misfortunes; she doesn’t often write about the biological details of her life. Because Swenson really imagines what it is like to be something or someone else she helps readers consider the life of another being. That empathy is something readers can apply to everyday life, Coles said.

“She is really great model of another way of being in the world,” Coles said.

Over the course of her life May Swenson received the MacArthur Fellowship — also known as the ‘Genius Grant’ — and was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She would have celebrated her 100th birthday this spring.

To commemorate the occasion, USU scholars organized several events in Swenson’s honor, including a series of poetry readings and master classes. While Coles is on a book tour of her fifth collection of poetry, “The Earth Is Not Flat,” she will come to Logan to participate in the final event at the Morgan Theater. The event is free, but requires a seating voucher available starting April 1 through the Caine College of the Arts Ticket Office (Chase Fine Arts Center, Room 139-B).

The series was created to ensure Swenson’s legacy lives on. Critics and peers called her work transformative, absolute, inventive, provocative and playful. Robert Lowell said “Miss Swenson’s quick-eyed poems should be hung with permanent fresh-paint signs.” 

Despite the poet's fame, Swenson remains largely unknown outside poetry circles. USU literary scholars are working to change that through the work of the May Swenson Project, which seeks to raise awareness and scholarship of her work through the organization of poetry symposiums and displays, research projects and the creation of the May Swenson Poetry Award administered by the USU Press.

USU students spent five years working to gain permission and funding to install a panel of Swenson’s poem “Above Bear Lake” at the overlook on Highway 89. English professor Paul Crumbley, director of the May Swenson Project, actually dug the hole and poured the concrete himself in 2011.

“I think that she’s one of the few modern American poets who tended to celebrate life,” he said.

Swenson is often grouped with poets of her era, including Sylvia Plath, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. However, Swenson was notably different in that she often wrote about life’s pleasures. She covered subjects from James Bond films and baseball to nature and love. This year, the Library of America will publish the first collected works of May Swenson. The honor is a distinction that will allow researchers to study her work in chronological order and parse the collection in its entirety, Crumbley said.

“This probably means that she will be taught with greater frequency,” he said. “It’s a great birthday present.”

Anna Thilda May Swenson did not have an easy pathway into publishing. Born in Logan near the base of Old Main Hill in 1913, she studied English at then Utah State Agricultural College. Some of her earliest published writings can be found in editions of “The Scribble,” a now defunct literary magazine at the school.

After graduating she moved to New York City and worked as a secretary, ghostwriter, newspaper reporter, editor and for the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. Michael Spooner is the director of Utah State University Press, which has published five books by and about Swenson. He said it took Swenson awhile to be recognized for her work.

“She came from Logan, Utah, which was a very small, dusty Western town in those days,” he said. “It was a much more difficult road to travel. She struggled a long time trying to get published in literary magazines.”

Swenson eventually did get her poetry published in magazines that included “The New Yorker.” She went on to publish 11 volumes of poetry and held positions as a writer in residence and lecturer at several universities and writing colonies. She won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship and Ford Foundation grant and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry.

Swenson was never affiliated with one genre and never really wanted to be. Spooner said in many ways, Swenson is the quintessential Western poet.

“She was self-reliant; she was independent. She was true to her own voice,” Spooner said. “She wasn’t interested in joining a group with a particular axe to grind … She remained true to her sensibilities. She was not impressed by the trappings of privilege.”

Swenson was known for her keen observations of the world and her ability to appeal to the reader’s senses.  Swenson published about 600 poems over the course of her life.

“She was curious about everything,” Spooner said. “That’s part of the genius that created her work.” 

Patricia Gantt, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at USU, agrees. She said she can still recall the first time she encountered May Swenson’s poetry decades ago when she taught high school. One year students taking the English Advanced Placement exam were asked to critique Swenson’s poem “The Centaur.”

“I sat in a very large gymnasium for over a week and read student responses,” Gantt said. “I saw that there were so many ways to come at May’s poetry.”

When she came to Logan and learned it was the birthplace of Swenson, Gantt said she delved deeper into her work. She found that many different May Swensons exist, because she never stuck to the same genre. Each different Swenson could write about anything, experiment with form and still create a precise picture for the reader.

“She has the gift of making you see what she sees,” Gantt said.

Nearly every year after the first snowfall in Logan, Gantt said she reads  Swenson’s poem “By Morning” to her students, which describes how New York City is transformed after a snowstorm. For Gantt, Swenson was a poet for the masses and the critics.

“She can be very cerebral,” Gantt said, adding that she wrote the type of poetry that pulled you back to look for deeper meaning. “I would say that May has something to say to everyone.”

Gantt and Crumbley co-edited “Body My House: May Swenson’s Work and Life,” the first collection of critical essays on Swenson published in 2006. Gantt said she believes Swenson should be celebrated in her hometown. People should know her — because people outside Logan do, she said.

“I think that a prophet should not be without honor in her own country,” Gantt said. “She’s so much more than a local poet. It’s not a small thing to be named the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. It’s [the poetry community’s] Oscar. It’s their way of saying, ‘you have something to offer.'"

May Swenson Centennial Celebration series culminates in an exhibit and poetry reading in April. An exhibit of Swenson’s life and works will be on display at the Merrill-Cazier Library, opening in April and running through mid-June. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is presenting the birthday celebration, sponsored by the Tanner Foundation, the Center for Women and Gender, USU Libraries and the Department of English on April 25 in the Chase Fine Arts Center, Room 139-B.