May Swenson (May 28, 1913 - December 4, 1989) was a United States poet and playwright. Anna Thilda May Swenson was born in Logan, Utah on May 28, 1913, the first child of Margaret and Dan Arthur Swenson.

May Swenson (May 28, 1913, Logan, Utah- December 4, 1989, Bethany Beach, Delaware) Poet, critic, scholar, editor, writer in residence, and lecturer.

She grew up as the eldest of 10 children, in a Mormon household where Swedish was spoken regularly and English was a second language. Much of her later poetry works were devoted to children, although she also translated work of contemporary Swedish poets. Examples of which include: the collection Iconographs (1970) and the selected poems of Tomas Transtromer.

Education and Work

Swenson attended Utah State University in Logan in class of 1939, where she received a bachelor's degree. She taught poetry at several universities including Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University and Utah State University. Then, from 1959 to 1966 she worked as an editor at New Directions publishers. She also served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death in 1989.

Her Publishers

Her poems were published in Antaeus, The Atlantic Monthly, Carleton Miscellany, The Nation, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Parnassus and Poetry.

Awards and Recognition

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 Travelling Scholarship in 1960,
  • Ford Foundation grant in 1964
  • Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1984,
  • MacArthur Fellowship in 1987.

Style, Imagery and Eroticism

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” (Schulman.) A self-proclaimed lesbian, much critique has been done on her heterosexual imagery. Although she did not go out of her way to make known her sexual identity, she also did not hide it. Perhaps she did promote her sexuality because of the times, religion, or maybe just personal preference not to. 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 biography The Love Poems of May Swenson focused mostly on poems in which sexual imagery is especially abundant. It is considered her book of strongest love poems. One example, the poem “In the Yard” reads:

You're back,

barefoot, brought

some fruit. Split me

an apple. We'll

get red, white

halves each, our

juice on the

Indian spread. (Nature 94)

Swenson's style is described as a poet who uses much rhythm. Her creative style merges in her writing with her interest in plant and animal behavior with works like, "The Cross Spider". There are also pieces where you will find scientific research. For example some having to do with the exploration of space. Although her interests varied greatly, she supported her them. With her translation work of Transtromer's poetry. Because of Swenson he was able to reach English-speaking readers. She was also a psychologist that was fascinated by perception and how that related to landscape. Perception was a strong influence in her writing. The structure of her words were not conventionally structured. For example writing "A Trellis for R", instead of "a trellis" to also bring forth the emotion. One source comments that her use of nature and sexuality are not used separately, but that nature is something we are all a part of, and in that commonality we share energy derived from sexuality.


Utah State University (USU) has created the "May Swenson Project". Supported by students and teachers, it has publicized her work at USU, as well as her influence in northern Utah, and across the nation. In her name, USU has sponsored an annual poetry contest, and has also established a May Swenson room in the English Department in the Ray B. West Building on the USU quad. The university has created another May Swenson room in the new USU Merrill-Cazier Library. The university has also drawn support to erect a sign in Logan announcing the city as May Swenson's birthplace.



  • 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);
  • More Poems to Solve (Scribner, 1968);
  • Iconographs (Scribner, 1970);
  • New & Selected Things Taking Place (Little, Brown, 1978);
  • In Other Words (Knopf, 1987).


  • The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic (1964)


  • Iconographs (1970)
  • Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972)

Online Texts

  • A 'Dangerous Game of Change': Images of Desire in the Love Poems of May Swenson.
  • Life's miracles: The poetry of May Swenson.
  • In Other Words (Book) By: Mulleneaux, Lisa. Library Journal, 09/15/87, Vol.112 Issue 15, p85, 1/8p; (AN 7469252)

External links

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