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Swenson, May, 1932-1998

Overview of the Collection

Creator
Swenson, May
Title
Swenson, May
Dates
1932-1998 (inclusive)
Quantity
6 boxes, (5 linear feet)
Collection Number
USU_COLL MSS 282
Summary
Correspondence, writings, and professional papers in three broad series.
Repository
Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections and Archives Division
Special Collections and Archives
Merrill-Cazier Library
Utah State University
Logan, UT
84322-3000
Telephone: 435-797-2663
Fax: 435-797-2880
scweb@usu.edu
Access Restrictions
No restrictions on use, except: not available through interlibrary loan.
Languages
English

Biographical NoteReturn to Top

May Swenson was born on May 28, 1913, in Logan, Utah, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. (Her father, Dan Swenson, was a professor of mechanical engineering at Utah State University.) Following her graduation from USU in 1934 she took a job as a reporter for the Deseret News. A year later she moved to New York City where she worked in a variety of jobs, including as a stenographer, until she became the editor for New Directions Press in 1959. In 1966 Swenson quit working as an editor in order to devote herself full time to writing. For the remainder of her life she lived in Sea Cliff, New York. She died on December 4, 1989, and was buried in Logan.

Swenson's trademark was her use of complex wordplay in her poems, which frequently took the form of riddles or unusual arrangements of the words on the page. These "iconographs" often were arranged to resemble the shape of the poem's subject. Frequently classified as a nature poet, Swenson received much praise for her descriptions of natural phenomena and her sensory tone. Her chief themes were animal and human behavior, sexuality, death, and the nature of art and perception. Swenson's poetry has often been compared to the writings of Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings, and Gertrude Stein. Over the course of her career, Swenson published seven volumes of poetry (see list below). In addition to her poetry, Swenson also wrote three books of poems for children, a play, three short stories, and a book of translated poems by the Swedish author, Tomas Tranströmer. Several additional volumes of Swenson poetry have been published posthumously.

May Swenson received a wide variety of recognitions and honors during her career, including serving as poet-in-residence at several universities in the United States and Canada during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was the recipient of Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur fellowships and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. In 1972 she received a medal from the International Poetry Forum for her translation of Tranströmer. Swenson also received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She was also elected a member of the latter organization, as well as the Academy of American Poets of which she later served as chancellor. In 1967 she received a Distinguished Service Gold Medal from Utah State University, and in 1987 an honorary doctor of letters.

  • Books of Poetry:
  • Another Animal (1954)
  • A Cage of Spines (1958)
  • To Mix with Time (1963)
  • Half Sun Half Sleep (1967)
  • Iconographs (1970)
  • New and Selected Things Taking Place (1978)
  • In Other Words (1987)

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

Due to the piecemeal nature in which portions of the collection were acquired, there is little or no original order left to the material. Instead, items have been divided into three broad series: I. Personal and Family, II. Professional, and III. Writings. Series I contains personal correspondence, autobiographical writings by Swenson, and materials pertaining to her family and their history. Series II contains professional correspondence, awards and honors, publicity, and business related records. Series III contains examples of Swenson's writings, mainly poems but also including a play script and folklore interviews conduct for the W.P.A.'s Folklore Project during the Great Depression.

While the majority of the collection is composed of primary material, there are some portions that contain photocopies, either of material still held by the Literary Estate or from the May Swenson collection at Washington University in St. Louis. Also scattered throughout the collection are brief notes from Zan Knudson explaining the significance of a particular item. These notes accompanied the original donations, and were retained to provide researchers with an additional context.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

Restrictions on Use

It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain any necessary copyright clearances.

Permission to publish material from the May Swenson Papers must be obtained from the Special Collections Manuscript Curator and/or the Special Collections Department Head.

Preferred Citation

Initial Citation: May Swenson Papers USU_COLL MSS 282, Box [ ]. Special Collections and Archives. Utah State University Merrill-Cazier Library. Logan, Utah.

Following Citations:USU_COLL MSS 282, USUSCA.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top


Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

Series I:  Personal & Family, 1951-1969Return to Top

(1 box, 6 folders)
Container(s) Description Dates
Box Folder
1 1
Correspondence between Swenson and her family
1951-1969
1 2
Autobiographical profiles/résumés
Undated
1 3
Obituaries, Memorial Services and Readings, Letters of Sympathy
Undated
1 4
Autographs
Undated
1 5
Autobiography of Dan Swenson
Undated
1 6
Swenson family histories
Undated

Series II:  Professional, 1958-1988Return to Top

(1 box, 18 folders)
Container(s) Description Dates
Box Folder
2 1
General correspondence
Undated
2 2
Correspondence with Tomas Tranströmer
(photocopies)
Undated
2 3
Dedication note to Swenson from Leif Sjöberg
Undated
2 4
Reviews of Swenson's poetry
Undated
2 5
Writing about Swenson
Undated
2 6
Performances of Swenson's poems
Undated
2 7
Awards and Honors
Undated
2 8
Academy of American Poets
Undated
2 9
Draft content list for New and Selected Things Taking Place
1978
2 10
Draft content list for In Other Words
1987
2 11
Proof for American Sports Poems
1988
2 12
Publicity
(see also Box 5)
Undated
2 13
Bibliography of poems
Undated
2 14
Index of poems
Undated
2 15
Index of poetry readings
(photocopy)
Undated
2 16
Poetry readings in Utah
1958 & 1972
2 17
Business files
(photocopies)
Undated
2 18
Permission fees files
(photocopies)
Undated

Series III:  Writings, 1940-2000Return to Top

(3 boxes, 25 folders)

(see also box 5)

Container(s) Description Dates
Box Folder
3 1
"Analysis of Baseball," published in Story works
2000 April/May
3 2
Drafts of "At the Poetry Reading"
Undated
3 3
Essay on Milton Avery
Undated
3 4
"Dear John" [John Hollander]
1989
3 5
Draft of poem in honor of Swenson's father
1958
3 6
Broadside of "Evolution"
Undated
3 7
"The Experience of Poetry in a Scientific Age," radio essay
Undated
3 8
Script and theater program for "The Floor"
1966
3 9
"I Wear Your Smile Upon My Lips," envelope
Undated
3 10
Iconographs
(draft copies)
1970
3 11
"My Poems," "Horse," "Weather," & "Guilty", published in The Nation
1993 January 15
3 12
"Not the Press,"published in The Nation
1993 March 2
3 13
Poems for Nell Blaine
1962–1965
3 14
Poems (1932–1943) sent to Swenson's mother
1944
3 15
Poetry reading at Smith College
1963 October
3 16
Handwritten copy of "Somebody Who's Somebody"
Undated
3 17
"That Never Told Can Be," unpublished compilation
1940s
3 18
"That One"
Undated
3 19
"Third Floor Walk-up"
1984
3 20
University of Arizona Poetry Center poem & article
Undated
3 21
W.P.A. Folklore Project: Part I
Undated
3 22
W.P.A. Folklore Project: Part II
Undated
3 23
W.P.A. Folklore Project: Part III
Undated
3 24
W.P.A. Folklore Project: Part IV
Undated
3 25
W.P.A. Folklore Project: Part V
Undated
Box
4
Item 1: Matchbox
4
Item 2: "Interviews about May Swenson: Memories of May Recorded by Her Siblings"
(Audio CD)
4
Item 3: Audio Recordings
4
"Academy of American Poets, May's Poetry"
4
"Memorial Tribute to May Swenson"
1991
4
"The Poetry & Voice of May Swenson," 92nd Street Poetry Center, New York
4
"Introducing Bishop, Moss, & Swenson," 92nd Street Poetry Center, New York
1977
4
"To Mix With Time," May Swenson
1972

Series IV:  Oversized materials, 1929-1980Return to Top

(1 box)
Container(s) Description Dates
Box
5
“Christmas Day,” published in The Grizzly (Logan High School)
1929
5
“Models of the Universe,” advertizement for Stenben Glass
1963
5
“Sketch in October,” poem (in Swedish & English) by Tomas Tranströmer transcribed by Swenson
5
“Questions : Answers,” limited edition print
1973
5
Publicity poster for reading at University of Lethbridge, Canada
1970 July 15
5
Publicity poster for reading at Katonah Village Library
5
Publicity poster for reading at International Poetry Forum
1972–1973
5
Publicity poster for reading at University of California, Riverside
5
Publicity poster for reading at Jewish Community Center, Kansas City, MO
5
Publicity poster for reading at SUNY Buffalo
1980 November 6
5
Publicity poster for reading at East Hampton High School
5
Publicity poster for reading at College of Charleston
(two posters)
5
Artwork by Kathleen C. Johnson, inspired by Swenson

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