Langdon Hammer, author of Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism and editor of The Library of America’s Hart Crane: Complete Poems & Letters, spoke with us about the recent publication of May Swenson: Collected Poems (also published by The Library of America).
What do you admire most about May Swenson as a poet?
Her freshness. There’s an immediacy to her work that gives you back a fresh experience of the world (of weather, nature, time, the body, the senses). And that quality coexists with—no, it’s created by!—a love of words and a fascination with the possibilities of language on the page and in the ear. With some poets, that sort of linguistic awareness gets in the way of immediacy. With May Swenson, it’s the other way around.
What do Swenson’s poems have to say to contemporary readers? Why read her now?
Well, I just mentioned freshness—there’s something always new about Swenson’s best poems. In that sense, they just don’t date. Also, May Swenson was part of no school; no label fits her work. She has something to say therefore, right now, to poets and poetry readers who are fatigued by the labels and schools and fighting words that characterize a great deal of American poetry of the past fifty years. When you read her, a lot of aesthetic debate feels beside the point, and you get back to basics.
Swenson has become something of a gay icon, but did not choose to identify herself that way. What’s your view of the relationship between her poetry and her sexual identity?
It’s essential, the same way that Whitman’s sexual identity is essential to his poetry. If Swenson didn’t want to see her poetry identified as lesbian, that’s only because she didn’t want to be put in a category (I mentioned before how hard it is to label her work). She wanted to talk about all of experience, any experience, just as Whitman wanted to.
Is there something about the depth and quality of Swenson’s interest in nature that speaks to the present moment?
When you asked about Swenson’s potential power for contemporary readers, I might have said her interest in nature. Only “interest” doesn’t get at the persistence and intensity of it. And even to say “nature,” meaning by that birds and animals or the sea, topics she writes about all the time, could be misleading, because Swenson’s nature isn’t something out there, but all around and inside us. It’s something we are part of. And yes, that speaks very urgently to the way we’re being forced today to rethink the relationship between ourselves and our environment.
Perhaps uniquely for a great modern poet, Swenson was raised as a devout Mormon. Did her religious upbringing leave any traces in her work?
Yes, manifestly in the strength of her family feeling, and in the way that her sense of herself as part of a big family fundamentally influences her work. Look at the wonderful poem about being part of a flock, “Manyone Flying”! Then too, as in the case of other writers who leave the religion of their origin behind to become writers, Mormonism matters as what she turns away from when she turns to poetry, and I bet it remains there in the poems as a structure or shadow. Someone who knows more about Mormonism than I do could explain just how.
What relationship do the shape poems have to the rest of her work? What do they say about her as a poet?
The shape poems are a key. They bring out, in an exaggerated way that helps us see them, qualities that are always there in her work: the sense of play; the feeling that a poem should embody an experience; and for that matter, the notion that a poem always has a body—a physical, plastic form. (See the very poignant elegy for Elizabeth Bishop, which isn’t a shape poem strictly speaking, called “In the Bodies of Words” for more on this idea.) And because she liked to revise, and try poems in more than one shape, the shape poems highlight her interest in metamorphosis. Swenson’s poems aren’t stuck in their bodies, any more than we are stuck in ours—at least according to Swenson, who often imagines her own body being transformed in one way or another.
What did you discover about Swenson’s work in the course of preparing this volume?
Its profusion, its abundance. I mentioned Whitman earlier. Swenson several times links herself with Dickinson—see the jaunty “Daffodildo,” for example. And with justice: there’s a lot of Dickinson here. But there’s also a lot of Whitman, and you feel it in the expansiveness, the breadth of this big book.
Do you have a favorite poem in the volume?
This book is so big, I find a new favorite whenever I open it. But if I had to pick one . . . it would be "Come In Go Out." That basic rhythm—in and out—is the rhythm of the tide, of breathing, of a line of poetry, of a life. The poem says everything in a small space.
Originally published in In Other Words (1987).
Copyright © 1987 The Literary Estate of May Swenson. Used with permission.