Guide to the May Swenson Papers,

Print this Finding Aid | Email this Finding Aid


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
Contact Information: Special Collections and Archives
Merrill-Cazier Library
Utah State University
Logan, UT
Telephone: 435-797-2663
Fax: 435-797-2880
Languages: Material in English 

Biographical Note

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 Description

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 Collection

Restrictions on Access :  

No restrictions on use, except: not available through interlibrary loan.

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 Information

Arrangement :

Arranged by subject matter.

Processing Note :  

Processed in May of 2007

Acquisition Information :  

The majority of the material in the May Swenson collection was acquired, directly and indirectly, from the Literary Estate of May Swenson through donations and purchases during the late 1990s and early 2000s. R.R. "Zan" Knudson, the executor of the estate, specifically donated two items in honor of faculty members here at USU. The correspondence between Swenson and her family (Box 1, Fd 1), was donated in honor of Dr. Paul Crumbley in the English Department. The poem "Somebody who's somebody," (Box 3, Fd 17) was donated in honor of Michael Spooner, Director of the USU Press. Additional material in the collection was donaed by Kathleen Carlton Johnson.

Related Materials :  

May Swenson addendum, COLL MSS 485

Detailed Description of the Collection

Series I:  Personal & Family, 1951-1969
(1 box, 6 folders)
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

^ Return to Top

Series II:  Professional, 1958-1988
(1 box, 18 folders)
2 1 General correspondence Undated
2 2 Correspondence with Tomas Tranströmer
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)
2 13 Bibliography of poems Undated
2 14 Index of poems Undated
2 15 Index of poetry readings
2 16 Poetry readings in Utah 1958 & 1972
2 17 Business files
2 18 Permission fees files

^ Return to Top

Series III:  Writings, 1940-2000
(3 boxes, 25 folders)

(see also box 5)

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)
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
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

^ Return to Top

Series IV:  Oversized materials, 1929-1980
(1 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

^ Return to Top


    • Personal Names :
    • Swenson, May
    • Subject Terms :
    • Authors, American--Utah.
    • Poets, American--Utah.

    ^ Return to Top