May Swenson in Space

Written by Irina Teveleva

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 moon landing, we are highlighting materials in the Modern Literature Collection related to space exploration.

The May Swenson Papers include the poetry manuscripts, collected works, correspondence, photographs, and ephemera of the poet May Swenson (1913-1989). She published 11 collections of poetry alongside essays, a play, and a translation of Tomas Tranströmer.

Rozanne Knudson, Swenson’s longtime companion and literary executor, writes in the May Swenson Papers Finding Aid, “May was most interested in America’s space program. She followed launchings and landings the way some people follow sports.” Space is an important thread through Swenson’s poetry as well. As she herself acknowledged in a craft interview with the New York Quarterly, “Science comes into my poetry quite a lot. The space program, the astronauts’ experiences fascinate me.” In a review of Swenson’s Collected Poems for Poetry magazine, Alfred Corn writesIn his preface to [Rozanne Knudson’s book May Swenson: A Poet’s Life in Photos], Richard Wilbur recalls his friendship with the poet and says, ‘Like Emily Dickinson, who much influenced her, May lived in the universe. No poet of our day has said and conjectured so much about stars and space.’ … Swenson’s poems describe no less than four space shuttle launches.”

Swenson’s poems specifically on the subject of space exploration include “Orbiter 5 Shows How Earth Looks from the Moon,” which is shaped to resemble a photo of the earth taken by Lunar Orbiter 5 and published on the front page of the New York Times. This poem is an example of Swenson’s interest in ‘shaped poems’ and using visual effects to extend the central metaphor of a poem. (Many more of these poems can be found in Swenson’s book Iconographs (1970), which is particularly adventurous in its typographical experiments and includes a poem shaped as a DNA molecule.)

“Oribiter 5” and “First Walk on the Moon” from More Poems to Solve

“Orbiter 5” was published in Swenson’s book More Poems to Solve (1971), one of her collections intended for younger readers, which opens with a section of “Space and Flight Poems,” which also contains space poems such as “After the Flight of Ranger 7” and “First Walk on the Moon.”

The May Swenson papers include the early drafts of these poems, as well as other space-related ephemera. The May Swenson Papers include a cassette recording made by Swenson of the Apollo 14 moon landing, later recorded over by Swenson reading her poetry, and a cassette tape recording of the television announcement of the landing of the shuttle Columbia.

The Swenson Papers also include the typed and autograph drafts of perhaps Swenson’s most famous “space poem,” “Landing on the Moon.”

First draft of “Landing on the Moon”

Second draft of “Landing on the Moon”

Through these drafts, one can trace her composition process and her revisions: there are lists of synonyms for white (albino, chalk, lead, zinc, flake, ash) and lists of potential descriptions for the moon (a horn, a tipping bowl, a clock-crystal, almost closed eye, balloon without a string). It is possible to see how the statement “Where now? For we have landed on the dream” shifts and transforms into the question “Dare we land upon a dream?” in the poem’s final draft. Does the drawing of a face in profile on one of the earlier drafts eventually become the metaphor of the moon as a “half faced sycophant” in the poem’s third stanza? The poem seems to wax and wane as Swenson cuts longer stanzas down into the sestets of her finished version.

Third draft of “Landing on the Moon”

Fourth draft of “Landing on the Moon”

In addition to anthologies such as To the Moon: An Anthology of Lunar Poems (2009), “Landing on the Moon” was reprinted in Beyond the Map (1995), an artist’s book held by Special Collections printed in a limited edition of only 35 numbered copies and eight artist’s proofs. The book features 14 poems by women that draw on metaphors of voyages and exploration, each accompanied by Enid Mark’s beautiful topographic map-inspired lithographs. After the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, as Corn notes in his review, Swenson stopped writing about space exploration, observing the skies only from the ground. The cosmic poems, however, have stayed in orbit.

“Landing on the Moon” from Beyond the Map

About the author

Joel is the curator of the Modern Literature Collection and manuscripts at Washington University Libraries.