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May Swenson

A candid photo of May Swenson as she studies a manuscript in front of a fire.

Anna Thilda May “May” Swenson (May 28, 1913-December 4, 1989) was an American poet and playwright. Born in Utah, Swenson grew up as the eldest of 10 children in a Mormon household where Swedish was spoken regularly and English was a second language.

May Swenson received a B.S. from Utah State University in 1934. Swanson taught poetry as poet-in-residence at Bryn Mawr, the University of North Carolina, the University of California at Riverside, Purdue University, and Utah State University. From 1959 to 1966, she worked as a manuscript reviewer at New Directions publishers. Swenson left New Directions Press in 1966 to focus completely on her own writing. Swenson also served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 until she died in 1989.

May Swenson’s poems were published in Antaeus, The Atlantic Monthly, Carleton Miscellany, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Saturday Review, Parnassus, and Poetry. She received much recognition for her work, including the Guggenheim fellowship (1959), Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship (1960), Ford Foundation grant (1964), Bollingen Prize for poetry (1981), and MacArthur Fellowship (1987).

Her first collection of poems, Another Animal, was published by Scribner in 1954. Swenson’s other collections of poems include A Cage of Spines (1958), To Mix with Time: New and Selected Poems (1963), Half Sun Half Sleep (1967), Iconographs (1970), New & Selected Things Taking Place(1978), and In Other Words (1987). Posthumous collections of her work include The Love Poems (1991), Nature: Poems Old and New (1994), and May Out West (1996).

Swenson is also the author of three collections of poems for younger readers, including Poems to Solve (1966) and More Poems to Solve (1968); a collection of essays, The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic (1964); and a one-act play titled The Floor, which was produced in New York in the 1960s. As a translator, she published Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), which received a medal of excellence from the International Poetry Forum.

The front cover of May Swenson's Half Sun Half Sleep has a photo of Swanson's face half in shadow, half in sun.
Dust jacket of May Swenson’s Half Sun Half Sleep poetry collection.
May Swenson stands in front of a fountain wearing a long coat.

The May Swenson Papers

The May Swenson Papers contain manuscript and editorial material for most of her books. This material includes drafts of individual poems as well as letters to and from various editors, friends, and readers. Swenson’s correspondents include John Hall Wheelock, Burroughs Mitchell, and, most significantly, Elizabeth Bishop. The two were close friends, and Washington University holds 268 of their letters written from 1950 to 1979, the year of Bishop’s death.

Related Collections in the Modern Literature Collection

  • Ann Grifalconi Collection of May Swenson Papers | This Collection consists of correspondence from May Swenson and R.R. “Zan” Knudson, poetry drafts, photographs, and Swenson’s portion of the 1969 film “Poetry is Alive and Well and Living in America.”


Special Collections, Special Collections, Preservation, and Digital Strategies
Joel Minor
Job Title
Curator of Modern Lit Collection/Manuscripts
Phone Number
(314) 935-5413

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