Utah poet finally handed her laurels
Significant voice: The late May Swenson, obscure in her home state, will be honored at the Smithsonian gallery
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LOGAN - May Swenson may not be known by most folks in the town where she grew up riding stick horses among the poplars at the bottom of Old Main Hill, scrubbing floors for her large Mormon family and writing in her adolescent diary.

Nor does Utah take much notice of Swenson, who died in Delaware in 1989.

And yet, her portrait will soon hang in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, a distinction shared by Brigham Young and Robert Leroy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy, among other Utahns.

"It's a real honor for the state as well as for May," says Suzzanne Bigelow of Salt Lake City, co-author of the 1996 book May Swenson, A Poet's Life in Photos.

It also is recognition that Swenson, though largely unknown in her home town and state, is nonetheless regarded as a significant 20th century American poet.

"Within the community of established poets, she is revered," says Michael Spooner, director of Utah State University Press, which has published three books about Swenson and is preparing a collection of essays about her work.

Spooner, English professor Paul Crumbley and several graduate students are involved in the May Swenson Project to make the Cache Valley native better known.

USU has been been sponsoring an annual poetry contest in her name, had a symposium last year, established a May Swenson room in the English Department and plans another in the library now under construction.

Swenson's champions also have asked Logan to erect a sign at the southern entrance to the northern Utah city, denoting it as May Swenson's birthplace.

Having her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery can only help bring Swenson more respect, says Crumbley.

The 1960 portrait, in pastels and on paper, is by artist Beauford Delaney, a friend of Swenson's. The National Portrait Gallery bought it from the poet's literary estate in May.

"She's obscure. I think that we can change that," says Crumbley.

Swenson was born in Logan in May 1913, the eldest of 10 children of Dan Arthur and Margaret Swenson, converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who immigrated from Sweden to Utah.

Her father taught woodworking at Utah Agricultural College, which became Utah State University, and kept fruit trees and a huge garden on the family's two acres just west of campus. He also was a writer, and read to his children at the kitchen table at night.

Swenson's mother was quiet and hard-working and relied on Swenson to help manage the brood of children who came after her and to keep house.

A younger sister, Ruth Eyre of Logan, remembers Swenson entertaining her young charges with impromptu stories, including one about how many shoes a centipede would need.

"She told us that story as she was scrubbing the kitchen floor," Eyre recalls.

After graduating from USU, Swenson worked briefly as a reporter for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. At 22, she borrowed $200 from her dad for a trip to New York City. Thereafter, she made only occasional visits back to Logan.

She had hoped to be a newspaper writer, but had to settle for odd jobs that barely paid the rent on a series of small apartments. At night, she wrote poetry. After dozens of rejections, she was finally published in The Saturday Review of Literature, 13 years after she arrived in New York.

Though she continued to work at secretarial jobs, Swenson scrimped so she could take long writing breaks, including several at artists' colonies, according to her partner of 25 years, Rozanne Knudson.

By the time Swenson died of a heart attack, brought on by asthma and high blood pressure at age 76, she had published 11 volumes of poetry and had been awarded many top cultural honors, such as the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship worth $380,000. She was a chancellor for the Academy of American Poets.

Along the way, Swenson stopped practicing the Mormon religion of her youth, once explaining that she couldn't have faith in what she couldn't see. She loved the music, but was not a believer.

She also was bothered by the discrepancy in the roles of men and women in the church and all of society, says Knudson, executor of Swenson's estate and an author herself.

Swenson remained devoted to her parents - they visited her twice in Greenwich Village as they traveled to and from Sweden for a Mormon mission - and she and her siblings were close. She shared her MacArthur prize money with her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.

Swenson's obscurity, says Spooner at USU, surely has to do with poetry's small place in American society. "People just don't know poetry."

His own university once overlooked opportunities to put the spotlight on its distinguished graduate.

Though USU granted Swenson an honorary doctorate in 1987 and earlier had her teach a summer workshop, the university demolished the home where she was raised and a former curator, now deceased, rebuffed an offer for the university to keep some of her papers. Washington University in St. Louis, instead, has 5,000 of her letters and working papers.

Utah's other universities did not invite Swenson for workshops or readings, although she crisscrossed the country, visiting college campuses for such occasions.

Knudson believes there are reasons Utahns, unlike easterners, do not know Swenson and her work.

Poetry is about comfort, and Mormons, she says, find comfort in their own scriptures and inspirational writing rather than in poetry. Knudson was raised LDS in Virginia and was educated at Brigham Young University in Provo.

Though Swenson's siblings adored her, they have been reserved about publicly trumpeting her poetic genius, says Knudson.

Not only did Swenson drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes for much of her life - both proscribed by the LDS Church - she was a lesbian. Of all the nieces and nephews, not one has May's name, Knudson notes.

Margaret Woodbury of Provo, who spent her 18th summer with Swenson, her older sister, in Manhattan, says the family and May had an understanding.

"She allowed people to be who they were and we allowed her to be who she was."

Crumbley, the USU English professor at the helm of the May Swenson Project, says Swenson had no use for labels.

She wasn't a lesbian poet. She wasn't a New York poet. She wasn't a western poet. Though she wrote often about the Atlantic Ocean, which she loved, she also wrote about the mountains of the West.

"She would not be pigeonholed," says Spooner. "She was interested in all of life."

One of the most remarkable aspects of Swenson's 900-poem legacy is its breadth. She wrote about nature and about space travel and science, often employing humor and irony. Her poetry, though often poignant, was light rather than dark.

Ted Kooser, the current U.S. poet laureate, says Swenson had a strong influence on him as a young poet.

"It seemed to me she could do anything, could write well in any form, in any mood, and the poems were not only virtuoso performances but rich with life and feeling," he wrote in an e-mail to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, says the gallery was thrilled to buy the 18-by-24-inch portrait of Swenson.

The museum has been closed for renovation since early 2000 and won't reopen until July 4, 2006. The reopening exhibits are already scheduled, so Swenson's portrait will have to be displayed later.

Swenson will be the 21st Utahn in the gallery, either as a portrait subject or artist.

"She isn't as well-known as Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop, but she really does rank with them in terms of 20th century poetry," says Reaves. "She was really very, very influential."

kmoulton@sltrib.com