Return to a May Swenson Poem

by Olivia Zhu

That poem pulled me to a stop. Through some gravitational mechanism or another, it drew a page to fall exactly right as I rustled through my 700-plus-page poetry textbook; it drew my eye to a blocky section unlike all the rest. I had to write about it. No, really—I had to. My final paper for a Gen Ed poetry class desperately needed starting, and out of laziness or ennui or something else, nothing in those hundreds of pages drew my interest quite like one of May Swenson’s untitled poems.

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It’s been a poetic earworm for me ever since, which makes me feel a bit bad that I ended up reading it, learning it, loving it, and returning to it only because I found it by chance, in the middle of self-punishing procrastination. I hadn’t even read her poem in full before deciding to write about it, so drawn I was to how its beating cadence in the first few lines matched the look of the whole work entire.

And what cadence, what structure it has. The piece is devoid of standard punctuation, with great spaces dividing each word from the next. Those spaces imply a pattern, and back when I first wrote about the poem, I really could not figure out what was going on with the meter. That confusion was obscured by my dashing off some quick lines about how everything was mostly monosyllabic, with a “preponderance of iambs.” There’s no need to be so strict with Swenson here, and ever. It’s enough to say that there’s a throbbing beat to her piece, and it’s a beat that begins right away, in the first line: “I will be earth you be the flower”.

And yet somehow, the melody of it all comes through, on top of the semi-regular meter. Because Swenson’s content—her addressee, and their intimacy—is presented up-front, the rest of the piece can be read with the inflection of that relationship. When I hear the poem in my head, it’s at once tender and determined, as if the speaker is making clear to her lover what is so obvious to her. The tenderness comes from the carefully chosen images, and the determination from the steadiness of the underlying rhythm.

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