May Swenson Told It Slant

The underlying biographical honesty inherent in art is unveiled by May Swenson in her poem “The Truth Is Forced”. The reader is introduced to a poet who tells the reader that this poet’s desire is to “be honest in poetry” (Swenson 2), but the reader will learn rather more than this particular poet’s desire for honesty. The poet didn’t force honesty into the words, as the title of the poem seems to imply, the poet ends up telling the reader that this production of words has actually forced honesty into the poet. The poet is revealed to, “…you (all or any, eye to eye)” (45). Swenson made the point that consciously or not, poems like all art, are acts of self discovery.

The poet describes the abstract dilemma faced by any artist desiring absolute honesty yet a sense of seclusion, “…eye to eye, I lie / because I cannot bear to be conspicuous with the truth” (Swenson 3-5). A dilemma compounded by this particular poet’s reticent nature “I would be exposed. And I would be / possessed” (10-11). Beyond a simple self introduction, the poet has set up the prerequisite for a foundational idea. The poet is not a self-centered seeker of attention, not a proud circus act, nor an intentional performer at all. This poet is private and reserved. This poet is not writing with the conscious intention of being spread naked upon the frontal lobe of the reader. “Really I feel as if / one pair of eyes were a whole hive” (19-20). Bees collecting the nectar for their own devices as well as being quite capable of delivering a sting. The poet tells the reader, my business is mine and so it shall remain, thank you very much.

Yet the poet does have something to say and can avoid the stings: “…say in symbol, in riddle, / …under masks / of any feature, in the skins of any creature” (32-36). Obviously the poet is not planning to walk naked down the page and here describes the clothes the poet can wear. Poetic line provides a veil behind which the truth can and does lurk unabashedly and without shame. The wish to “become naked in poetry” (40), will be fulfilled, and much more comfortably behind the veil this poet recognizes and describes to the reader as being provided by the poetic art of words. The individuality of the poet remains absolutely present yet mysteriously obscured.

Alicia Ostriker makes note of this in her section of the book  Body My House : May Swenson’s Work and Life, in which she makes comparisons of the works of May Swenson and Walt Whitman, into which she brings Emily Dickinson, ““Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” with fear battling the yearning for disclosure” (Ostriker 46). Which we were set up for by “Both the reticence and the desire for candor that wrestle with each other in Swenson’s eroticism are hinted at “(45). She elaborates, “…the poet twists and turns all through the poem; the poem does not state something known, but discovers its truth in its process” (46). She enhances this perception based on Swenson’s lines, “Whether you are one or two or many / it is the same” (Swenson 18-19) “Truth, forced through symbols and riddles and finally the naked self, into the poem, revealed to the poet herself, is a burden borne and born” (Ostriker 46). The poet in this performance was not only exposed to “one or two or many” (Swenson 18), the poet was exposed to the poet, “tells me / and then you (all or any, eye to eye) my whole self, / the truth” (45-47) So the poet is “eye to eye” even on the page after all, and what the poet tells turns out not to be a lie.

On paper, canvas, marble, or the sonic vibrations spawned from the keys of a piano, in art the naked truth resides. It may well not be perceived, and misperception may be the artist’s intent, yet the truth is there.  May Swenson recognized this and exposed what many an artist fails to recognize and may resist telling. Whether by design or inherent nature, however covert, the artist is always revealed in the art.

~Bacon

Works cited

Ostriker, Alicia. “May Swenson: Whitman’s Daughter.” Body My House: May Swenson’s Work and Life. 2006. 40-54. All USU Press Publications. Book 16.  http:/digitalcommons.usu.edu/usupress_pubs/16

Swenson,  May. “The Truth Is Forced”.  Nature: Poems Old and New. Boston: Mariner Books, 2000. 11-12. print

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