Day 16 – 30 Days, 30 Readings: May Swenson, “The Universe”

May Swenson
May Swenson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just a quick explanation before running off to a long day at work today. Poetry is an audible art; it’s meant to be read out loud. Even when I read in my head I am quietly vocalizing the words. Usually, this means it should be read slowly, deliberately, but there are many schools and theories. Sometimes poetry is also a visual art. How it appears on paper (or the screen) is very important. But however it appears, this I know to be true, where a line ends, whether it is to be stressed or rhymed or paused over, where a line ends is extremely important. Otherwise, we would just keep tying like I am typing in this little box now, and the word processors (in the old day, typewriters) would sort out where the line breaks.

Again, there are many schools that say how line breaks should be handled when a poem is read. Some say we should take a breath; others say that unless punctuation calls for it, we needn’t pause at all. We can get into this a little more in the future, but for today’s poem, I need you to click on this link to view the words before you and see how May Swenson wanted them to be read. Don’t worry it will open in a new window. Now you can do this before you listen to my interpretation below, or you can read along. If you prefer, just listen before taking a look at the poem. Whatever you do, tell me how you think those line breaks and spacings should be interpreted vocally. Should they be interpreted at all? And if not, why not? Why did she write it the way she did?

Personally, I am not sure that I like this video, and I might do another in the future, more with stresses and inflections. Less pausing. I’ll link the two together later, after Poetry Month. For now, for better or worse, here it is. “The Universe,” by May Swenson.

If you’d like, we can talk about meaning in the comments. 🙂

23 Replies to “Day 16 – 30 Days, 30 Readings: May Swenson, “The Universe””

  1. I think it is a wonderful poem, and you know I love your reading voice but I read it to myself in a more conversational way; with the different stresses and inflections and it sounded less like a riddle perhaps. It seems to me she intends it as an expression of an internal debate she is having with herself (sorry if it all sounds a bit pretentious – I am doing a really boring job at the mo and want to convince myself I can do more than stick stamps on envelopes….)

    I go to a reading group led by the lovely poet Julia Copus (look her up) and she always stresses the importance of line breaks as intrinsic to the expression of meaning within a poem so I am now very conscious of those breaths. But however I look at it the poem seems to be about our place in the universe – do we create it or it create us? Does it give our life meaning or disregard our existence entirely? Are we an intended result of some universal thought process or simply an accidental product of an unexpected chemical reaction? If the latter, as May Swenson asks – what is is all about? What do you think? She certainly doesn’t give us any answers damn it!


    1. Not pretentious at all. It’s one of those experimental pieces for me even. It just seems that all that spacing must be represented somehow… but now that it’s done I am less happy with it than I thought I would be. Like I said, after April is over, I’ll come back and do another reading and link the two, maybe make a debate out of it. 🙂

      Sorry for the delayed response. Long day and I wasn’t able to reply. I will look up Julia Copus, and I will also talk more in the future about reading and line endings. It’s an interesting, in fact it’s a very intriguing subject to me.

      And yes, we are a bit self-centered, or traditionally we have been, as humans. The creation myth gets misinterpreted, with us having dominion over the animals and all of that. But the fact is, even in those old stories, our role was that of care-taker. Instead we somehow thought that meant rape and pillage? In any case, if we are not the center of the universe then maybe we should rethink a few of these things. That’s what I get from this little piece.

      I like your idea of it being an internal conversation. That could explain the back and forth line spacing.


  2. This certainly IS “a visually interesting poem.” Thanks for posting about it; I hadn’t been aware of this marvelous Swenson piece. I appreciate how she broke the lines to emphasize her wordplays (“about,” “cause”/”because,” etc.) and highly compressed repetitions. And therefore I appreciate that you do pause, to the extent that you do, in your reading here. In fact, I’d like to hear you read the poem a little more slowly, to allow more time for the poem’s highly compressed language to unspool in the listener’s ear.

    As I watch the video, it occurs to me that besides a poem’s appearance on the page and sound in a person’s voice, there’s one more component of a poem’s delivery: the reader’s facial expressions. You have a terrifically expressive brow that contributes to rhythm and emphasis in your reading here. Those visual cues, too, are enjoyable to “read.”


    1. Wow, really? Interesting. Sometimes I think my face gets in the way and expresses too much. It’s fun to do the productions without my appearance in the way, just the words and voice too, and I’ve noticed the reading is different then. Interesting…

      Yes, I agree, slower, but somehow less disjointed? I cannot decide. Maybe I’ll end up doing three readings. OR, I could get some of you friends of mine here to do your own reading and we can compare them in a play list. That would be educational and fun. 🙂


  3. I think it’s quite possible that the visual representation of the poem doesn’t always correspond to the reading of the poem. I think it can be something that happens on two different levels, the visual, and the verbal, and that both don’t necessarily intersect. I think the visual in this poem is reflective of the image of the nebulous universe, visually representing the subject of the poem, but not necessarily something that needs to be carried over into the reading.

    I also think that whether or not one uses line breaks as a break for breath, or for a break in cadence is not something that can be universally applied. No two poets are the same, they speak and write in their own way, so how can we be expected to read all poems in the same way? Poetry is art, and it’s expression by the poet can be entirely different from the way it’s read/interpreted by the reader. I find that using line breaks as breaks for breath (a sort of unwritten “comma”), that it can add confusion to the poem, rather than clarity.

    In regards to the comment about, I would agree that y our facial expressions add to, rather than distract from, the poem.


    1. I agree with much of what you are saying. I am not a big fan of the breath theory. Though I do think that when a poet ends a line, there is a reason. The reason may be up to interpretation, especially with modern form. And you may well be right; shaped poems usually make sense apart from the shape, but in some ways I wonder. Some times I think that the sound and sense suffer, like the lyrics of “What’s Love Got to Do with It” when read apart from the music.

      I strive to make whatever reading I do fit the poem, whether my face is there or not, so your words are encouraging, John. Thank you!


    2. I’ll have to see if I can come up with an example later this week of a poem that loses meaning without its form or shape. But still, I think you are mostly right. 🙂


  4. David,
    I can see that this poem would be a bit of a struggle to figure out how to read. I know that in my poetry I sometimes use placement of words to emphasis parts of the poem like here with line spacing or here with how the words “drop” down. I think both of these would provide an easier read then the poem here.
    To me, the layout of this poem reminds me of the wind chimes that spin (like this one ) when wind blows them. It implies the spinning of “stuff” around the universe, the thoughts spinning around in our brain, the universe spinning around us… all jumbled up together.
    Maybe on a poem like this, it would help to get a visual of one of those chimes or something else that we can physically relate to the poem. Concentrate on that item for a bit and then “speak” that while reading the poem.

    Wow I hope that all made some sort of sense…

    I haven’t recorded readings of poetry before but I’m interested in doing so and may try a few.




    1. PS I do like the poem and think it stands on its own without the visual of the written text, but I like the way it is laid out. I think it would also be a cool video to lay the words out like one of those chimes and visually “spin” the lines into view as they are read… as if the poem was a chime being spun by the wind…


    2. Sorry, not sure how these comments will lay, but that last one was regarding the wind chime image. I like that idea. I also enjoyed the two heart poems, especially the metaphor (I’m a sucker for a good metaphor) of the cpr on your own heart. Nice job! And yes, this all does make sense, and I appreciate the feedback. I’m also excited to hear you are thinking of doing some readings of your own. Coolness!


  5. Oh, and I have no idea why that last comment had to be “moderated.” If that happens again, have patience with me. Maybe I made a wrong click in my comments manager or something.


  6. David,
    I was thinking about all this and had an idea. It might be an interesting project to select a poem and have several people, including the poet who wrote it, all do a reading of the poem without hearing the other readings… then post them all and see how similar / different they turn out and open it up for discussion….




    1. My friend Kristine (who did “Diving Into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich) asked me recently to do a reading of one of her poems in my voice, to which she will do the visuals after I send her my mp3 and my interpretation. So that’s kind of similar to what you are saying, but I like the idea of multiple readers interpreting one poem. Good idea, seriously. I just don’t know if I can do it before April is over. The recordings themselves (usually I only do one or two a week at the most) are taking me between 2 to 4 hours a day to produce. Whew.


    2. David,
      Maybe the thing to do is to get a few of us together and have each one contribute a poem. Then all of us read them. Maybe do one a week or some such. I really like the thought of the poet being one of the readers. Even from a poet’s side, I think it would be a great experience to hear how others have interpreted what you wrote. And from a reader’s side to see how your interpretation lines up with the poets.



  7. I really liked your reading of this poem, it was great! I have to agree with Stephan about the visual appearance of the poem on the page, except I would describe it as a helix, and add, that as the poem approaches the end, the helix falls more and more apart, just like Swenson’s expressed certainty.


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