The Mormons and Utah
Swenson’s parents converted to Mormonism, more properly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religion founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 and established itself under Brigham Young in Utah later in that century. The Mormons dominated Utah in Swenson’s childhood, and the rest of her family was strongly devoted to Mormonism, but even as a child Swenson did not feel strongly connected to it. Part of what the girl in ‘‘The Centaur’’ may be escaping is Mormon rules of propriety. According to R. R. Knudson, in her biography The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson, Swenson as a child liked to play cards and later took up smoking, even though both activities were frowned on by Mormons. The Mormons also had strict notions of gender roles, again something that the girl in Swenson’s poem seems to be escaping, or subverting. It is not that Swenson, in this poem or others, attacked the Mormon religion; it is more that she simply looked elsewhere for spiritual and moral guidance.
The first wave of the women’s movement, bringing voting rights and other basic civil rights to women, was in full force in Swenson’s early years, and a second wave of feminism, focused on gender roles, gathered force in the 1960s, not long after Swenson wrote ‘‘The Centaur.’’ However, Swenson shied away from movements such as this; she was not one to join protests or issue polemics. What her writing does illustrate, though, is a willingness to explore topics traditionally considered masculine, for instance astronauts and the space program and technology generally. Her writings, including ‘‘The Centaur,’’ also explore gender roles. Alicia Ostriker, in Writing Like a Woman, states that Swenson did not write typical women’s poetry, and Swenson herself disdained labels and did not like to be considered a feminist poet or a lesbian poet. She said that good poetry could combine male and female qualities, a principle embodied by the protagonist in ‘‘The Centaur.’’
The Beat Movement
Anticipating the counterculture of the 1960s, the Beat movement in poetry and other writing arose in the 1950s in opposition to the conformity and materialism of mainstream culture. Its leading members included Allen Ginsberg, best known for his poem Howl (1956), the publication of which led to an obscenity trial. Other notable Beats included Jack Kerouac, known for his novel On the Road (1957), and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet who founded City Lights Books in San Francisco. Swenson was aware of the Beats, but just as she would not associate herself with political movements, she kept her distance from this literary movement. According to her biographer, R. R. Knudson, in The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson, Swenson felt somewhat old-fashioned in comparison to the Beats, with their talk about nuclear war, poverty, racism, and other social issues. She did not feel she could be a protester the way they were, even though her writing tended to express the freedom from conformity that the Beats were advocating.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, May Swenson, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009.