‘‘The Centaur’’ begins with an air of nostalgia. An adult speaker looks back with some pleasure at her ten-year-old self and the joys of summer adventures. One might expect a sigh over remembrance of things past, but that is not the direction the poem actually takes. Instead, as the poem unfolds, the adult speaker almost disappears and is certainly not there to pine over lost pleasures. Instead, the poem focuses on a specific, though perhaps characteristic, incident that occurred when the ten-year-old girl went down to the willow grove to cut herself a ‘‘horse.’’
This is a quite magical incident that Swenson describes in characteristically full detail, making it come alive for the reader. The speaker’s younger self, the ten-year-old girl, goes down to a willow grove near an old canal, turns a stick into a horse, and then follows up that trick by turning herself into a horse, or at least partly into a horse, creating a hybrid being, part human and part horse, the centaur of the title.
Instead of a sad evocation of vanished youth from the standpoint of middle age, the poem erupts into a celebration of youth that seems not to have vanished at all. The reader rides with the young girl as she canters and trots and finally gallops along the path, hair waving in the wind, arching, snorting, rearing even, and if we are to believe the poem’s ending, stopping to eat some grass.
It is interesting that the reader does not get to see the ‘‘centaur’’ chomping on the grass; perhaps some things are too implausible (or magical?) to portray. In any case, the ten-year-old girl so loses herself in her fantasy that she seems a long way from the house she eventually returns to, with its linoleum and its sink, a perfectly normal house where a mother stands ready to call her daughter back from the magical land she has gone to.
The poem works on several levels and makes many points, one of which is that the magical land is never very far from the normal house. It does not require any grand journey or expensive apparatus to get there; all that is needed is a brother’s knife and belt and a short trip to the willow grove.
In this magical land girls can act like boys, or like horses, or like a combination of a child and a horse. The poem on one level is an exploration of doubleness, of doubled identity, or interaction with another, with the ‘‘other.’’ There is much play with rein and bit here; it is not all wildness and exuberance; there is an attempt at order and control, reflected in the relatively controlled nature of the verse form, with very little enjambment for a free verse poem.
Still, there is that wild riding, the bared teeth, the swiftly traveling hoofs traversing the dust. There is control and wildness, a delicate balance of what could metaphorically be the traditional pairing of reason and passion, reason being the rider and passion being the horse.
As critics have noted, however, it is misleading to speak of rider and horse in this poem as two separate entities; they are blended into one. There really is only one being here, a ten-year-old girl with her willow branch, and yet they are two as well; Swenson here is exploring the nature of unity and duality. To do so she has transported her heroine, and her reader, to a magical land where human beings can merge with animals, where wild animal natures can emerge and yet be controlled by human reason.
What this may represent metaphorically is the act of artistic creation. Here is a ten-year-old girl letting her imagination run free and conjuring up a centaur, an animal-human merger that she can even report to her mother, just as a poet can go into a trancelike state, call up a metaphorical canal in a metaphorical willow grove, and create a set of verses. A successful set of verses will plumb emotional depths and conjure up something out of the deepest wildness while being shaped, controlled, and structured by the poet’s rational consciousness.
Swenson herself saw poetic creation this way and compared the act of imagination in her poem to the act of imagination that creates such poems. In an interview in 1977, reprinted in Made with Words, she talked about ‘‘The Centaur,’’ first explaining its autobiographical roots. She herself was the ten-year-old in the poem; she would go down to an actual willow grove and cut a switch that became a hobby horse; and when she rode the hobby horse she felt she was riding a real horse and then felt herself to be the horse itself.
This is the act of imagination that she describes in the poem, and as she says, this act of imagination, this ability to become something else, an animal, a horse, or whatever, is the same sort of activity that a poet carries out in imagining a poem. The artist, according to Swenson, becomes her artistic creation; to write a poem you become the poem, trancelike transported to another world, just as the ten-year-old girl is transported into a world where she can become part of a horse.
What of the disappearing adult speaker in all this? Perhaps the reason this is not a poem about a sad middle-aged adult whose magic has disappeared is that, once she begins to describe the magic, it comes back to her. She has not lost it at all.
Probably neither the adult speaker in the poem nor the middle-aged Swenson would go to a willow grove to create horses, but they may still conjure up magic. Swenson could still write poems. ‘‘The Centaur’’ is therefore not an elegy mourning the loss of magic, but a celebration of magic that still exists. In a century full of gloomy modernism and gloomy, linoleum-covered hallways, Swenson could still create a joyful poem celebrating the power of the imagination, a power this poem suggests need not fade with age. This is why the summer at the beginning of the poem seems so long: for Swenson and her speaker that summer of imagination never really ended.
When the Beat poet movement began in the 1950’s, Swenson felt a bit old-fashioned, thinking at first she should be more like the poets in this new angry movement. But she found that she could not. She was not an angry protester; she was rather a celebrant of life’s mysteries, exploring and stimulating. Of course, she wrote some sad poems too, exploring the anguish of life, but in ‘‘The Centaur’’ she tapped into the exuberant power that animated her own imagination and presented an explanation of the poetic process itself, with the poem being its own illustration.
Here in this poem is the poet plunging into the magical realm where poems are made, showing the reader how it is done. Just as the girl in the poem comes back home from her adventure with a tale to tell, so does the poet come forward with her poem, shaped from the magical materials she collected while giving full rein to her imagination. Thus ‘‘The Centaur,’’ while being a poem about gender roles and hybrid identities, nature and the outdoors, and the relationship between mothers and daughters, is above all a poem about the power of imagination and the ways of poetic creation.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, May Swenson, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Sheldon Goldfarb, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Centaur,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.