"The DNA Molecule": May Swenson Confronts Modern Paradigms
Saunders, Judith P., Papers on Language & Literature
Collected in May Swenson's 1970 book Iconographs, "The DNA Molecule" is a stunningly successful shaped poem. The layout of the text, in jagged blocks of type cascading irregularly down the page, validates the poet-speaker's opening assertion that "the DNA molecule / is the Nude Descending a Staircase." Incontestably, the downward-moving, angular bulges that comprise the poem evoke Duchamp's famous painting; at the same time, they mimic compellingly the familiar double-helix formation of DNA. In a delighted moment of recognition, readers perceive a striking similarity in shape between two apparently unlike objects. The poem thus achieves the goal its author announces for all the pieces in her Iconographs volume, namely, "an instant object-to-eye encounter with each poem even before it is read word-after-word" ("Note" 86). The visual element of this literary artifact (its "graphic emphasis," to use Swenson's term) illuminates its topic and statement, eliciting a genuinely Keatsian moment of wild surmise ("Note" 87). Its genre-crossing mode of presentation intensifies the paradox launching the poem, moreover, prodding readers to confront the reinterpretations of reality delivered to a dazzled public by twentieth-century arts and sciences.
In the afterword to Iconographs, Swenson discusses "the impulses behind the typed shapes and frames invented for this collection," although she does not explain details of the fabrication process ("Note" 86). Readers see at a glance that the images were created with a typewriter; the publisher (Scribner) photographed and reproduced the author's typed pages. As Martha Nell Smith points out, Swenson pays close attention to "different choreographies of a poem's elements--its spaces, its lines, its word groups, its horizontal, vertical, even diagonal arrangements," deliberately manipulating the spatial dimensions of written language (114). Correspondence between Swenson and her publishers indicates that the poet brings to bear "an engineer's precision upon the typewriter's possibilities" (Russell 132). It is evident that Swenson chose to type even the most mundane portions of the Iconographs volume, e.g., acknowledgements pages, copyright details, author's biography, previous publications. The title page is of particular interest because of its game-like features. Using all capital letters, the words "MAY," "SWENSON," "POEMS," and "ICONOGRAPHS" are linked to one another vertically and horizontally in a bifurcated lacy chain, each word moving down or across from the letter that begins it. The N in "SWENSON" serves as the N in "ICONOGRAPHS," for example, as elsewhere the S in "POEMS" begins "SWENSON." The words "CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS. NEW YORK" run horizontally across the page, just once, joining two renderings of "ICONOGRAPHS" via the A in "CHARLES" and the S in "SONS." The resulting design resembles a completed crossword puzzle, or a set of scrabble tiles laid out on a board.
Only a poet who regards "words on a page" as "objects, too" would invest the time required to achieve such effects ("Note" 87), effects that are "often based on intricate mechanisms that are not easily replicated" (Russell 128). Indeed, her preoccupation with the visual appearance of words on the page places Swenson squarely alongside experimentally-minded modernist poets of the preceding generation such as William Carlos Williams or e.e. cummings. Throughout Iconographs, readers sense a playfully inventive, yet fiercely tenacious spirit at work. More than any of the other poems in the volume, "The DNA Molecule" is the result of extraordinary patience and ingenuity. If the idea for the poem's physical form required an epiphany on the part of its maker, implementation of that idea necessitated tedious labor. "I think of my poems as things," Swenson reports in one interview, as constructions with a "three-dimensional" existence, "as if you could walk around them, see them from several aspects, notice many facets" (Hudson 55). …