May Swenson was born Anna Thilda May Swenson on May 28, 1913, in Logan, Utah. Her parents were Swedish immigrants, and her father was a professor of mechanical engineering at Utah State University. English was her second language, her family having spoken mostly Swedish in their home. Influenced early on by Edgar Allan Poe, she kept journals as a young girl, in which she wrote in multiple genres.
She attended Utah State University, Logan, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1934. She spent another year in Utah working as a reporter, but in 1935 she relocated to New York, where she remained for most of her adult life. In New York City, she held various positions—including working as a stenographer, a ghostwriter, a secretary, and a manuscript reader—while writing and publishing her poetry. In 1959, she became a manuscript reader at New Directions Press.
In 1967, she received a Distinguished Service Gold Medal from Utah State University, and in 1987 an honorary doctor of letters. She served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1980 until her death. She died in Oceanview, Delaware, on December 4, 1989, and is buried in the city where she was born.