At an age when most others contemplate retirement, Arlene “Swifty” Swift Jones ’49 hit her stride as a poet. She received her first major award, the Academy of American Poets Prize, at 60, followed by other awards and a fellowship to Warren Wilson College where she graduated with an MFA at 68. She published her first book, Deenewood, A Sequence, a taut, multigenerational verse novel, in 2004, and a second is due in October.
She deflects praise for her late burst of literary accomplishments. “I have no responsibilities and I have some time to myself,” she explains. She concentrated on writing after raising three daughters, settling houses, and teaching in seven countries.
Now a New Yorker, Jones was raised on an Iowa farm and studied with legendary English professors Winifred Van Etten, Howard Lane, and Clyde “Toppy” Tull. She read freshman papers for Van Etten and heard Carl Sandburg read “with a kerchief around his neck” at his annual Cornell appearances. She fondly recalls the day Lane spotted her after she was published in The Husk.
“He said, ‘Miss Swift, that was a beautiful story.’ And I was so excited,” she recalls. “For Toppy to say it was one thing, but for him, it was quite another as a professor of literature. I remember one time when I was going on about something in Milton … and he said, ‘Oh, and Miss Swift, please show me the passage that makes you think that.’ I never did that again. It taught me a lesson about teaching too: Follow the text, not what somebody says about it.”
She received an MA from Columbia University, married a U.S. Army major, and lived in Europe and Eastern Europe during his career with the State Department. She taught throughout Europe and was founder and principal of Warsaw Elementary School in Poland.
“I usually tried to teach wherever I went because I didn’t want to play bridge and attend lunches,” she explains.
Jones was not judgmental of her students’ taste in literature. “No one can tell you what’s good,” she says. “You can only find out for yourself. As Mark Twain said, a great classic is something everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
Arlene Swift Jones ’49 will read from her poetry on April 23 during Golden Alumni Weekend.