About Maxine Kumin
Maxine Kumin (b.1925) came to prominence as one of a generation of women poets who extended the boundaries of poetry, addressing areas of female experience which had not previously been written about. Less overtly political than Adrienne Rich and not as explicitly confessional as Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, Kumin’s own understated voice has, nevertheless, grappled with the tensions in women’s lives.
She was born Maxine Winokur in Philadelphia into a Jewish family, though she received a Catholic education, attending a convent school next door to her home. This dual spiritual legacy enters her poetry through references to both Christian and Jewish rituals. She then took her BA and MA at Radcliffe College where, in 1945, she met Victor Kumin, a Harvard graduate on leave from the army. The couple married a year later and are still together after 62 years, a longevity Kumin celebrates in her 2002 collection, The Long Marriage. Writing poetry only became central to Kumin’s life in 1957 when she enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. It was here she met Anne Sexton, the two forming a close and mutually influential friendship which endured until Sexton’s suicide in 1974, an event which is a haunting presence in Kumin’s work. Kumin made rapid progress with her poetry, her first collection, Halfway, appearing in 1961.
In 1963 she and her family left Boston for life on a two-hundred-acre farm in New Hampshire where they grew vegetables and bred Arabian and Standardbred horses. The landscape of New Hampshire and the disciplined rhythms of farming life had a profound impact on Kumin’s creativity, as it had on Robert Frost before her. Always an athletic person (she was a competitive swimmer in her youth) Kumin’s pleasure in the physical immediacy of outdoor life, coupled with a highly observant eye, give her poetry its distinctive flavour, which one critic has described as the “balance of toughness and tenderness, industry and intensity”. Her fourth collection, Up Country, inspired by her new life, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Kumin continued to publish regularly over the next three decades alongside teaching at a number of well-known universities, including Princeton, Colombia and MIT. However in July 1998 her life was dramatically interrupted when she suffered terrible injuries as a result of a carriage-driving accident. Her long and painful rehabilitation is documented in her memoir Inside the Halo and Beyond: Anatomy of a Recovery (1999). Kumin’s stoicism is part and parcel of her hard-working ethos which has seen her publish fifteen collections of poetry as well as novels, short stories, over twenty children’s books (four of which were co-written with Anne Sexton) and four books of essays including Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry (2000). Her many awards and honours include the Levinson Prize and the Ruth E. Lilly Poetry Prize as well as fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the National Council on the Arts. She has also served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (before the post was renamed Poet Laureate of the United States).
Old age has seen no slackening of her output, her most recent collection Still to Mow appearing in 2007. She describes these later poems as “bonier” and alongside familiar subjects like animals, are more political poems in response to the Iraq war and the state of contemporary America. Although these polemical poems have received a mixed reception, they demonstrate Kumin’s determination to remain alert to the world. As she says in one recent interview: “I’ve reached a point in life where it would be easy to let down my guard and write simple, imagistic poems. But I don’t want to write poems that aren’t necessary.”
The poems featured here demonstrate Kumin’s fidelity to a plain style of speaking, exemplified by the direct form of address she uses in her moving elegy to Anne Sexton, ‘How it is’. It is typical of Kumin that she takes an overwhelming abstraction like death and makes of it something tangible and intimate, “the dumb blue blazer” she remembers her friend wearing and which she now puts on. ‘The Revisionist Dream’ also returns to the day of Sexton’s suicide when Kumin was probably the last person to see her alive, the two of them sharing a sandwich lunch together. This time Kumin uses the villanelle form to circle around an alternative version of events in which “she didn’t kill herself that afternoon”, as if the form’s repetitions might become a way of changing history. ‘Nurture’ reaffirms Kumin’s love of animals and her desire to protect them, including the human animal in the figure of the feral child she imagines sharing her hearth. Her calm, unfussy delivery suits the style of a poet who still believes in poetry, despite human atrocity: “you can’t stop living, and you can’t stop having art if you’ve got to go on living.”
Her recording was made on 27 September 2007 in New York