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Kumin, Maxine Winokur

Maxine Winokur Kumin

American writer and poet Maxine Kumin (born 1925) has published numerous books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Up Country: Poems of New England. Highly decorated for her literary works, she has also written several children's books, a short story collection and a handful of novels, among others. She has served as a Library of Congress consultant on poetry and is the former poet laureate of New Hampshire.

Early Life and Influenced by Anne Sexton

The youngest of four children, Kumin was born Maxine Winokur on June 6, 1925, to Jewish parents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's Germantown neighborhood. As a child, she attended Catholic schools; as a young adult, she traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, for her higher education. There, she completed her Bachelor's degree at Harvard's Radcliffe College in 1946. That same year marked her marriage, in June, to Victor Kumin, an engineering consultant with whom she would later have two daughters and one son. In 1948, Kumin received a Master's degree also from Radcliffe; during her years at the college, she studied with notable literary scholars including the prolific literary critic Harry Levin.

After completing her M.A., Kumin taught English at colleges in the Boston area, notably Tufts University from 1958–1961 and again from 1965–1968. From 1961 to 1963, she was a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute. Throughout her career, Kumin would teach and lecture at universities around the United States, from large, prestigious institutions such as Columbia and Princeton to small, regional learning centers like Davis and Elkins in West Virginia. In recent years, Kumin has limited her teaching engagements to universities in warmer climates such as Louisiana and California, finding that her body is no longer able to handle the harsh northern winters well.

At a poetry workshop taught by John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education in 1957, Kumin met and befriended two other poets of what is called the "confessional" of writing: Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The works of these poets were particularly noted for their intensely personal reflection on their own psychological states and problems. Sexton, who had taken up poetry writing in the mid-1950s following her second nervous breakdown, had become immediately successful and was a major influence on Kumin's work. The two women were close friends and collaborators until the time of Sexton's death in 1974, writing four children's books together: 1963's Eggs of Things, 1964's More Eggs of Things, 1971's Joey and the Birthday Present, and 1975's The Wizard's Tears.

Kumin's relationship with Sexton was a remarkably close one. Critics often mention the two writers in the same breath; speaking years after Sexton's suicide, Kumin admitted in her book Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery that "we were very, very important to each other. That I have not been able to reproduce, that kind of intimacy: the word, the line, the phrase, the shape, the close reading." Much of Kumin's early poetry was read and commented on by Sexton; Kumin recollected that the two would physically move poems around her living room floor, deciding what order to place her poems in for projected books. Although later in life, Kumin found other writers and poets with whom to discuss her work, she never recaptured that working and personal relationship she had developed with Sexton.

Moved to New Hampshire

In 1976, Kumin and her family relocated from Boston to rural New Hampshire, a setting that would inspire much of her later poetry. The Kumins had purchased the 200-acre former dairy farm, which they named PoBiz—short for Poetry Business—in 1963 and had used it for family week-end and vacation trips before permanently moving there. In New Letters, Kumin was quoted as saying "everything that happens [on the farm] is related to my poetry…. It is my life. It's just that simple." Kumin's husband commuted back into Boston for his job for a short period of time before the couple settled full-time at PoBiz

Poetic Works

Kumin published her first collection of poetry, Halfway, in 1961. Influenced by the confessional style of poetry, it was followed in 1965 by The Privilege and in 1970 by The Nightmare Factory, both of which explore her Jewish identity and family. These kinds of personal reflections are typical of the confessional school of poetry, leading to Kumin's grouping with her contemporaries Sexton and Plath. However, much of Kumin's work focuses on what Women's Writing in the United States called "the rhythms of life in rural New England," comparable to the poems of more traditional writers like Robert Frost. This interest in New England drove Kumin's third book of poetry, 1973's Up Country: Poems of New England, inspired by life on the Kumin family's New Hampshire farm. This volume won Kumin the 1973 Pulitzer Prize Award for Poetry.

Over the decades, Kumin has steadily produced poetry. The 1970s saw Kumin publish two more volumes of poetry: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate in 1975 and The Retrieval System in 1978. In 1982, she released Our Ground Time Here Will be Brief: New and Selected Poems and in 1989, The Long Approach. The Retrieval System and Our Ground Time Here Will be Brief have been noted for their musings on life and death, particularly Sexton's 1974 suicide. Beginning in the 1980s, Kumin began to address contemporary social issues in her poetry. After Nurture in 1992, Kumin wrote her most prestigious volume since Up Country. Looking for Luck, published in 1993, garnered Kumin a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination as well as the Outstanding Work of Poetry for 1993 award from the New Hampshire Writers and Publishers Project and, in 1994, The Poets' Prize. This collection was followed by 1996's Connecting the Dots: Poems and 1997's compilation, Selected Poems, 1960–1990. In 2001, Kumin returned to her roots with poems on her nearly fifty-year marriage to Victor Kumin and her deep affinity—what Library Journal called "a kind of covenant between the poet and her environment"—for her New England surroundings in The Long Marriage. Many of Kumin's previously rare poems were published together in 2003's Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems, 1958–1988.

Writing on Kumin's poetry, Meg Schoerke commented in Women's Writing in the United States that "throughout her career as a poet, Kumin has struck a balance between her sense of life's transience and her fascination with the dense physical presence of the world around her. At its worst, this latter impulse causes her to weigh her poetry down with catalogs of material details and an overabundance of similes; such poems seem to be merely exercises in record keeping. But at its best, her poetry offers details whose blend of quirkiness and exactness beautifully ground her meditations on endurance in the face of loss."

Other Works

Kumin's extensive written output has not been limited to poetry. Quoted in the Washington Post in 1980, Kumin said "I like writing prose. It keeps you honest: those simple, declarative sentences. It's good discipline after the ellipses of poetry." Her explorations into prose have primarily included children's books, but also novels for adults and essays on a variety on topics. These books include novels Through Dooms of Love, also published as A Daughter and Her Loves, released in 1965; The Passions of Uxport published in 1968; The Abduction, published in 1971; The Designated Heir, published in 1974; and mystery novel Quit Monks or Die!, published in 1999. This last piece mirrored Kumin's lifelong love of animals and her interest in social concerns; in Contemporary Authors Online, Quit Monks or Die! was described as "an unusual tale centering around the disappearance of a pair of monkeys at a testing lab and a murder of the lab director." The uncommon plot drew critical acclaim, reflecting Kumin's standing as not only a respected poet but also an accomplished novelist.

In addition to Kumin's novels, she has written collections of essays and short stories. Her short story collection Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?, published in 1982, discussed the interpersonal relationships between men and women, another recurring theme in Kumin's work. Two collections of purely essays appeared in the 1980s, first To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living in 1980 and later, In Deep in 1987. One mixed work of essays and stories, Women, Animals, and Vegetables: Essays and Stories was published in 1994. Kumin is also an accomplished children's book author. In addition to the four children's book she wrote with Anne Sexton, Kumin published numerous works for children in the 1960s and 1970s.

Career Achievements

In addition to the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Kumin has received many poetry awards. These include the 1972 Eunice Tiejens Memorial Prize; the 1978 Radcliffe College Alumnae Recognition Award; the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1980, for excellence in literature; the 1986 Levison award; the 1994 Poets' Prize; and in 1999, the prestigious Ruth Lily Poetry Prize. In 2005, Harvard University awarded Kumin the 11th annual Harvard Arts Medal.

In 1976, Centre College awarded Kumin an honorary Doctor of Hebrew Letters degree, the first in a series she would receive over the ensuing twenty years. Other institutions honoring Kumin include the University of New Hampshire and Keene State College. Another professional honor came in 1980, when she was made the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC; she served from 1981–1982 and was only the fifth woman to hold the position. During her tenure at the Library of Congress, Kumin split her time between her New Hampshire home and Washington. In 1989, New Hampshire made Kumin their Poet Laureate, a position she held until 1994.

Kumin in Recent Years

In 1998, the 73-year-old Kumin was injured when a horse she was training for a marathon carriage competition was spooked. Thrown to the ground, Kumin avoided being trampled by the animal but was crushed under the 350-pound carriage; the accident left her with fractured vertebrae, broken ribs, a punctured lung, a damaged kidney and liver, internal bleeding, loss of neurological function and temporary numbness. Although she suffered from extensive injuries—enough to kill most people within minutes—Kumin remarkably recovered enough to again ride horses and lead a normal life. In 2000, she published a memoir of her accident and recovery process titled Inside the Halo and Beyond: the Anatomy of a Recovery. Stephanie Schorow, reviewing the book for the Boston Herald, noted that "the memoir eschews platitudes, gratitude and misplaced grace. Kumin will have none of the pious and the pat … What she does celebrate is the resilience of the human spirit."

Despite her injuries and advanced age, Kumin continued to teach, write and publish; she has been reported to be at work on a sixth novel and to still write poetry at her typewriter. In 2000, Anne Roiphe wrote in the New York Times that Kumin "is a woman with a certain spiritual wholeness, as if her mind, unlike so many of her readers', had not been fractured with resentments, failures of humankind. Her respect for life in all its forms, animal, vegetable and mineral, is both gracious and soothing." This respect continued to inform her poetry and prose, and made Kumin as well-respected today as she was early in her career-a career that survived the author's personal injuries as well as Kumin herself had.

Books

Kumin, Maxine, Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery, W.W. Norton, 2000.

Periodicals

Boston Herald, May 18, 2000; April 16, 2005.

New Letters, Vol. 66, Issue 3, 2000.

Times-Picayune, November 8, 2000.

Washington Post, May 6, 1980.

Online

"Gale Literary Databases: Maxine (Winokur) Kumin," http://www.galenet.galegroup.com (January 1, 2006).

"On Maxine Kumin's Life and Career," http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/kumin/life.htm, includes excerpt from Women's Writing in the United States, Oxford University Press, 1995.

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