Kumin, Maxine

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KUMIN, Maxine

Nationality: American. Born: Maxine Winokur, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 1925. Education: Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.B. 1946, M.A. 1948. Family: Married Victor M. Kumin in 1946; two daughters and one son. Career: Instructor, 1958–61, and lecturer in English, 1965–68, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts; lecturer, Newton College of the Sacred Heart, Massachusetts, 1971; visiting lecturer/professor/writer, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1972; Columbia University, New York, spring 1975; Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, fall 1975; Princeton University, New Jersey, spring 1977, 1979, 1982; Washington University, St. Louis, 1977; Randolph-Macon Women's College, Lynchburg, Virginia, 1978; Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 1983; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1984; Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, Florida, winter 1984; and University of Miami (Florida), spring 1995. Member of Bread Loaf Writers Conference staff, 1969–71, 1973, 1975, 1977; The Sewanee Writers' Conference staff, 1993 and 1994. Awards: Lowell Mason Palmer award, 1960; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966; National Council on the Arts fellowship, 1967; William Marion Reedy award, 1968; Eunice Tietjens memorial prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1972; Pulitzer prize, 1973; Radcliffe College award, 1978; American Academy award, 1980; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1985; Levinson award, 1987; Sarah Josepha Hale award, 1992; The Poets' Prize for Looking for Luck, 1994; Aiken Taylor Poetry prize for Looking for Luck, 1995; Centennial award, 1996; New Hampshire Writers Project Lifetime Achievement award, 1998; Ruth Lilly Poetry prize, 1999. Honorary degrees: Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, 1976; Davis and Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia, 1977; Regis College, Weston, Massachusetts, 1979; New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire, 1982; Claremont Graduate School, California, 1983; University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1984; Keene State College, 1995. Poetry consultant, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1981–82. Since 1979 Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. Scholar, 1961–63, and since 1972 officer, Society of Fellows, Radcliffe Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Agent: Scott Waxman Agency, 1650 Broadway, Suite 1011, New York, New York 10019. Address: 40 Harriman Lane, Warner, New Hampshire 03278, U.S A.



Halfway. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1961.

The Privilege. New York, Harper, 1965.

The Nightmare Factory. New York, Harper, 1970.

Up Country: Poems of New England, New and Selected. New York, Harper, 1972.

House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate. New York, Viking Press, 1975.

The Retrieval System. New York, Viking Press, 1978; London, Penguin, 1979.

Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief. New York, Viking Press, 1982.

Closing the Ring. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Press of Appletree Alley, 1984.

The Long Approach. New York, Viking, 1985.

Nurture. New York, Viking, 1989.

Looking for Luck. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1992.

Connecting the Dots. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.

Selected Poems 1960–1990. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Recording: Progress Report, Watershed, 1976.


Through Dooms of Love. New York, Harper, 1965; as A Daughter and Her Loves, London, Gollancz, 1965.

The Passions of Uxport. New York, Harper, 1968.

The Abduction. New York, Harper, 1971.

The Designated Heir. New York, Viking Press, 1974.

Quit Monks or Die. Ashland, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1999.

Short Stories

Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings? New York, Viking Press, 1982.


To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1979.

In Deep: Country Essays. New York, Viking, 1987.

Women, Animals, and Vegetables: Essays and Stories. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.

Always Beginning: Prose Essays, Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 2000.

Inside the Halo and the Journey Beyond, New York, W.W. Norton &Co., 2000.

Editor, Rain, by William Carpenter. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1985.

Other (for children)

Sebastian and the Dragon. New York, Putnam, 1960.

Spring Things. New York, Putnam, 1961.

Summer Story. New York, Putnam, 1961.

Follow the Fall. New York, Putnam, 1961.

A Winter Friend. New York, Putnam, 1961.

Mittens in May. New York, Putnam, 1962.

No One Writes a Letter to the Snail. New York, Putnam, 1962.

Archibald the Traveling Poodle. New York, Putnam, 1963.

Eggs of Things, with Anne Sexton. New York, Putnam, 1963.

More Eggs of Things, with Anne Sexton. New York, Putnam, 1964.

Speedy Digs Downside Up. New York, Putnam, 1964.

The Beach Before Breakfast. New York, Putnam, 1964.

Paul Bunyan. New York, Putnam, 1966.

Faraway Farm. New York, Norton, 1967.

The Wonderful Babies of 1809 and Other Years. New York, Putnam, 1968.

When Grandmother Was Young. New York, Putnam, 1969.

When Mother Was Young. New York, Putnam, 1970.

When Great Grandmother Was Young. New York, Putnam, 1971.

Joey and the Birthday Present, with Anne Sexton. New York, McGraw Hill, 1971.

The Wizard's Tears, with Anne Sexton. New York, McGraw Hill, 1975.

What Color Is Caesar? New York, McGraw Hill, 1978.

The Microscope. New York, Haroer, 1984.


Manuscript Collection: Bienecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Critical Studies: "The Art of Maxine Kumin" by John Ciardi, in Saturday Review (Washington, D.C.), 25 March 1972; "Past Halfway: The Retrieval System by Maxine Kumin" by Sybil Estess, in Iowa Review (Iowa City), 10(4), 1979; "Maxine Kumin's Survival" by Philip Booth, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 7(6), November-December 1981; "Kumin on Kumin and Sexton: An Interview" by Diana Hume George, in Poesis: A Journal of Criticism (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania), 6(2), 1985; "Courage to Survive: Maxine Kumin" by Jean B. Gearhart, Pembroke Magazine, 1988; "Keeping Our Working Distance: Maxine Kumin's Poetry of Loss and Survival" by Diane Hume George, in Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1993; Telling the Barn Swallow: Poets on the Poetry of Maxine Kumin, edited by Emily Grosholz, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1997.

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Maxine Kumin, who jokingly has referred to herself, the earth motherly nature poet, as "Roberta Frost," at first may seem to possess a very simple sense of the physical world. But she is a metaphysician too. Her best collection of poems, The Retrieval System, explores ideas that make the notion of death acceptable. Much has been made of her close friendship with Anne Sexton, but its literary importance probably resides in forcing Kumin to leap out of her comfortable physical world of family and benevolent nature into a craggier world and personality, more like that of the curmudgeonly Robert Frost.

Earth mythology is always about use and misuse. Thus, the concerns of Kumin as a person become central to the concerns of any twentieth-century citizen of the world: how can we survive the autumn, the "fall," of our misused earth? In "Grappling in the Central Blue" Kumin offers this ongoing theme in her poetry:

   Let us eat of the inland oyster.
   Let its fragrance intoxicate us
   into almost believing
   that staying on is possible
   again this year in
   benevolent blue October.

Over the years some of Kumin's best poems have concerned her children and her Demeter-like role, grieving the loss of them as they grow up, but what is most compelling is that she never accepts the impossibility of return, even if it be through magic or metaphysics. Body is as transformable as any other matter. She shows in "Seeing the Bones" her willingness to accept the pain of evolution—

   This year again the bruise-colored oak
   hangs on eating my heart out
   with its slow change

—but she insists on the myth and magic that make return, retrieval, and reincarnation possible. She concludes the poem with the ritual of reconstructing her lost daughter from old artifacts:

   I do the same things day by day.
   They steady me against the wrong turn,
   …Working backward I reconstruct

The charm with which Kumin works out her belief in worldly return is captured in many poems, including "The Retrieval System" ("It begins with my dog, now dead, who all his long life / carried about in his head the brown eyes of my father"). In "On Reading an Old Baedeker in Schloss Leopoldskron," a typical and lovely Kumin poem ("Soft as beetpulp, the cover / of this ancient Baedeker"), she speaks of the ongoingness of the world, with both people and "swans / in their ninetieth generation" returning often. In "Primtivism Exhibit" she returns to the theme of a retrieval system:

   Longest l look at the dread
   dog fetish, whose spiky back
   is built of rusty razorblades
   that World War II GI's let drop
   on atolls in the South Pacific
   they were securing from the Japs
   who did not shave, but only plucked
   stray hairs from chin and jaw.
   I like the way he makes a funk-
   y art out of cosmetic junk
   standing the cutting edge of old steel
   up straight to say, World, get off my back.

Kumin believes in animal species and sees the human animal as having a chance for survival, as in "In the Park":

   You have forty-nine days between
   death and rebirth if you're a Buddhist.
   Even the smallest soul could swim
   the English Channel in that time

The best of Kumin's poems, like this one, maintain a cool humor and charm. In addition to her rich and smooth wit, Kumin's greatest skill is to make images, wonderful images, that turn into big metaphors. Playing with dualities and manipulating everyday language so that it works with the complexities of ideas and patterns, she invokes the irony that comes out of Dionysian tragedy. A few lines from "Marianne, My Mother, and Me" define Kumin's poetry and her life: "We / must be as clear as our natural reticence / will allow." The one thing that is clear throughout her substantial body of work is that she believes survival to be possible, if only through the proper use of the imagination to retrieve those things that are loved well enough.

—Diane Wakoski