Kumin, Maxine W

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KUMIN, Maxine W.

Born 6 June 1925, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Daughter of Peter and Doll Simon Winokur; married Victor M.Kumin, 1946; children: Jane, Judith, Daniel

Maxine W. Kumin received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from Radcliffe College. She married an engineering consultant; they have three children. A nature lover and an equestrian, Kumin lives with her husband on a farm in Warner, New Hampshire, where her avocations include raising most of her own fruits and vegetables, and riding and breeding Arabian and quarter horses.

Although Kumin remembers writing from a very early age, during her late teens and early twenties she stopped altogether. She began writing and publishing children's stories and light verse while she was pregnant with her third child in 1953, when she felt a rising discontentment with her life. Her first book of poetry, Halfway, appeared in 1961. Since then, Kumin has published nearly a dozen other books of poetry, several novels, and many children's books. Kumin has also spent two years as a scholar of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, has conducted workshops at Columbia, Brandeis, and Princeton universities, and has served on the staff at Washington University, the University of Massachusetts, and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her literary prizes and awards include the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973 for Up Country: Poems of New England (1972); both the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize (1972) and the Levinson Prize (1986) from Poetry magazine; an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1980); fellowships from the National Council on the Arts (1967) and the Academy of American Poets (1985); the Poet's Prize (1994) and the Aiken Taylor Poetry Prize (1995) for Looking for Luck (1992); the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences's Centennial Award (1996), the New Hampshire Writers Project Lifetime Achievement award (1998); and most recently, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1999. Kumin has also been awarded two honorary doctorates of humanities.

As a poet, Kumin has been influenced most by W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Karl Shapiro, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop—either by their careful craft, by their intensity of observation, or sometimes by their stanza pattern. She has been placed by one critic as existing within the "Bishop-Lowell-Sexton" school of contemporary American poetry, which is an indication that Kumin's work, like much of theirs, reveals a close attention to objective details yet an astute ability to metamorphose her observations into descriptions that resonate with more than mere imagery.

The tenor of Kumin's poems ranges from horror to love. Even when descending into the theme of the grotesque, particularly in the poems from The Nightmare Factory (1970), her sensibility is one that funds the ordinary events of life more wonderful than desperate. One reviewer has rightly contrasted Kumin's Up Country with Sylvia Plath's Winter Trees. While both Plath and Kumin take the pose of a transcendentalist nature poet in these volumes, Plath's transcendence pushes her toward cessation in death while Kumin's leads her more intensely into the progression of life.

Kumin's The Retrieval System (1978) includes all the predominant themes of her ouevre: transcendence via absorption in nature, the love of animals, the importance of personal relationships, and the horrors of separation and death. This book deals specifically with the attempts at integration of the self at midlife, and with loss. The poet writes especially of her separation from her adult children because of geographical distance, and of the separation of herself from her best friend, Anne Sexton, because of the latter's suicide.

Kumin has most often been praised for her original description of detail, particularly in the natural world. She has been criticized, though much less frequently, for the creation of similes that attempt to be perceptive but are artificial or forced because they do not work (organically) in the poem. Even though she is fascinated by and preoccupied with the irrational unconscious, sanity and a conscious choice within and for life are essential keys to Kumin's voice. Clear, practiced talent for the close image and the penetration of patterned sounds, as well as successful transformation of traditional forms such as the sonnet into contemporary usage, enable her to render honestly and artistically her life experiences in her preferred medium, the poem. Kumin often writes pastoral poetry about New England; yet she is more than either a mere nature poet or a regional writer. She is, without doubt, what she has and continued to strive for, to be "a good poet."

Kumin's considerable output attests to the power of nature and mortality as literary subjects. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kumin published more poetry, novels, and children's books, as well as making regular contributions—essays, poetry, and fiction—to a number of journals, while making appearances and teaching at Washington University, the University of Massachusetts, Columbia, Princeton, Brandeis, and the Breadloaf Writers' Conference.

Kumin's work remains impressive. The well-received Retrieval System (1978) was followed by To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (1979), and her first collection of stories, Why Can't We Live Together like Civilized Human Beings? (1982). Although Kumin's work makes much of the positive coexistence with nature, these works pursue another common theme: "loss" and "relinquishment," especially as experienced in intimate relationships such as family. Kumin communicates these themes by juxtaposing scrupulous attention to the detail of everyday life with transcendent communion with the natural world.

While Kumin amuses readers with characterizations of her neighbors in New Hampshire in Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief: New and Selected Poems (1982), the willfulness, almost maliciousness of nature that seems not to care for connections, familial or neighborly, is a powerful presence. Henry Manley, a recurring character in Kumin's poems, provides a way of exploring both sides: the little foibles of day-to-day existence and the large specter of mortality looming over everyone. Paradoxically, nature allows for continuation and extinction at the same time, and Kumin is determined readers will understand both.

In her eighth book of poems, The Long Approach (1985), Kumin not only continues with the subject of farm living, but also takes on social issues such as pollution, religious persecution, nuclear holocaust, and famine. These poems mark somewhat of a turning point in Kumin's career in that her essentially personal, intimate voice transforms into one that is more public and critical. The critics were quick to notice this alteration, and not all of them were pleased. Although her appraisal of these issues was sometimes perceived as underdeveloped, the growth into new areas of expression was welcome from a poet who had brought such understanding to the paradoxes of nature.

Kumin continued to mix the personal with the globally relevant in Nurture (1989). The intimate voice recurs in such autobiographical poems as "Marianne, My Mother, and Me." But she further develops the socioecological voice that expresses concern over pollution and consequent extinction. Kumin understands animals' perceived cruelty to each other; conflict inherent in survival is one of the foundations of nature. But the argument for survival does not extend to humanity's abuse and neglect of animals.

This concern for animals and their relationship with human beings is also important in Looking for Luck: Poems (1992). But animals do not take center stage in this collection; Kumin is equally interested in the universalities of her own personal relationships, with her daughter who has departed to another country and with fellow writers Flannery O'Connor and Sexton. Kumin's relationships with family, friends, and nature are the settings for a deeper consideration of nature and mortality. Connecting the Dots (1998) reinforces her disillusionment with society. Ben Howard noted in Poetry, "From her earliest poems to her most recent, she has held fast to her dominant themes, her inductive methods, and her darkly ironic outlook, which has altered only in the respect that it has become more recognizably itself. At once ardent and skeptical, her vision has grown more stringent over the years, and the strain of social criticism has become more insistent. What has not changed is Kumin's earthy realism, her generous receptivity."

Kumin's productivity has not been confined to poetry. She continues to write essays, specifically In Deep: Country Essays (1987), and children's books, such as The Microscope (1984). An accomplished horsewoman, she makes regular contributions to equestrian journals. Her essays and columns also encompass such topics as organic gardening. She has continued to teach, with visiting stints at MIT (Boston, 1984), University of Miami (spring 1995), Pitzer College (California, 1996), Davidson College (North Carolina, spring 1997), Florida International University (spring 1999). As the turn of the century approaches, Kumin is still writing: Quit Monks or Die, her first mystery, was published in 1999, and two new books of essays are forthcoming in 2000 (Always Beginning: Prose Essays and Inside the Halo and the Journey Beyond).

Other Works:

Sebastian and the Dragon (1960). Follow the Fall (1961). Spring Things (1961). A Summer Story (1961). A Winter Friend (1961). Mittens in May (1962). No One Writes a Letter to the Snail (1962). Archibald and the Traveling Poodle (1963). Eggs of Things (with A. Sexton, 1963). The Beach before Breakfast (1964). More Eggs of Things (with A. Sexton, 1964). Speedy Digs Downside Up (1964). The Privilege (1965). Through Dooms of Love (1965). Paul Bunyan (1966). Faraway Farm (1967). The Passions of Uxport (1968). The Wonderful Babies of 1809 (1968). When Grandmother Was Young (1969). When Mother Was Young (1970). The Abduction (1971). Joey and the Birthday Present (with A. Sexton, 1971). When Great Grandmother Was Young (1971). The Designated Heir (1974). House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate (1975). The Wizard's Tears (with A. Sexton, 1975). What Color Is Caesar (1978). Women, Animals, and Vegetables: Essays and Stories (1994). Connecting the Dots (1996). Selected Poems 1960-1990 (1997).


A Separate Vision: Isolation in Contemporary Women's Poetry (1984). Grosholz, E., ed., Telling the Barn Swallow: Poets on the Poetry of Maxine Kumin (1997).

Reference works:

CA (1967, 1999). CANR (1981, 1987). CAAS (1989). CLC (1976, 1980, 1984). CP (ca. 1975). DLB (1980). MTCW (1991). Modern American Women Poets (1984). Modern American Women Writers (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

America (18 Nov. 1989). Belles Lettres (Fall 1992). Commonweal (29 Nov. 1985). CSM (9 Aug. 1961, 10 July 1975). Hudson Review (Winter 1982-83). LJ (1 Mar. 1989). MR (Spring 1975). Nation (24 July 1982). NYHTB (27 Aug. 1961). NYTBR (19 Nov. 1972, 7 Sept. 1975, 8 Aug. 1982, 5 Nov. 1989, 21 Mar. 1993). Poetry (May 1966, June 1998). SR (6 May 1961, 25 Dec. 1965, 26 Dec. 1970, 25 Mar. 1972). Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 1991). WRB (May 1992). Yankee (Dec. 1987). YR (Mar. 1962).