February 10, 2014

Maxine Kumin, 1925-2014


Kumin in 1974. (AP photo)

Kumin in 1974. (AP photo)

On February 6, poet Maxine Kumin passed away in her home in Warner, New Hampshire, the Boston Globe reports. She was 88.

Kumin’s poetry career began over sixty years ago, as she explained in the Concord Monitor last year:

I was a closet poet always. I didn’t stop writing poetry just because Wallace Stegner told me I was a terrible poet. I went underground.

I had exempted English A at Harvard, which was a big mistake. Everybody should take it. They bucked me up to a high-level class in creative writing. It was all juniors and seniors, and I was the only freshman. I was 17 and Wallace Stegner was maybe all of 23 when I gave him a sheaf of poems. They were sonnets, all in iambic pentameter, but they were terribly sentimental and romantic. And he wrote at the top, “Say it with flowers, but for God sakes don’t write any more poems about it.”

After that, I was writing serious poems in the closet, but I was writing light verse for the slicks.

In 1957, Kumin goes on, she signed up for a poetry course at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There, she met Anne Sexton, in whom she found a great collaborator and friend. In her 2013 Concord Monitor piece, Kumin remembered,

At that time you could put a second telephone line in your house if you were living in the same suburb or a contiguous one for 4 dollars and 80 cents a month, which we did. Then one of us would initiate the call and we would leave the phones connected all day and if we had something to share we would whistle into the phone.

In a 1974 interview with Elaine Showalter for Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal (some of which was recently reprinted at This Recording), Kumin and Sexton spoke of their friendship and close collaboration as a necessary secret:

Showalter: What difference would it have made if there had been a women’s movement?

Kumin: We would have felt a lot less secretive.

Sexton: Yes, we would have felt legitimate.

Kumin: We both have repressed, kept out of the public eye that we did this. . . . We were both struggling for identity.

Sexton committed suicide just six months after that interview. In the Concord Monitor, Kumin remarked, “I think about Anne’s suicide constantly. It’s fresh. I don’t think it will ever fade. I think I have finally forgiven her.” Don Share, editor of Poetry, spoke to the Globe about the Boston-area poets of Kumin’s early years, including Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath in addition to Sexton:

Maxine lasted the longest of that generation. In a way, I think the trajectory of her work was saner and healthier. She managed to keep going.

Kumin, along with her contemporary Adrienne Rich, found her poetry influenced by the burgeoning second wave. As she wrote for the Concord Monitor,

I don’t know when I first became aware of the women’s movement. I know I was still writing poems in a male persona all the way up into the early ’70s, when I wrote the Hermit poems. They’re all written in a male persona juts because I didn’t think the world would take a female hermit seriously. The hermit in every instance was, of course, I. . . . It’s okay for women to write about their bodies now. It’s alright to write about childbirth. There is no subject that’s off-limits. I like to say I wrote my excrement poem to prove that point–that you can write about shit. It depends on how you make a poem out of it.

(Kumin refers to “The Excrement Poem,” which was published in 1976 in Poetry.)

Kumin received many honors during her long career, the Boston Globe reports, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for Up Country (a book Sexton named), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from Poetry in 1999, and the Harvard Arts Medal in 2005. She served as the U.S. poet laureate from 1981-1982, and as New Hampshire’s from 1989-1994.

A final book of poetry, And Short the Season, will be released in April by W. W. Norton, SFGate reports. Seven Stories Press/Triangle Square will also publish a YA novel, called Lizzie!, next month.

On Friday, Poetry Foundation posted Kumin’s 1990 poem “Finding the One Brief Note” on its Tumblr page. Its last sentence is as good an ending as any:

We eulogize autumn, we long
for a better world, we seek to deliver
a purer hemidemisemiquaver,
the one brief note that says we mean,
roughshod and winged, to last forever.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.