On Maxine Kumin's Life and Career
Emory Elliott, et. al.
"There is no more, no less, peace of mind in the disciplined life of the barnyard than there is in the routine of the office," writes Maxine Kumin in In Deep: Country Essays (1987) after many years of raising horses on her New Hampshire farm. Typical of Kumin's temperate manner, this statement reflects the unsentimental relationship to nature and the sober acceptance of human limitations that characterize her poetry. Family relationships, husbandry, and the inner life of women as they negotiate various roles--mother, daughter, sister, lover--are the subjects that have dominated Kumin's verse since the appearance of her first book, Halfway, in 1961. Her maturation as a poet coincides with the emergence in American literature of women writing more frankly than ever before about their experiences. Although she has rarely been as explicitly political as such feminist poets as Adrienne Rich, Kumin typically summons to her aid a vision of female solidarity, as in the prayerlike hope expressed in "The Envelope" (1978): "May we carry our mothers forth in our bellies."
A close friend of the poet Anne Sexton until Sexton's suicide in 1975, Kumin has said that they frequently shared their works in progress and had an enormous influence on each other. Kumin is, however, careful to draw distinctions. Calling herself a skeptic, she points out in a 1985 interview with Diana George that Sexton was "much more of an extremist and an absolutist in her search for a deity." A critic has claimed that Kumin "keeps her demons bridled," refraining, for the most part, from the explicit exposition of psychic trauma that marks the work of Sexton and of Sylvia Plath. Understatement, rather than rage or passion, is Kumin's hallmark. Thus, the burning houses in "The Longing to Be Saved" (1978) indirectly suggest Kumin's ambivalence about the domestic settings so prevalent in her work. Are not we all, she seems to ask, yearning to be rescued from our homes?
Kumin has consistently favored traditional poetic forms, making use of rhyme schemes, the iambic line, and a variety of quatrain-based (four-line) stanzas. "When I'm writing free-verse," she complains, "I feel as though I am in Indiana, where it's absolutely flat and you can see the horizon 360 degrees around. You feel as though you have no eyelids, you can't blink. I lose, I have no sense of the line."
From American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Vol. II. Ed. Emory Elliott, Linda K. Kerber, A. Walton Litz, and Terence Martin. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Prentice Hall. Reprinted with permission.
Increasingly since her move to the country, Kumin's poetry has concerned itself with the natural world. In matter-of-fact tones sometimes darkened by elegy, her work chronicles the lives and deaths of animals and the cycle of the seasons. The fragile state of the environment is another compelling theme. Except as an occasion for mourning illnesses and deaths (the later poems abound in dark dreams), the human world seems marginal in Kumin's imagination, in contrast to the rural poems' rootedness in daily experience.
Kumin's work is less daring and stylistically distinctive than that of such contemporaries as Plath and Sexton (Kumin has a poem about surviving her friend Sexton). The tone is steady, grounded, almost stoical in comparison; the language less likely to transcend its occasion and engage in lyric flights. Kumin's early work is more concerned with formal structures than her later work, but always her language is subordinated to observation and thought.
From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Kumin, the daughter of Jewish parents, attended Catholic schools. She received her BA. in 1946 and her M.A. in 1948 from Radcliffe College. In June 1946 she married Victor Kumin, an engineering consultant; they have two daughters and a son. In 1957, she studied poetry with John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There she met Anne Sexton, with whom she started a friendship that continued until Sexton's suicide in 1974. Kumin taught English from 1958-1961 and 1965-1968 at Tufts University; from 1961-1963 she was a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. She has also held appointments as a visiting lecturer and poet in residence at many American colleges and universities. Since 1976, she and her husband have lived on a farm in Warner, New Hampshire, where they breed Arabian and quarter horses.
Kumin's many awards include the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry (1972), the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1973) for Up Country, an American Academy and Institute of Arts a Letters Award for excellence in literature (1980), an Academy of American Poets fellowship (1986), and six honorary degrees. In 1981-982, she served as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Kumin is the author of eleven books of poetry: Halfway (1961), The Privilege (1965), The Nightmare Factory (1970), Up Country: Poems of New England (1972), House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate (1975), The Retrieval System (1978), Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief--New and Selected Poems (1982), Closing the Ring: Selected Poems (1984), The Long Approach (1985), Nurture (1989), and Looking for Luck (1992). Her fiction includes a book of short stories, Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings? (1982), and four novels, Through Dooms of Love (1965), The Passions of Uxport (1968), The Abduction (1971), and The Designated Heir (1974). To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (1980) consists of interviews with Kumin, her reviews of poetry by her peers, and several essays on her own poetry; In Deep: Country Essays (1987) offers seasonal meditations on rural life. She has also published over twenty books for children, four of which she co-authored with Sexton.
Critics have often compared Kumin with Elizabeth Bishop because of her meticulous observations, and with Robert Frost, for she frequently devotes her attention to the rhythms of life in rural New England. Likewise, because of her autobiographical bent, she has been grouped with confessional poets such as Sexton and Robert Lowell. But unlike Sexton and Lowell, Kumin eschews high rhetoric and adopts a plain style that is often invigorated by her experiments with formal verse, but sometimes flattens into prosaism in her free verse.
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.
See Jean Gould, "Anne Sexton--Maxine Kumin," in Modern American Women Poets (1984), pp. 151-175. Deborah Pope, "A Rescuer by Temperament: The Poetry of Maxine Kumin," in A Separate Vision: Isolation in Contemporary Women's Poetry (1984), pp. 54-83.
From Womens Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.
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