A Conversation with Poet Maxine Kumin
Excerpted from The Poetry Foundation:
An enduring presence in American poetry, Maxine Kumin’s career has spanned over half a century. She has been the recipient of prestigious awards such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She was the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1981-1982, and has taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities, including MIT, Princeton, and Columbia. Despite traveling away from home to lecture at schools and universities around the United States, Kumin has retained close ties with her farmhouse in rural New Hampshire; in an interview with Joan Norris published in Crazy Horse, the poet disclosed, “Practically all of [my poems] have come out of this geography and this state of mind.”
Her “well-made poems and stories are two ways of coming at the same immemorial preoccupations: aging and mortality,” wrote Clara Claiborne Park in the Nation, and deemed Kumin’s work “the fiction and poetry of maturity.” Her poems are also mature for another reason: Kumin did not begin to write and publish until mid-life, when she found encouragement in workshops at the Boston Center for Adult Education. Her early poems display her mastery of technique and deal with themes that she has continued to explore throughout her career: identity, the ephemeral nature of life, loss, and man’s relationship to nature. Many of these early works were collected in Kumin’s first book of poems, Halfway (1961), published when she was thirty-six. While attending the Boston workshops, Kumin met and befriended the poet Anne Sexton. Both homemakers with children when they began their literary careers, they wrote four children’s books together and in general contributed to each other’s development. The two poets communicated on a nearly daily basis, conducting private workshops by letter and phone. Consequently, critics tried to trace a strong mutual influence, but both poets denied one. Nonetheless, there were some significant exchanges, and the two poets suggested titles for each other’s work on at least two occasions.
Kumin is most often compared to Robert Frost. The work of both poets shows a close attention to the details of New England rural life. Booth commented: “The distinctive nature of Maxine Kumin’s present poems derives from the primary fact that she lives in, and writes from, a world where constant (if partial) recovery of what’s ‘lost’ is as sure as the procession of the equinoxes, or as familiar as mucking-out the horses’ daily dung.” Kumin’s preference for traditional verse forms has also caused critics to liken her to Frost. Not only is there an order “to be discovered…in the natural world,” she told Martha George Meek in a Massachusetts Review interview, “there is also an order that a human can impose on the chaos of his emotions and the chaos of events.” Kumin achieves this order by structuring and controlling her most emotional subjects, fitting them to exacting patterns of syllable count and rhyme. As she told Hammond, “The harder—that is, the more psychically difficult—the poem is to write, the more likely I am to choose a difficult pattern to pound it into. This is true because, paradoxically, the difficulty frees me to be more honest and more direct.”
Kumin is also a noted writer of fiction, and has admitted to a certain overlap between the two genres. “I tend to steal from myself,” she said in an interview published in To Make a Prairie. “The compass of the poem is so small and so demanding, you have to be so selective, and there are so many things that get left out that you feel cheated. So you take all those things…and they get into fiction.”
Kumin’s later work has received praise for its emotional attentiveness and elegiac nature. Reviewing Nurture (1989), in the New York Times Book Review, Carol Muske remarked, “These poems are exhaustive in their sorrow: they are predominantly short, brutal elegies for the natural world.” In later books, such as The Long Approach (1986), Nurture, Looking for Luck (1992), and Connecting the Dots: Poems(1996), Kumin continues to focus on the daily rituals of farm-life, as well as turning her attention to social and environmental problems such as pollution, religious persecution, nuclear holocaust, and famine.
In 1997, Kumin published Selected Poems, 1960-1990. Covering the first nine books of Kumin’s career, the volume was praised by Judy Clarence in Library Journal for allowing the reader the opportunity to “move slowly, meanderingly, deliciously through the stages of Kumin’s poetic life.” Noting that the poet’s “unsentimental affinity for animals has been her divining rod for locating and observing the natural world’s seemingly inexhaustible beauty and mankind’s terrifying willingness to destroy it,” a Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the collection for illustrating this through Kumin’s “plain style,” “surprising imagery…and recurring reflections.” Kumin followed Selected Poems with The Long Marriage (2002), which celebrates her five-decade marriage to her husband, their life together in New Hampshire, and nature. The book was a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Award of the Academy of American Poets. The New York Times Book Review contributor Megan Harland called Kumin’s observations “earthy” and “practical,” and she declared that “Kumin’s tonal clarity is transformative.”
When Kumin was seventy-three she suffered an accident while preparing a horse for competition and broke her neck, receiving serious internal injuries. She was able to make a successful recovery, however, and her book Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (1999) describes her convalescence. Anne Roiphe, writing for the New York Times Book Review, described Kumin’s language as “precise and spare.” Roiphe noted that although Kumin is a poet, this book “is rarely poetic in the usual sense of heightened metaphor or compacted image.” Roiphe likened the work “to a dignified prayer of thanks” that resonates with “wisdom while announcing a triumph of body and soul.” The same year that Inside the Halo and Beyond was released, Kumin also published Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry, a collection of essays and poems describing Kumin’s daily life as a poet. She includes interviews, diary entries, and keynote addresses, as well as poetry.
Kumin’s latest poetry collections are Jack and Other New Poems (2005) and Still to Mow (2007). She recently won the L.A. Times Book Award for her latest collection of poems, Where I Live.
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