Maxine Kumin Essay - Kumin, Maxine (Vol. 5)

Kumin, Maxine (Vol. 5)

Kumin, Maxine 1925–

Ms Kumin, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, is an American poet, novelist, and writer for children. Her poetry is distinguished by sharp images of closely observed natural phenomena. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Maxine Kumin's book ["Up Country"] acknowledges its debt to Thoreau, though in my opinion Kumin's poetry gives us a sharp-edged, unflinching and occasionally nightmarish subjectivity exasperatingly absent in Thoreau. The most valuable, because most powerful, statements of the transcendental experience are those rooted firmly in existence, however private or eccentric…. The experience of "Up Country's" 42 poems is dramatic and visionary, but above all convincing. (p. 7)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1972.

Mrs. Kumin is no imitator but very clearly her own writer (and a distinctive novelist too). In these poems [Up Country] she steeps herself—sometimes adopting the figure of "the Hermit" to intensify the feeling of solitary humanity in the midst of nature—in the actualities of soil, pond, trees, beans, local topography, animal tracks in the snow, an ancient bathtub used for a watering trough, the gravestones of an old cemetery, the variety of insects frequenting a pond, the hundred-and-sixty-year-old markings in an attic, a handbook of simples, and so forth. As John Ciardi says of her accuracy with respect to the reality her poems render: "She teaches me, by example, to use my own eyes. When she looks at something I have seen, she makes me see it better. When she looks at something I do not know, I therefore trust her." That is high praise, and also traditional praise. Many a younger poet at the present time should perhaps be compelled to earn it. (pp. 222-23)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1973.

Wonderment, in these numb and wary times, is a rare response to fiction or to anything else, and Mrs. Kumin's fourth novel, "The Designated Heir," evokes it over and over. So did "Up Country: Poems of New England," which last year won her a Pulitzer Prize. In both verse and prose she brings tastes, sounds, textures, smells and the look of things to vivid life….

"The Designated Heir" abounds with such perceptive distinctions. It is not a novel of much action or wide scope, but its texture is a marvel and its people are so vivid they take up permanent residence in our minds. (p. 10)

Jane Howard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1974.

Maxine Kumin is a woman who writes like some male writers, specifically like Erich Segal, author of the novel Love Story, which was an earlier and highly successful variation on Kumin's theme of love, domesticity and money [in The Designated Heir]. Her plot is simple: Can Robin Parks, a highborn Bostonian and the "designated heir" of the title, find happiness with Jeffrey Rabinowitz, a nice Jewish boy from East 62nd Street? The answer is not absolutely certain, although a probable "yes" seems safe. (p. 25)

Maxine Kumin uses a lot of literary devices—sections from Jeffrey's Peace Corps journal; symbol and metaphor applied like band-aids or perhaps tourniquets—to mask the essential banality of her plot. They are not enough. She is fond of words like "argufy" and "horripilate" ("she read still omnivorously, horripilated by modern fiction, yet determined to keep abreast"). She has an unerring eye for the inept simile: "from the rafters vegetables hung down as simply as shoelaces" and "the porcelain cup and saucer rode in his left hand as easily as a sailboat at its moorings," to cite two. She also likes to pass on aphoristic wisdom, better when it comes by way of Thoreau, whom she quotes frequently, than from the author. Here are three examples of hers: "the art of capitulation is grace"; "the real primal scene is the first time you have to be a parent to your parent. The first time you have to be the forgiver"; and, "love means different things to different people." (Lest we forget, love also means never having to say you're sorry, and pace, Erich.) When Robin is told, "your head is a bank vault stuffed full of useless aphorisms," the reader cheers.

Such infelicities might not be so surprising in a creative writing student, but Kumin is an experienced, indeed an honored, writer…. Clearly she is not an amateur, which is why I read this book twice, thinking, hoping that I'd missed something the first time. But no. I didn't believe it the second time either. The Designated Heir is a marshmallow of a book—sticky, sweet and soft in the center, and suitable for roasting. (p. 26)

William McPherson, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 10 & 17, 1974.