Kumin, Maxine (Vol. 164)
Maxine Kumin 1925-
(Full name Maxine Winokur Kumin) American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Kumin's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 13, and 28.
In a career spanning more than forty years and coinciding with an emergence of women's writing in American literature, Kumin has authored thirteen volumes of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Up Country (1972). In addition, she has authored a series of novels, collections of essays and short stories, and more than twenty children's books. Kumin's poetry is often compared to that of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost, and meticulously records her observations of the rhythms of rural life in New England, chronicles of family relationships, the annual cycles of husbandry and the seasons, the fragility of the natural environment, and life's transience. Her poetry uses a plain, direct style and such traditional poetic forms as rhyme schemes, iambic meter, and quatrain stanzas.
The youngest daughter of Jewish parents, Kumin was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she attended Catholic schools. She studied history and literature at Radcliffe College, earning a bachelor's degree in 1946 and a master's degree in 1948. During the last year of World War II, she met Victor Kumin, an engineering graduate of Harvard University on furlough from the Army, and they were married in 1946. In 1957 Kumin enrolled in a poetry workshop conducted by John Clellon Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There, she met and befriended poet Anne Sexton, establishing a close personal and professional relationship that lasted until Sexton's death in 1974. As a result of Kumin's experiences with the poetry workshop, she began to write more seriously and published her first poetry collection, Halfway, in 1961. During this period, she joined the English faculty at Tufts University, lecturing between 1958 and 1961, and again between 1965 and 1968. Kumin has since held appointments as a visiting lecturer and poet-in-residence at numerous American colleges and universities. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country, Kumin and her husband permanently settled at a 200-acre farm in rural New Hampshire. Following a stint as a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress from 1981 to 1982, Kumin further diversified her career by publishing short stories and essay collections in addition to her volumes of poetry. In the 1990s Kumin was honored with a number of poetry awards and accepted an appointment as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a position she held from 1995 to 1998 when she resigned to protest the organization's lack of diversity. In 1999 Kumin was seriously injured in an accident in Vermont. Preparing her horse and carriage for a dressage event, the horse was startled by a passing truck, causing the carriage to overturn. Kumin broke her neck and eleven ribs, punctured a lung, and suffered severe internal injuries. She has since recovered and published an account of her ordeal and recuperation in Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (2000).
Beginning with her collection Halfway, Kumin has consistently explored a wide range of topics throughout her career, such as the interior lives of women as they pass through their various roles as daughters, sisters, lovers, and mothers. Other touchstones of Kumin's poetry include the transience and fragility of life, surviving loss or the threat of loss, and humanity's connections with nature. Similarly, lessons learned in childhood, memories of the past, and curiosity about the future are equally represented in Kumin's verse. Autobiographical material informs many of the poems in The Privilege (1965), which explores the ties that bind and the privileges of belonging to a “family.” A different type of persona—a male hermit—narrates the poems in Up Country. This collection, centered in rural New England, makes several allusions to the works of poets Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau. The poetry returns to several favorite Kumin themes, celebrating the importance of daily events in the countryside, and emphasizing man's affinity with the natural world. The Retrieval System (1978) is an homage to Anne Sexton and recounts Kumin's memories and reminiscences about her longtime friend. The Long Approach (1985) reflects on Kumin's experience of ageing and her hope for the beneficence of all living things, despite occupying a world rife with such imminent dangers as nuclear war, insidious technology, and senseless violence. The environmental themes of Nurture (1989) address ecological issues and Kumin's concerns for the survival of Earth's inhabitants, both human and animal alike. Looking for Luck (1992) continues Kumin's focus on the connections between humans and other creatures of this world within several contexts, including death and loss, happiness and contentment, and chaos and order. These familiar themes are also reworked in Connecting the Dots (1996), but the poems in this collection are infused with a sense of urgency, particularly in Kumin's meditations on ageing and mortality. The Long Marriage (2001) focuses on issues such as the natural world, how Kumin overcame her physical injuries, and her unresolved feelings about her friendship with Sexton, particularly in the poems “Three Dreams after a Suicide,” “The Ancient Lady Poets,” and “Oblivion.” In addition to her poetry, Kumin has also published several works of fiction and nonfiction. To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (1979) contains interviews with Kumin, her reviews of other poets' works, and comments about her own poetry. In Deep: Country Essays (1987) offers seasonal meditations on life at Kumin's New Hampshire farm. A literary potpourri, Woman, Animals, and Vegetables (1994) consists of diary-like essays on Kumin's life as a poet, treatises on farm chores, ruminations on the joys of gardening and canning, and short stories about difficult situations. Kumin's fictional works include the novels Through the Dooms of Love (1965), The Passions of Uxport (1968), The Abduction (1971), The Designated Heir (1974), and the short story collection Why Can't We Live Together like Civilized Human Beings? (1982). Kumin has also published more than twenty children's books—several of which were written in collaboration with Sexton—most notably Eggs of Things (1963), More Eggs of Things (1964), Joey and the Birthday Present (1971) and The Wizard's Tears (1975).
Critics have generally responded favorably to Kumin's poetry and essays since the publication of her first work. While some reviewers have argued that her strongest poems evoke autobiographical moments, often drawing comparisons to such confessional poets as Sexton and Robert Lowell, most commentators have appreciated Kumin's keen insights on the ordinary details of rural life in New England and her skill with speech cadences. Initially identified as a “nature poet” or regional writer by many reviewers, Kumin has more recently attracted the attention of critics who have noted subtle elements of feminism and a restrained sense of social activism at work in her writings. However, other commentators have criticized these works for their examination of social issues, an arena that some have considered beyond the scope of Kumin's typical range. These reviewers have asserted that when Kumin engages such themes, she often compromises her verse by slipping into blatant metaphor, dull prosaic language, and simplistic summation. A majority of critics have contended that Kumin's poetry is far more accomplished than her prose works, although the rustic themes of her fiction have attracted favorable attention. Despite her prolific body of work and numerous literary honors, critics have curiously noted the lack of scholarly interest in Kumin's writings.
Follow the Fall [illustrations by Artur Marokvia] (juvenilia) 1961
Halfway (poetry) 1961
Mittens in May [illustrations by Elliott Gilbert] (juvenilia) 1962
Eggs of Things [with Anne Sexton; illustrations by Leonard Shortall] (juvenilia) 1963
More Eggs of Things [with Anne Sexton; illustrations by Leonard Shortall] (juvenilia) 1964
The Privilege (poetry) 1965
Through Dooms of Love (novel) 1965
The Passions of Uxport (novel) 1968
The Wonderful Babies of 1809 and Other Years [illustrations by Carl Rose] (juvenilia) 1968
The Nightmare Factory (poetry) 1970
The Abduction (novel) 1971
Joey and the Birthday Present [with Anne Sexton; illustrations by Evaline Ness] (juvenilia) 1971
Up Country: Poems of New England (poetry) 1972
The Designated Heir (novel) 1974
House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate (poetry) 1975
The Wizard's Tears [with Anne Sexton; illustrations by Evaline Ness] (juvenilia) 1975
The Retrieval System (poetry) 1978
To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (essays) 1979
Our Ground Time...
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SOURCE: Schulman, Grace. Review of The Long Approach, by Maxine Kumin. Commonweal 112, no. 21 (29 November 1985): 683-84.
[In the following review, Schulman comments on the themes and style of The Long Approach.]
Maxine Kumin's poetry is, at its center, profoundly human. Throughout her work, she has displayed a tough-minded, unsentimental compassion for the patient animals she knows well; she has portrayed men and women with generous regard, and also with an acute eye for common virtues and moral aspirations.
These qualities, as well as her close identification with the land, the farm, and natural life, enable her, in The Long Approach, to deal with subjects that are difficult at best, which she treats with directness, and with a stark bareness of utterance: nuclear war; ungoverned technological advances; senseless modern combat.
This is an important book. It succeeds because the author writes beautifully of her rich full world that is in imminent danger. “Getting Through,” for example, contains these lines:
Snow falls on the pregnant mares, is followed by a thaw, and then refreezes so that everywhere their hill upheaves into a glass mountain. The horses skid, stiff-legged, correct position, break through the crust and stand around disconsolate lipping wisps of hay.
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SOURCE: Dieter, William. Review of In Deep: Country Essays, by Maxine Kumin. Smithsonian 18, no. 8 (November 1987): 265-66.
[In the following review, Dieter praises Kumin's exploration of the rural experience in In Deep: Country Essays.]
How long has it been since you were invited to a farm home in the New Hampshire hills? Quite some time, I'll bet. It was for me. My own homeplace, half a century, half a continent away, has long since gone back to wind and grass and so I was pleased to accept Maxine Kumin's invitation, which will come to you as it did to me, in the form of a handful of essays all nicely stanchioned between the covers of this, [In Deep: Country Essays,] her 15th book.
Kumin and her husband managed to do what the rest of us only threaten—get away to the country. They found the south slope of a wooded hill and cleared a field or two, put up some fence (“Making fences presupposes not only pastures but a storehouse of diligence”), bought several horses, planted a few seeds. Now they're enjoying a stubborn serendipity at the end of a steep and rutted lane, having traded “easy access for solitary splendor.” Maxine still writes, of course, still travels and teaches out there in the world, wisely remembering John Donne's admonition that none of us is an island.
Be advised, however, that this is not your gentlemanly, pseudoscientific,...
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SOURCE: Padnos, Peg. Review of In Deep: Country Essays, by Maxine Kumin. Wilson Library Bulletin 62, no. 3 (November 1987): 84.
[In the following review, Padnos outlines the major themes of In Deep: Country Essays, focusing on Kumin's daily routine and her relationship with her horses.]
As Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin writes, her husband proclaims they're “in too deep,” what with running a hill farm in New Hampshire (“fourteen acres of forage fields”) complete with fences to mend, six horses to tend, sugar maples to tap, roofs to shovel in winter, meat to raise for the table. … But the payoff is evident as this collection [In Deep: Country Essays] shows: such rigorous living feeds the author's imagination, makes her marvelous poetic voice ever stronger, gives meaning and metaphor to her life as each year plays out.
Divided into four sections that follow the seasons, the book celebrates, by turns, the joys of birdwatching, mushroom gathering, and baking fragrant breads and assembling hearty soups, among other country pleasures. Satisfying, to be sure, but these merely orbit around the sun and center of Kumin's life: the “large and redolent” occupants of the hill barn, her beloved horses. She confesses to hours spent “hanging over the fence” in summer, watching their ballet, “endless, repetitious, aesthetically spectacular,”...
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SOURCE: Miller, David. “Out Far and In Deep.” Sewanee Review 96, no. 4 (fall 1988): 684-87.
[In the following excerpt, Miller offers a positive assessment of In Deep: Country Essays.]
Nature writing is essential, if only to remind us that there may still exist what Thoreau, perched on Mt. Ktaadn in Maine, called “the unhandselled globe”—a wonderful phrase Maxine Kumin borrows for a chapter title. The better sort of nature book occasionally diverts us from rustic delight and ecological exhortation deep into the unhandselled darkness for a lesson in otherness. Ktaadn, Thoreau wrote, was beautiful, but also “savage and awful,” a creation of “Chaos and Old Night” as alien as “some star's surface” yet of the same material as our bodies. In terror he exclaimed: “Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in Nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it. … Who are we? Where are we?” Now there's the right mood for starting a book about nature.
Maxine Kumin's In Deep, a gathering of previously published country essays, is grouped into four seasons and is focused on her New England farm. Most frequently she writes—with real feeling and with irony—about her relationship with her horses. “It's madness,” she complains one icy morning, “this glut of critters to look after and feed, but it is a glut of shared needs.” She has tethered...
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SOURCE: Christophersen, Bill. Review of In Deep: Country Essays, by Maxine Kumin. Prairie Schooner 63, no. 4 (winter 1989): 131-33.
[In the following review, Christophersen contrasts In Deep: Country Essays with Wendell Berry's Home Economics, highlighting the respective strengths and weaknesses of each.]
Wendell Berry and Maxine Kumin both operate small farms and write poems, stories, novels, and essays that embrace rural life. Now each has published another volume of essays elaborating this attachment. While Berry's Home Economics wrestles with ecological, social, and philosophical questions concerning (among other things) the small farmer's demise, Kumin's In Deep dotes on the minute particulars of horse rearing, moreling, jack breeding, and fence building.
Most of the fourteen pieces that constitute Home Economics are essays in the original (French) sense of the word—testing grounds for ideas. In “Getting Along with Nature,” Berry charts a middle path between the industrialists, who would consume nature, and the environmentalists, who would seal off what's left of it. Balancing anecdote with analysis, he argues that to regard either nature or civilization as an escape from the other is to subscribe to an “opposition that threatens to destroy them both.” “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground” walks an equally fine line,...
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SOURCE: Hunt, Leslie. “Hewing Our Creative Time.” Belles Lettres 4, no. 2 (winter 1989): 21.
[In the following review, Hunt compares In Deep: Country Essays to Brenda Chamberlain's Tide-Race, emphasizing their thematic similarities.]
What is waiting on the other side? Maybe nothing special, maybe only more of the same, dear enough for this watcher. But the quest is real. To get there you have to go in deep.” This ending to Maxine Kumin's first essay of the collection In Deep serves as a point of departure for our quest into her life in the country, while her question and response echo the voice of Brenda Chamberlain in Tide-Race. Chamberlain charts her life on a remote, sparsely populated island off the coast of North Wales, whose inhabitants coexist uneasily with each other and with the sea. For both writers, the journeys they describe are at once a movement outward to discover the essential rhythms of the natural world and inward to find each writer's place and purpose in this scheme.
In part because her geographical isolation is more profound than Kumin's, Chamberlain is more completely and constantly absorbed in the business of daily survival. Haunting and graceful, her writing expresses her sustaining bond to the natural world. Weaving together physical description, legend, and poetry, she evokes the very soul of the island—its weather, its...
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SOURCE: George, Diana Hume. Review of Nurture, by Maxine Kumin. Georgia Review 43, no. 2 (summer 1989): 425-26.
[In the following review, George highlights the environmental themes in Nurture, noting a movement in Kumin's verse toward global and ecological issues.]
In Nurture Maxine Kumin continues to explore many of the themes that for decades have compellingly informed her poetry, fiction, and meditative essays: the clear and present delights of the natural world and our connections with it as creatures who know we are part of it; our responsibility toward more fragile forms of life on the planet we share; the necessity of endurance in the face of odds we cannot finally beat; the salvaging of human care and love from the wreckage of time and loss; the significance of legacy and continuity in a world of mortal mutability.
She means to make us ponder lovingly the webs of relationship that bind us to fates we both control and, ultimately, share. Stubborn celebration is the tone: she bids us “rejoice to be circumpolar, all of us / on all fours obeying the laws of migration” (“With the Caribou”). She sees the parallels between us and her dog when he carries frogs from place to place in his mouth, “doing what he knows how to do / and we too, taking and letting go, / that same story” (“Custodian”).
Increasingly hers is a poetry I would...
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SOURCE: Cotter, James Finn. “Poetry Travels.” Hudson Review 42, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 520-21.
[In the following excerpt, Cotter argues that survival is the primary theme of the poems in Nurture.]
Maxine Kumin in Nurture, her eighth collection of poetry, describes a return to ancestral Austria in “On Reading an Old Baedeker in Schloss Leopoldskron” and “The Festung, Salzburg.” She wonders if she will meet some distant and unrecognized relative there, a survivor of the Anschluss. Survivors populate this poet's work. Caribou, seals, turtles, penguins and other animals struggle to survive. “I am thankful for what's left that's wild,” Kumin reflects in “Distance,” and lists coydogs, hoot owls, moose, and bears. As she mows with her Tuff-Cut power motor on her birthday, she echoes Hopkins' line: “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” In “Homage to Binsey Populars,” she directly alludes to Hopkins' pain at trees being cut down. If she is to be reincarnated, the poet says in “Reviewing the Summer and Winter Calendar of the Next Life,” she would prefer to be a barn swallow, grosbeak, or wild turkey, but not a weasel. She is drawn to dramas of animal rescue, Kumin states in the title poem, even if she seems to suffer, as “the critic proclaims, / from an overabundance of maternal genes.” This mothering instinct is best represented by “Sleeping with Animals,” an...
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SOURCE: Cole, Henri. Review of Nurture, by Maxine Kumin. Poetry 156, no. 1 (April 1990): 48-50.
[In the following review, Cole offers a positive assessment of Nurture, praising Kumin's “affectionately modest demeanor.”]
Maxine Kumin is a senator for man and beast and earth. She speaks for the caribou, the manatee, the orca, the arctic fox, the Aleutian goose, the trumpeter swan, the dusky seaside sparrow, the broodmare, the grizzly bear, the Scotch Highland heifer, and all this only to begin a list, for there are also three generations of kin to consider and a plot of land to be worked. Please let me not be counted among those critics who devalue her “overabundance of maternal genes.” In a world where dolphins are sacrificed daily for our light lunches of tuna fish salad, should there not be one among us to take up their cause?
Fifteen years ago a classmate in college introduced me to Maxine Kumin's poetry. He was a philosophy student from Tidewater, Virginia, who owned all the volumes of Maxine Kumin, John Ashbery, and little else. An unlikely pair, one might think. Yet tossed in the Cuisinart, perhaps the blended result would yield Emerson, another of my friend's favorites. In any case, since we are all, as writers, children of Emerson, and Maxine Kumin's broadest good sense is immediately at hand in her latest volume of poetry, Nurture, her ninth, let me...
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SOURCE: George, Diana Hume. “Creature Comforts.” Women's Review of Books 9, no. 8 (May 1992): 17.
[In the following review, George explores the major themes of Looking for Luck, situating them in the context of Kumin's career.]
With Looking for Luck, her tenth volume of poetry, Maxine Kumin joins the Norton stable of writers. I'm usually uncomfortable with that term, but for Kumin, the horsewoman-poet of American letters, it's appropriate. For decades she has written about the connections between humanity and the rest of the folk who inhabit the world. In Looking for Luck she continues this and other themes—death and loss, family and legacy, how to survive devastation and celebrate life.
The poems here are often about the intervention of imagination in the natural world. The opening, “Credo,” announces Kumin's belief in magic—in the “rights of animals to leap out of our skins,” as in an Indian legend in which suddenly “there was a bear where the boy had been.” The epilogue, “Rendezvous,” comes full circle to magic again, this time as a renewed, reclothed eros. Evoking a legend that says a male bear can feel shame, she writes that a woman encountering one is advised to remove her clothes, which will scare him away. But in Kumin's version the woman slips off her clothes while the bear removes his teeth. His pelt falls to the ground as a...
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SOURCE: Baker, David. “Ecstasy and Irony.” Poetry 161, no. 2 (November 1992): 99-113.
[In the following excerpt, Baker praises Kumin's achievement in Looking for Luck, focusing on the rhetorical schemes and aesthetics of simplicity that inform her poetry.]
Maxine Kumin is, and for a long time has been, one of our most widely praised poets. Her tenth collection of poems, Looking for Luck, is representative of her accomplishment, style, and vision. She writes like a lot of poets these days; or, more likely, many try to write like her. Her poems are never qualified by anything less than maturity, grace, and sureness of touch. It's as if her strong, good poems were found rather than composed. As if. Altogether appropriate for an ars poetica is Kumin's favorite figure of the horse, as companion and model:
Whenever I caught him down in the stall, I'd approach. At first he jumped up the instant he heard me slide the bolt. Then I could get the door open while he stayed lying down, and I'd go in on my hands and knees and crawl over to him so that I wouldn't appear so threatening. It took six or eight months before I could simply walk in and sit with him, but I needed that kind of trust.
I kept him on a long rein to encourage him to stretch out his neck and back. I danced with him over ten or fifteen acres of fields with a lot of flowing from one transition...
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SOURCE: Wilhelmus, Tom. “Ranches of Isolation.” Hudson Review 48, no. 1 (spring 1995): 145-52.
[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus evaluates Women, Animals, and Vegetables in terms of the relationship between isolation and the creative process.]
[Maxine] Kumin's new book Women, Animals, and Vegetables: Essays and Stories creates a convincing portrait of a woman who seems to have gone Yeats one better, creating perfection of the work as well as the life, or at the very least has demonstrated how the two in rare instances may coincide. Having moved twenty years ago from suburban Boston to a New Hampshire farm, for reasons detailed in the essay “Long Road to an Upland Farm,” she has also demonstrated how isolation itself and an attentive reflection on the tasks of everyday life, are conducive to the creative process, an issue discussed in another essay entitled “Menial Labor and the Muse.”
For people who do not care about how art and life are related or who are likely to dispute the comforts of horses, dogs, jam, mushrooms, and country life in general, this book may seem to contain a bit too much granola or be a bit too recondite and tame. Nonetheless, the care Kumin brings to the work would grace any profession, and the details, descriptions, and advice regarding such things as the care, feeding, training, breeding, and parturition of horses, the raising of...
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SOURCE: Reedy, Penelope. Review of Women, Animals, and Vegetables, by Maxine Kumin. Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 4 (fall 1996): 599-600.
[In the following review, Reedy examines the eastern American biases and upper-class assumptions that she finds in Women, Animals, and Vegetables.]
Maxine Kumin writes her stories and essays [in Women, Animals, and Vegetables] from the perspective of a well-heeled minor eastern American aristocrat; she is a “gentleman farmer” in all aspects of the term. As with most vocal animal rights activists, funding for her very expensive animal projects, especially horses, obviously comes from sources other than the piece of land that she inhabits, and she is quick to criticize animal owners who do not share her economic advantages, and therefore her philosophy. Her prose is meticulously politically correct, and from my perspective, that is, one who has butchered hundreds of chickens via ax and feels quite naturally balanced about it, she's a bit too “gushy.”
In “Have Saddle, Will Travel,” Kumin is “cursing absentee animal ownership” in the “depleted, if not dead” Texas landscape when she and an acquaintance rescue a stuck llama. As a fourth-generation western American, I found myself resenting these assumptions about people and circumstances she has only observed superficially while on a lecture/reading tour. Westerners have...
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SOURCE: McDowell, Robert. “Poetry Chronicle.” Hudson Review 50, no. 1 (spring 1997): 137-38.
[In the following excerpt, McDowell considers the honest intimacy of Connecting the Dots.]
Maxine Kumin's eleventh book of poetry, Connecting the Dots, will do nothing to diminish her considerable reputation. Here is a remarkable journey. The most talented survivor of the generation of self-destructive poets (Berryman, Jarrell, Lowell, Plath, Sexton), Kumin has lived long enough, and written well enough, to achieve that most elusive, coveted prize: composing one's best poems in the latter stage of one's life. She has written wiser, more generous, and mature poems than any of her long-departed peers. Especially in the poems of the last ten years, Kumin has grown into the first rank of American poets.
In this new volume, her intelligence, compassion, liveliness, and skill are everywhere apparent. Personal moments in the poet's life expand to universal experience. This is so in the epistolary sequence to her late mother, the poem to her daughter working in Bosnia; it is true in the intriguing rhymes of “The Height of the Season,” in the perfect snapshot, “After the Heat Wave,” and in the compact, poignant “Vignette” (a must-read for parents and children contending with Attention Deficit Disorder); it is there, too, in “Chores,” a love poem about working together:...
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SOURCE: Buttel, Robert. “Sentimental Journey.” American Book Review 18, no. 4 (May-June 1997): 25.
[In the following review, Buttel examines the themes, tone, and structure of Connecting the Dots.]
In this eleventh collection of her poems, [Connecting the Dots] Maxine Kumin continues in a vein that has become familiar to her readers. These poems do not bristle with avant garde initiatives (nor should we require them to). The satisfactions come, rather, from attending to the accounts of a humane and intelligent observer whose love for children, family members, dogs, bears, and horses is boundless. Her heart quickens for the afflicted, the lost, and those victimized by hate and violence. At the same time, she admires skill, expertise, and order, as in the performance of music, the making of jam, and the building of the bridge at Niagara Falls in 1848—or, as indicated in the title poem of this volume, the ability to connect the dots, to organize the details of everyday existence, and, further, by implication, to take responsibility in the course of time and change for shaping one's life. Kumin reveals much about herself without being searingly confessional. She has cultivated a colloquial ease that fits smoothly into loosely formal patterns. Parallel to this stylistic interweaving, and one of the chief distinguishing marks of her verse, is the juxtaposing of seemingly trivial and anecdotal...
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SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. Review of Connecting the Dots, by Maxine Kumin. Georgia Review 51, no. 2 (summer 1997): 340-44.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen commends the spirit of Connecting the Dots, praising Kumin's rejuvenation and urgency in such familiar themes as nature, survival, and memory.]
Maxine Kumin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973. She served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1981, and in 1995 she became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Connecting the Dots is her eleventh collection of poetry. The book's dust jacket suggests that she “expands on themes that have engaged her most strongly,” but I would suggest that, though this is certainly true, there's more than expansion going on. There's a kind of rejuvenation. These poems have the energy and urgency of youth; they are active more than reflective, leaving the reflection to take place after the fact, in the mind of the reader. Even memory seems to reside very close to the surface in this new collection.
Kumin's poems have always been toughly clearsighted; nature, for her, is wonderfully complicated and complicating, never romanticized. And humanity is seen as part of nature. Connecting the Dots opens with a crown of sonnets called “Letters,” placing the emphasis on the human. The letters are, if anything, silent missives written to a...
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SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard, “Natural Virtues.” New York Times Book Review (3 August 1997): 10.
[In the following review, Tillinghast surveys Selected Poems, 1960-1990, assessing Kumin's contributions to “nature” poetry.]
This selection of work [Selected Poems, 1960-1990] by Maxine Kumin from a 30-year writing career will be a welcome addition to any poetry library. Her poems bracingly remind us of several enduring virtues valued by anyone who reads verse for pleasure. First, like today's most vital and interesting poets, Kumin is neither a full-time “formalist” nor a practitioner of the monotonous free-verse “plain style” many of her contemporaries have been stuck in since the 1960's. She has the versatility to build an orderly, measured structure in rhyme and meter, or to adopt the easier virtues of free verse for a more transient, informal effect when she chooses to do so.
Second, her poems are about something. They often tell stories, and many of those serve the function of preserving family history. It's a family history worth preserving, involving a familiar journey to the New World from turn-of-the-century Europe. Leafing through an old Baedeker, the poet comments:
One of my grandfathers is in here somewhere living in three rooms over his tailor shop on the Judengasse in Salzburg or Prague, stitching up...
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SOURCE: Howard, Ben. Review of Connecting the Dots, by Maxine Kumin. Poetry 172, no. 3 (June 1998): 165-68.
[In the following review, Howard attributes the thematic coherence and “eclectic curiosity” of Connecting the Dots and Selected Poems to Kumin's “remarkable” consistency with the themes, techniques, and ironic perspectives that distinguish her career.]
“Poetry is like farming,” writes Maxine Kumin. “It's / a calling, it needs constancy, / the deep woods drumming of the grouse, / and long life. …” Kumin's analogy will not suit every poet, but for the former Poet Laureate of New Hampshire, the figure could hardly be more apt. By her own description a “restless Jewish agnostic,” Kumin long ago found a home in the natural world and a secular calling in the literary arts. And in a career spanning more than three decades, she has shown not only constancy but remarkable consistency. 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 sceptical, 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 Selected Poems...
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SOURCE: St. Andrews, B. A. Review of Selected Poems, 1960-1990, by Maxine Kumin. World Literature Today 72, no. 3 (summer 1998): 623.
[In the following review, St. Andrews assesses Selected Poems within the context of Kumin's career.]
Back in the good old days when Maxine Kumin won the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country (1973), being a nature poet was almost to be expected for females. In fact, nature imagery has served not only Emily Dickinson but every other modern poet from Robinson Jeffers to Mary Oliver. Yet Kumin was, even back then, more than the usual categorical imperatives: New England farmer, naturalist, Jewish-American, woman poet.
To put this simply, Maxine Kumin is and has long been a writer's writer, composing not only a dozen books of poetry (the most recent of which is Connecting the Dots, 1997) but also four novels and a new prose collection. Women, Animals, and Vegetables. The Pulitzer and other honors including the Aiken/Taylor Award for Modern Poetry attest to the fact that Kumin has added a dimension to the relationship between humans and creatures: some precision, some unexpected juxtapositions, some honed edge to the usual animistic reverence.
For one thing, her poems counterpointed soil and spirit in oddly vivid and informing phrases. In her poem to a root cellar (selected from House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate)...
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SOURCE: Barrington, Judith. “Charmed Life.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 7 (April 2001): 6.
[In the following positive review, Barrington examines the appeal of Always Beginning and Inside the Halo and Beyond.]
I recently had the pleasure of re-reading Virginia Woolf's essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” Nowadays, it is unfashionable to tell anyone how they “should” do anything, but Woolf had no such inhibitions. As she pointed out, readers do sometimes miss the delicious heart of a book because they are looking for the wrong thing.
Woolf advocates taking from each genre “what it is right that each should give us.” But, she says, “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices.” Of memoirs and diaries, both of which she wrote, there is no word, although these genres certainly have their share of misguided readers.
People sometimes assume that making literature out of personal writing is easy. While they might be in awe of a poet's language or a novelist's imagination, they believe the journal or memoir to be essentially similar to their own private writings, and read only for juicy personal details, particularly when the writing is by someone they have long...
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Gwynn, R. S. Review of Always Beginning: Essays on Life in Poetry, by Maxine Kumin. Hudson Review 54, no. 2 (summer 2001): 341-42.
Gwynn assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Always Beginning: Essays on Life in Poetry.
Howe, Florence. “Only Connect.” Women's Review of Books 14, no. 1 (October 1996): 15-17.
In the following favorable review of Connecting the Dots, Howe contrasts the poetry of Kumin and Shirley Kaufman.
Maso, Carole. Review of The Long Approach, by Maxine Kumin. Women's Review of Books 4, no. 2 (November 1986): 19.
Maso offers a thematic and stylistic overview of The Long Approach.
Additional coverage of Kumin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Nature Writers, Vol. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 21, 69; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 13, 28; Contemporary Poets; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Exploring...
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