Maxine Kumin Kumin, Maxine - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Maxine Kumin 1925–

(Full name Maxine Winokur Kumin) American poet, novelist, short fiction writer, essayist, and author of children's books.

Kumin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose verse often portrays the simple workings of day-to-day life at her Warner, New Hampshire, farm. Animals, children, the seasons, and neighbors are recurring subjects. Often classified as a transcendentalist, Kumin probes the human relationship to nature and celebrates the redemptive qual ities of the natural world. Her writing has been compared to that of her late close friend, Anne Sexton, and in some aspects to the work of Sylvia Plath. Like Sexton, Kumin writes personal poems that focus on the inner lives of her characters. Unlike Sexton or Plath, however, she does not dwell on despair; thus, she is known for her survival poems.

Biographical Information

Kumin was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She earned a B.A. and an M.A. from Radcliffe College in 1946 and 1948 respectively, and married Victor Kumin in 1946. While awaiting the birth of her third child, she began to write children's stories. Her writing interests evolved to include poetry, novels, short fiction, and essays. She found encouragement for her writing at the Boston Center for Adult Education, where she met and befriended poet Anne Sexton. Kumin and Sexton's friendship was important to both women's poetry. The former possessed a technical ability honed from study; the latter wrote with a raw voice that was brilliantly fresh. They phoned each other daily, often writing a poem after ending the phone call. Each call was another session in their own continual workshopping. In fact, Sexton titled Kumin's Up Country: Poems of New England, and Kumin titled Sexton's Transformations. Kumin has received the most acclaim for her poetry, winning the Lowell Mason Palmer Award in 1960, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1966, and ultimately, the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country in 1973. Since 1958, she has served many distinguished posts as teacher, lecturer, and visiting fellow or artist; she was a consultant to the Library of Congress from 1981 to 1982. She continues to live on her farm in New Hampshire, tending to her horses and gardens.

Major Works

Halfway, her first collection of verse, was published in 1961 when Kumin was thirty-six and deals with topics she

has explored throughout her career: religious and cultural identity; the tenuousness of human life; loss or the threat of loss; and the human in relation to nature. Lessons learned in girlhood are always present in Kumin's work. The poet also searches for order in her poetry; she stated in an interview with Martha George Meek that "… there is an order to be discovered—that's very often true in the natural world—but there is also an order that a human can impose on the chaos of his emotions and the chaos of events. That's what writing poetry is all about." Highly personal material, another hallmark of Kumin's work, comes to life in The Privilege. The ties and separations inherent in families, especially "the privilege" of being a member of a family, are explored. In some of the poems of Up Country Kumin adopts the persona of a male hermit to particularize the universal solitude of man in nature. She continues in this vein with House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate. This volume's title, which originated from a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, reflects Kumin's style of naming things in nature that are often overlooked. For her fastidious naming Kumin has been compared to Henry David Thoreau. Another volume that exhibits thoughtful naming is The Retrieval System, which was written as a memorial to Anne Sexton, who killed herself in 1974. Like The Retrieval System, The Long Approach and Looking for Luck reflect Kumin's experience of aging as well as her steadfast hope for chance encounters with the beneficence of all living things. Some of Kumin's pastoral themes in Nurture shift into the political realm: the earth and its inhabitants should be "nurtured," not endangered.

Critical Reception

Kumin's poetry has generally been favorably reviewed since her first book of verse appeared. Critics have noted that the poet's best poems in The Privilege are those that evoke her own childhood. In a review of Up Country in the 1973 Spring-Summer issue of Parnassus, Ralph J. Mills quoted John Ciardi: "[Kumin] teaches me, by example, to use my own éyes. 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." Similarly, The Long Approach has been praised for Kumin's customary success in depicting the details of New England life. However, some of the poems in that volume and in Nurture have been criticized for venturing programmatically into social issues, an arena considered by some too large for Kumin's private voice. It is at such times that many critics feel she slips into blatant metaphor and prosaic lines of summation. But poet and reviewer Diane Wakoski defended Kumin as "best at… [m]aking images, wonderful images, that turn into big metaphors. Playing with dualities, and manipulating everyday language so that it works with complexity of idea and pattern."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

Looking for Luck 1992

Connecting the Dots 1996

Other Major Works

Sebastian and the Dragon (juvenilia) 1960

Follow the Fall (juvenilia) 1961

Spring Things (juvenilia) 1961

A Summer Story (juvenilia) 1961

A Winter Friend (juvenilia) 1961

Mittens in May (juvenilia) 1962

No One Writes a Letter to the Snail (juvenilia) 1962

Archibald the Traveling Poodle (juvenilia) 1963

Eggs of Things [with Anne Sexton] (juvenilia) 1963

The Beach Before Breakfast (juvenilia) 1964

More Eggs of Things [with Anne Sexton] (juvenilia) 1964

Speedy Deigs Downside Up (juvenilia) 1964

Through Dooms of Love (novel) 1965; published in England as A Daughter and Her Loves 1965

Paul Bunyan (juvenilia) 1966

Faraway Farm (juvenilia) 1967

The Passions of Uxport (novel) 1968

The Wonderful Babies of 1809 and Other Years (juvenilia) 1968

When Grandmother Was Young (juvenilia) 1969

When Mother Was Young (juvenilia) 1970

The Abduction (novel) 1971

Joey and the Birthday Present [with Anne Sexton] (juvenilia) 1971

When Great-Grandmother Was Young (juvenilia) 1971

The Designated Heir (novel) 1974

The Wizard's Tears [with Anne Sexton] (juvenilia) 1975

What Color Is Caesar? (juvenilia) 1978

To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living (essays) 1980

Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings? (short fiction) 1982

The Microscope (juvenilia) 1984

In Deep: Country Essays (essays) 1987

Women, Animals, and Vegetables (essays and short stories) 1994

William Dickey (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Revelations and Homilies," in Poetry, Vol. XCIX, No. 2, November, 1961, pp. 124-29.

[Dickey was an American educator and poet who served as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, 1966-1968. In the following review of Halfway, he comments that "Kumin is more successful in personal poems than in those which attempt public stances."]

[Maxine Kumin] defines her intention and accomplishment in a few lines from "The Moment Clearly":

Write, saying this much clearly:
Nearly all, this is nearly all,
The small sounds of growing, the impress
Of unarrested time, raising

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Dabney Stuart (essay date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Weights and Measures," in Shenandoah, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter, 1966, pp. 91-102.

[Stuart is an American educator and poet, and has served as poetry editor and eventually editor-in-chief of Shenandoah since 1976. Below, he admires Kumin's control of her subject matter, the domain of childhood, in The Privilege.]

[T]he title of Mrs. Kumin's collection, The Privilege, [is taken] from one of Joseph Conrad's letters. The passage she cites closes, "One must drag the ball and chain of one's selfhood to the end. It is the price one pays for the devilish and divine privilege of thought."

For Mrs. Kumin, as the Conrad quote implies, the...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Robert Wallace (essay date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Down from the Forked Hill Unsullied," in Poetry, Vol. CVIII, No. 2, May, 1966, pp. 121-24.

[Wallace is an American educator and poet. In the following excerpt, he lauds The Privilege for its direct language.]

Maxine Kumin's new poems [in The Privilege] are superb. She hardly makes a mistake. Her language always catches the world into the poem, is deliciously prosy, direct, surprising—"fog thick as terry cloth"—as are her strategies, which permit beginning a poem:

The symbol inside this poem is my father's feet
which, after fifty years of standing behind
the counter waiting on...

(The entire section is 331 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "One for Life, One for Death," in The New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1972, pp. 7, 14.

[Oates is a prolific American educator, author, and critic. In the review below, she compares Up Country to Sylvia Plath's Winter Trees, remarking on the similarities and differences between the poets' writings and concluding that "one book affirms life; the other affirms death."]

Read together, these two excellent books cause us to ask ourselves one of the riddles of life: Why is the experience of one human being so vastly different from that of another? Why, in two sensitive, intelligent, gifted women poets should the energies of art be so differently...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Victor Howes (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Up Country, in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 65, No. 79, February 28, 1973, p. 9.

[In the following review, Howes praises the "country ways" of Up Country.]

Maxine Kumin is a poet attuned to country ways. She is heir to a tradition of pastoral poetry that reaches back through Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy all the way to its rural beginnings in Theocritus. Nature poetry, she comes to tell us, is alive and well and sinking its taproots in New Hampshire soil.

Whether she writes of a woodlot in winter, tadpoles hatching in the spring, of berrypicking or a night visit from a mosquito, she brings to her page what Wordsworth...

(The entire section is 278 words.)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Up Country, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1973, pp. 211-24.

[Mills is an American poet who has written several critical studies on contemporary poets. In the following excerpt, he congratulates Kumin for her "marvelously etched, intricately textured pictures" of New England in Up Country.]

Maxine Kumin is like [Denise Levertov,] a poet of the trained eye and the exact word, though without the visionary proclivities and the desire for new sonic and organic forms which Denise Levertov seeks. The poems of Up Country are selected from several sources, including previous books of Mrs. Kumin's, and compose a series of...

(The entire section is 853 words.)

Maxine Kumin with Anne Sexton and Elaine Showalter and Carol Smith (interview date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: In a conversation on April 15, 1974, in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 4, 1976, pp. 115-36.

[In the following interview with Showalter and Smith, Kumin and poet Anne Sexton discuss their twenty-year-old friendship and its influence on their poetry.]

Max and I
Two immoderate sisters,
Two immoderate writers,
Two burdeners,
Made a pact,
To beat death down with a stick.
To take over.
Anne Sexton, "The Death Baby"

This conversation between four women is about the friendship of Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, a...

(The entire section is 4713 words.)

Maxine Kumin with Martha George Meek (interview date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 317-27.

[In the following interview, Kumin discusses her poetry. She declares that "in the process of writing, as you marshal your arguments, as you marshal your metaphors really, as you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form, the orderthe marvelous informing order emerges from it, and it'sI suppose, in a sense, it's in the nature of a religious experience."]

Our formal subject is poetry as a principle of order in life, when oneself and the world are otherwise chaotic. As we discuss that difficult point where the art and the life of an artist coincide,...

(The entire section is 4850 words.)

Margaret Burns Ferrari (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, in America, Vol. 134, No. 8, February 28, 1976, p. 165.

[Below, Ferrari praises House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate for its "finely crafted structures" and "powerful, personal images."]

Maxine Kumin won the Pulitzer Prize for her poems in Up Country in 1973. House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, her newest collection, will not disappoint those who enjoy solid poetry that values life despite all its pain.

Two things seem immediately important: her dedication to her personal and poetic comrade, Anne Sexton, who took her own life in 1974, and her opening quotation from Rilke: "It may be as...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

Maxine Kumin with students (interview date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Country Living, The University of Michigan Press, 1979, pp. 35-46.

[In the following interview conducted by high school students at Interlochen Arts Academy, Kumin answers questions about her work, in particular, her methods of writing. She also provides some advice for future writers.]

Is everyday life experience the chief influence upon your poetry?
I would say that the distillation of everyday life experiences is exactly what I am trying to particularize and order in poetry....

(The entire section is 3294 words.)

Maxine Kumin (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kumin on Kumin: The Tribal Poems," in To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living, The University of Michigan Press, 1979, pp. 106-23.

[In the essay below, written in 1977, Kumin surveys her "tribal poems" or "poems of kinship and parenting" and the examines the recurrent theme of parent-child separation.]

A terrible ego, as rife among poets as roundworm in the barnyard, had caused all of us represented in this collection of essays by women writers to agree to examine critically some aspect of our own work. Some will argue that we leap to do so because we are women and only recently in the history of American letters has the woman writer...

(The entire section is 4581 words.)

Sybil P. Estess (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Past Halfway: The Retrieval System, by Maxine Kumin," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 99-109.

[Estess is an American poet and critic. In the following essay, she analyzes the ways in which Kumin faces loss in The Retrieval System.]

The Retrieval System, Maxine Kumin's sixth book of poetry, is about surviving loss. It confirms things many of us already knew about its author, a just-past-middle-age, increasingly refined, non-suicidal poet. The main value in both her life and her poetry is preservation. That which is retrieved in her system may be the simple life of fruits and vegetables or it may be something in her unconscious....

(The entire section is 3348 words.)

Diane Wakoski (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Earth Mother, Earth Daughter," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 1, October, 1989, pp. 20-1.

[Wakoski is an American educator and poet. In the following review of Nurture, Wakoski—while stating that "Kumin's vision is sometimes limited"—admires the poet's Earth poetry, especially "the wonderful images, that turn into big metaphors."]

If you had told me fifteen years ago that today I would assess Maxine Kumin as one of the ten best contemporary American poets, I probably would have smiled sceptically. However, my esteem for her work has continued to grow since publication of The Retrieval System (1978), work which seems to ground...

(The entire section is 1194 words.)

Peter Harris (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle: Hunger, Hope, and Nurture: Poetry from Michael Ryan, the Chinese Democratic Movement, and Maxine Kumin," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 455-77.

[In the following excerpt, Harris commends Kumin's intimate and tender poems in Nurture. He states that with this volume the poet is seeking "atonement."]

Maxine Kumin labors under no immediate threat of being silenced for political reasons. But this has not tempted her to complacency. She has not had to look far in the modern world to discover ample cause for concern, ample provocation to resist evil and stupidity. In Nurture, Kumin focuses more...

(The entire section is 2138 words.)

Diana Hume George (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Keeping Our Working Distance': Maxine Kumin's Poetry of Loss and Survival," in Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity, edited by Anne M. Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen, University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 314-38.

[In the following essay, George examines how Kumin confronts the loss of friends and family and her own mortality in her later poetry.]

To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world's night utters the holy.

—Martin Heidegger

A decade ago I began a...

(The entire section is 7390 words.)

Publishers Weekly (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Connecting the Dots, in Publishers Weekly, June 3, 1996, p. 73.

[Below, the reviewer notes themes similar to those in Kumin's previous work, in particular examining relationships among people, animals and nature; and "observing the moral responsibility of daily life."]

The process referred to in the title—and final—poem of Kumin's 11th collection [Connecting the Dots] is the ability to take care of one's businesses, personal and metaphysical. Here, the poet is aware that her grown children, on their visits home, gently assess her ability in this regard. Kumin is indeed still taking care of the same business that has absorbed her...

(The entire section is 292 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Gearhart, Jean B. "Courage to Survive—Maxine Kumin." Pembroke Magazine, No. 20 (1988): 272-75.

A brief overview of Kumin's life and work.

Gould, Jean. "Anne Sexton-Maxine Kumin." In Modern American Women Poets, pp. 151-75. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984.

Relates Kumin's career and life only by way of her friendship with Anne Sexton.

(The entire section is 53 words.)


(Poetry Criticism)

George, Diana Hume. "Itinerary of an Obsession: Maxine Kumin's Poems to Anne Sexton." In Original Essays on the Poetry of Anne Sexton, pp. 243-266. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1988.

Examines five of Kumin's poems to illustrate that after Anne Sexton's death, Kumin adopted some of the strengths of Sexton's poetic voice.

Kumin, Maxine. To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living, pp. 68-155. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1979.

A compilation by Kumin containing personal interviews, essays, and lectures about poetry.


(The entire section is 177 words.)