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.
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.
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.
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."