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.