Maxine Kumin Kumin, Maxine (Winokur) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maxine (Winokur) Kumin 1925–

American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and author of children's books.

Kumin is best known for her poetry, which often portrays the simple workings of day-to-day life at her 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 qualities of the natural world. Her writing has been compared to that of her friend, Anne Sexton, and in some aspects to the work of Sylvia Plath. Like Sexton, Kumin writes personal poems which focus on the inner lives of her characters. Unlike Sexton or Plath, however, she does not dwell on despair.

Since the publication of Halfway (1961), her first collection of poetry, Kumin's verse has generally been praised by critics. Many feel that her work is impressive both technically and in its portrayal of deep feelings and emotions. Although sometimes faulted for sentimentality and forced metaphors, among other things, Kumin's poetry is often described as authentic, believable, and refreshing in its affirmation of life.

Kumin's recent collection of poetry, Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (1982), continues her exploration of the importance of personal relationships and human ties to nature. This work introduces into Kumin's poetry her increased awareness of the process of aging and death and the fleeting nature of life. Critics praise the intensity this awareness has added to her work and applaud her refusal to submit to despair. Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief is assessed as the honest and mature work of a poet sure of herself and her craft.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Something about the Author, Vol. 12; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

Richard Moore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maxine Kumin is an accomplished and professional poet of what might be called the Bishop-Lowell-Sexton school. More important, when she has a subject she can write moving and memorable poems. The best of those in her second book, The Privilege …, are a series of evocations of childhood. In "The Spell," for example, that enchanted garden we can all remember (and which has been popping in and out of modern verse for quite some time now) suddenly becomes startlingly real and alive with supernatural presences, including a mother who seems like the God in Genesis. (pp. 29-30)

One can see in [some of the poems collected in The Privilege a] witty manner which—along with striking descriptions evoking unexpected senses—is Mrs. Kumin's main way of making poems. Sometimes she seems grimly determined to be witty, and this can distract one from a good poem, as with "The Praying Fool." At other times her manner seems to keep her from finding her subject. In "The Appointment," for example, there is vividness; there is experience behind the vividness; but the poem, one feels, is needlessly coy about that experience. In other poems the tangible part of a metaphysical conceit works loose and develops a life of its own, and again the subject tends to get lost.

But with so many fine poems (there are some excellently lush love poems in the final section that makes me think of The Song of Songs), one musn't quibble too much about a few Mrs. Kumin is a real poet. (p. 30)

Richard Moore, "A Poet Who Needs His Poem," in Saturday Review (© 1965 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVIII, No. 52, December 25, 1965, pp. 29-31.∗


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Privilege contains] intensely felt poems about deep-reaching family relationships, sharply realized memories of childhood, and odd, ambiguous, and elusive emotional experiences of adulthood. Miss Kumin's clipped, nervous verse line (even when run-on), which seems unusually consonantal in sound, proves highly various and adaptable, easily meeting the demands of the sonnet form, of which the poet provides far too few since she produces a most authentic contemporary sonnet when she tries. She is reminiscent of Millay in a detailed knowledge of closely observed natural phenomena. Similarly, all of her imagery is clear, sharp, and concrete, including that of the final section of intimate love poems. A poetic voice as distinctive as this deserves inclusion in any collection of recent American poetry.

A review of "The Privilege," in Choice (copyright © 1966 by American Library Association; reprinted by permission of the American Library Association), Vol. 2, No. 11, January, 1966. p. 772.

Mary Carter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"It's like a bad dream," says a character in "The Passions of Uxport." "Something happening to somebody else. A soap opera on TV." And, as Maxine Kumin's second novel unrolls, its domestic crisis and rhythmic interlocutions are also sharply reminiscent of series TV.

The Davises struggle with Sukey's death-wish and suffer the loss of their only child to leukemia. The Peakeses battle reciprocal adultery, the pregnancy of an unmarried niece, the psychosomatic pain in Hallie's stomach. Such troubles compose the condition of man and are valid elements of his drama. Yet here they seem framed within a 21-inch screen, rich and full-color as it is. Introspection throbs through this long book like organ music, and eventually drowns out the action. Can the universal condition be illuminated in terms of Hallie's gut-pain and Sukey's death-wish? Can the definitive question be plumbed in two housewives' neuroses? Can a Main Current of American Thought really be, "How do we fulfill the Little Woman?"

If not, it may be because in these two women the anguish seems so arbitrary, risen not from a universal but a private source, willful, insulated and resistant. "It hurts Martin terribly when I want to die," Sukey complains. "He takes it personally." Aside from the clinical argument on the universality or even existence of the classic death-wish, Sukey's emerges as a personal tic, a lump palpated daily. Hallie, examining her dogged compulsions, appears more concerned with her personal psychic hygiene than with charity. Their tight friendship is bonded in the bitter In-joke that they've been somehow duped or ill used….

The other characters are real and touching: Ernie, a clerk at the supermarket wrestling his own mad angel (a compulsion to scoop up animal casualties on the Interstate and give them decent burial); Adam, aflame with social commitment; Freudian Dr. Zemstvov, who moves us—in much the way we're moved by old Chaplin films—by the sadness of genius become inevitably quaint; Mellon, with his humble lechery; and Martin, who risks everything on the gamble of another child.

Mrs. Kumin's prose is graceful, inventive, informed by intelligence and wit. Unfortunately, in focusing on the dolorous hang-ups of Hallie and Sukey, she has, for the most part, limited her gifts to the small screen.

Mary Carter, "Hallie and Sukey's Hang-ups," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 5, 1968, p. 37.

David J. Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Maxine Kumin's] powers of observation, interpretation, and phrasing are as strong as Updike's and less marred by moral perversity, excessive symbolism, and fine writing. But her novel [The Passions of Uxport] is as preoccupied as his [Couples] … with animal decay and the struggle to conquer the fear of death. And her narrative also suggests that sexual loss though not the whole of this fear, is central to it. Hallie's mysterious stomach pain, which sends her eventually to a psychoanalyst, is the novel's dominating fact. It is called "death," but we see that it has much to do with the fact that her husband will be away a great part of this year, that his adulteries have for the first time been discovered, that her children are growing beyond her care, that her niece's predicament arouses old resentments concerning her early marriage and hysterectomy, and above all that it disappears only when she asserts her sexuality by hurting her husband with a report of her own adultery. Mrs. Kumin is unnecessarily burdened by the idea that the analysis of Hallie's motives will cancel the moral value of her acts of rescuing and mending which her husband and doctor question. In any case we can accept Hallie's identification with Christ the prophet of social justice and the protector of outcasts. Mrs. Kumin is particularly impressive in conveying the moral bond between the insane Ernie, obsessed with his private rituals, and her more or less normal,...

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The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One is impressed by several qualities in [the poems collected in Maxine Kumin's The Nightmare Factory]: depth and range, delicately controlled yet forceful emotion, and the unobtrusive presence of formal devices. Miss Kumin never settles for superficial treatment of her material although she deals with an extensive range of subjects. From her "pastoral" poems, which move beyond the idyllic to realistic cycles of birth and decay, through her "tribal" poems, in which she manages to focus on various of her familial situations without making the reader uncomfortable by the willing surrender of privacy, to her poems involving the pains dealt to body and psyche by the experiences of love, loss, sickness, uncertainty, she is always ready with the image, the insight, the detail that takes the reader into a deeper realization of the poem.

A review of "The Nightmare Factory," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1971, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 47, No. 2 (Spring, 1971), p. lx.

Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maxine Kumin's sixth collection of poems is called The Retrieval System, and it is a generous gathering of 35 poems. I would characterize her work as straightforward, ruminative, prosaic, and pleasant to read: she is intelligent and thoughtful; she is also at the prime of her own life, her mid-Fifties, and in a position to speak plainly and with a kind of personal authority that convinces the reader. She is also writing a poetry of retirement, so to speak, of observation, of civility and domesticity. This is, when one thinks of her work in that way, a poetry that partakes of a very ancient and widespread tradition, in the Classical World, in the Orient, and the Middle East. That is, the poet has grown up in...

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Monroe K. Spears

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Maxine Kumin] is not much anthologized or discussed, and I suspect that many readers have been aware of her, as I was until recently, only as a name. At any rate, if there are such readers, I have good news for them: Kumin is very much worth discovering, and [Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief and Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?] are an excellent introduction. (p. 1)

The arrangement [of Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief] is reverse chronological, beginning with the latest work and ending with the earliest; and selections from the later volumes are … generous, including 31 poems from the most recent as against nine from the earliest. I am glad to report...

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Julie Stone Peters

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Maxine Kumin, who has earned a reputation for poems of such bright beatitude that she is an unlikely bard of the geriatric, has entitled her new collection Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, as if in honor of "the aging poets, old friends" she refers to in one poem.

This sprint toward the finish line wouldn't be surprising in a young poet (or young as well-known poets go) habitually prone to the death watch, a poet, say, with Galway Kinnell's inclination for the volcanic nightmare, or Louise Glück's sense of doom. But until now, Kumin has observed the simple particularities of country life and committed herself to conserving nature with an optimism that has bound her to New England...

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Clara Claiborne Park

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One can only cook with what's in the cupboard, Mary Ellman wrote some years ago, speaking of fiction by women. And that, if not entirely true, is true enough. Fortunately, a lot accumulates in the cupboard as time goes on. Maxine Kumin's poems, like her fiction, mine a life whose elements might seem too familiar to be promising material for the storyteller or the poet—too familiar, at any rate, to (as we once used to say, instead of merely think) "people like us." People like us read The Nation, or at the very least The New York Times Book Review. They are administrators, teachers, translators and such—the kind of people who fly in planes to address meetings in distant cities. In other moods, they...

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Alicia Ostriker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Which of her poetic peers does Maxine Kumin resemble? Unlike Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, she keeps her demons bridled. Unlike Elizabeth Bishop or May Swenson, she is bawdily personal. Like Adrienne Rich, she makes us pay respectful attention to images of strong female identity, yet she avoids ideology. And is there another poet who finds or invents such a sweet male alter ego [as Henry Manley, the country neighbor who is one of the several recurring figures in "Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief"]?…

Typical of Maxine Kumin's art are the sensory weight, the play of alliteration and assonance sliding into the closing couplets, the perfectly expressive halting and crystallizing rhythms [in the poems...

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Dana Gioia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kumin is understandably a popular poet. She is an intelligent and sensitive woman who writes on the enduring themes of life and death, place and family. Essentially a domestic poet, she takes as her material the world of her everyday life in rural New Hampshire—her home, children, neighbors, land, and animals, especially horses, which she has loved since girlhood. She is a strong woman whose independence is natural, not ideological, and the usual modesty of her tone does not hide her underlying self-assurance. She writes confidently about what she knows—the death of friends, the departures of her children, the landscape around her—and she does so honestly and directly without striking fashionable postures. (p....

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