by Jehanne Dubrow
axine Kumin's writing navigates a number of seemingly disparate identities: the Jew, the New Englander, the intellectual, the avid horse breeder. Her body of work creates a picture of an American Jewish writer profoundly sensitive to her environment, a master of traditional forms, and a scrupulous documenter of human strengths and weaknesses. Born in 1925, in prosperous Germantown, Pennsylvania--a suburb of Philadelphia--Maxine Kumin grew up in a Reform Jewish household, the youngest of four children and the only daughter. Her father was a pawnbroker who ran a very profitable business. Kumin was deeply affected by her family's proximity to the Convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph, where she later attended her first two years of elementary school before transferring to public school. The shadow of Catholicism is visible in many of her poems, including "To Swim, To Believe," "Living Alone with Jesus," "In the Absence of Bliss," and in her double villanelle, "The Nuns of Childhood: Two Views." Often, Kumin's work treats Christianity as an interesting, even enticing mystery. But, just as often, her poems regard the Christian world with distrust and fear.
Kumin earned both her her B.A. and her M.A. from Radcliffe. She served as a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study from 1961 to 1963. In the 1960s, she also taught English at Tufts University; it was at Tufts that she first met Anne Sexton who, like Kumin, was a new mother and an aspiring writer. Kumin remained very close friends with the confessionalist poet for approximately 17 years, until Sexton's suicide in 1974. Although they came from very different cultural and religious backgrounds--Kumin a suburban Philadelphia Jew and Sexton a wealthy Episcopalian from Boston--the two women shared a passion for the rigors of formal poetry. In an essay about her long poem, "For Anne at Passover," Kumin tries to explain the women's surprising closeness:
What Sexton knew about Jews was stereotypical anti-Semitic doctrine, acquired from the culture in which she was raised. The country club to which her parents belonged did not admit Jews. Jews were a token and somehow alien presence in the schools she attended. It was remarkable luck that we were able to break through all the barriers of prejudice and received opinions on both sides (on meeting her, my mother asked me in private, Don't you have any good Jewish friends?), and forge a deep personal and professional friendship. (Jewish American Poetry 97)
During their long friendship--the two women spoke almost daily on the telephone--Kumin and Sexton regularly critiqued one another's poems and even co-authored four children's books. In the factious world of American poetry, where writers often seem anxious to create aesthetic or political divisions, Kumin and Sexton were able to build a friendship based on their love of rhyme and meter, their commitment to craft.
Since the mid-1970s, Kumin has lived with her husband, Victor Kumin an engineer, on a 200-acre horse farm in Warner, New Hampshire. They have three grown children: Jane Simon, Judith Montwid, and Daniel David. Now in her mid-80s, Kumin remains a dedicated horsewoman and breeder of Arabian and quarterhorses. In 1998, at age 73, Kumin was severely hurt while carriage-driving, when her beloved horse Deuter bolted. Her injuries were so extensive that doctors did not expect the poet to live. Two years after the accident, Kumin released Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery, a prose account of her painful recuperation from the near-fatal accident in which she punctured a lung, bruised a liver and kidney, and broke several vertebrae in her neck.
Kumin is the author of 16 poetry collections, most recently Still to Mow, Jack and Other New Poems, Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems 1958-1988, and The Long Marriage. In 1973, Up Country won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Kumin has served as a visiting professor at universities like Columbia, Brandeis, MIT, and Princeton. From 1981 to 1982, she was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that most people know as U.S. Poet Laureate, and acted as the Poet Laureate of New Hampshire from 1989 to 1994. From 1995 to 1998, Kumin along with poet Carolyn Kizer, served as chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. They resigned their positions in 1998 to call attention to the absence of women and poets of color from the Academy's board of chancellors. The current board represents a far more diverse picture of American poetics than it did in 1998, now counting among its members influential poets such as Victor Hernández Cruz, Lynn Hejinian, Carl Phillips, Susan Stewart, Rita Dove, Marie Ponsot, Marilyn Hacker, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, and Kay Ryan.
In addition to her achievements in poetry, Kumin has published in a number of other genres, including books of nonfiction, novels for adults and children, and short stories. In her essay "Writing in Multiple Genres," she urges readers not to "look for crevasses between the poem and prose but allow one to flow into the other in any way that it will" (Prairie Schooner 8). As with her poetry, Kumin's expository prose focuses on the things of this world, familiar objects like fallen leaves or stone walls, to speak about the experience of being vulnerable and human.
Kumin's work frequently acknowledges the cultural influences of New England Christianity but never succumbs to them. In "Young Nun at Bread Loaf," from her collection, House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, the poet paints a portrait of a Sister Elizabeth Michael, which is simultaneously sympathetic and unsentimental. Kumin makes physical the spiritual contrast between agnostic Jew and devout Catholic; the speaker's own down-to-earth thinking is embodied by "jeans and sneakers" (10), while the nun's gauzy spirituality becomes tangible through sensory descriptions of "white habits" (3) and a "dimity apron?sprigged with blue flowers" (8-9). The nun, a "forager" with "tough yellow thumbs" (17, 18), personifies the youth and vigor of her Christian faith, while the speaker is simply "an old Jew" (29), a figure firmly rooted in the questions and misgivings which are inherent to the long tradition of Judaism.
As is often the case in Kumin's writing, "Young Nun at Bread Loaf" uses humor to approach a thorny subject: the friction between doubt and religious certainty. Kumin is comfortable in the role of provocateuse--as texts with titles such as "Heaven as Anus," "The Jesus Infection," and "The Excrement Poem" demonstrate--but she prefers obliquity to directness. "Young Nun at Bread Loaf" contains serious theological debate as well as wry observations about the nun's preference for tomato juice versus the poet's taste for booze. As the speaker and the nun journey through the Vermont forest in search of wild mushrooms, Kumin reveals--by carefully unearthing small, concrete details of the scene--how very different the two women are.
Each time the poem moves closer to its central conflict, what Kumin dismisses as "Christ, that canard" (21), the poet defuses the tension with her characteristic wit. For instance, the chanterelles that the speaker and her companion find among the tree roots are "little pistols" and "bandits" (15, 16), metaphors both dangerous and charming. And when Sister Elizabeth Michael finally addresses the matter of Christianity, the speaker's response is not overt antagonism but the resignation of the agnostic accustomed to proselytization: "I grind out a butt and think of the waiting bourbon" (21). The speaker's rebellion is almost entirely internal; she thinks of something forbidden to the nun--alcohol--but her only external show of disagreement is to snuff her cigarette, grinding it out.
"The sun goes down in disappointment" (22), Kumin writes, leading the reader to consider whose disappointment she might mean. Does the nun regret her failure to convert the poet? Does the speaker regret that an afternoon's mushroom hunt has been ruined with talk of religion? Does the natural world regret and wonder at the divisions that human beings create among themselves? The final stanza provides some clues: "Sister / Sister Elizabeth Michael / says we are doing Christ's work, we two. / She, the rosy girl in a Renoir painting. / I, an old Jew" (25-29). There is a gentle reprimand in these closing five lines, with that sharp rhyme of "we two" and "old Jew." By repeating "Sister" twice, the poet implies that the women's common bond should be sisterhood rather than faith.
Kumin, so gifted in the melodies of plain speech, is often at her most lyrical when addressing issues of accountability. In "Sisyphus," written in a satisfying mix of rhymed and slant-rhymed narrative couplets, the poet confesses a personal failing. Speaking about the villanelle, Kumin has said, "that we don't need to ossify these ancient French forms by slavish imitation. We can enliven and enhance them with our own approximations. By resorting to the ingenuities of our time and place, American poets of the last fifty years have turned a stultifying and restrictive form into an elastic, even gymnastic one" (Exaltation 316). And, analyzing her relationship with form in general, Kumin has argued that "[t]he tougher the form the easier it is for me to handle the poem, because form gives permission to be very gut-honest about feelings. The curious thing for me is that rhyme makes me a better poet" (Massachusetts Review 322). With "Sisyphus," Kumin plays within the tradition of rhymed couplets, while addressing an uncomfortable memory from childhood, one that is anything but heroic.
She begins, "When I was young and full of shame" (1), then goes on to recount a time in which she denied being Jewish, lying about her identity, she says, to save her soul (8). The speaker recalls a "legless man" (2) she used to meet every day on the road to and from school. Kumin's description of the man's disability is intended to discomfit the reader, evoking pathos but perhaps also distaste: "a legless man who came / inside a little cart, inchmeal, / flatirons on his hands, downhill" (2-4). Each time the street preacher sees the small child, he sings out to her "repent, repent." Kumin problematizes the man's piety by describing his "goat-smell" as "randy, thick, as brown as blood" (13). It is not only the man's religiosity that unnerves the little girl but also the oppressiveness of his body, his eyes, which are "level" with her petticoat (11). Although the child may not understand the sexual tension in this encounter, the grown-up speaker recognizes that the man's behavior should provoke suspicion as well as pity.
At the midpoint of the poem, the speaker explains that each day she felt compelled to wheel the legless man up to the top of the hill. Kumin describes him as her "master" and her "stone" (15, 18). As a master, the preacher controls the child, dictating her decisions and behavior. As a stone, the man becomes an inanimate burden placed in her hands. The text ends: "He called / me a perfect Christian child. // One day I said I was a Jew. / I wished I had. I wanted to. // The basket man is gone; the stone / I push uphill is all my own" (21-26). These final three couplets are the most musically assertive in the poem, with the penultimate couplet clanging particularly loudly in the reader's ear. "One day I said I was a Jew. / I wished I had. I wanted to." Tetrameter, sometimes employed for comedic effect (as Philip Larkin does in "This Be the Verse"), is used here to underscore the seriousness of the speaker's weakness. Kumin uses the linebreak in the stanza as a way of misleading the reader. "I said I was a Jew," she announces and then immediately contradicts herself in the next line, "I wished I had. I wanted to." For a moment, the speaker tries to believe that she never felt ashamed of being Jewish but, in the space between one line and the next, she realizes how much embarrassment she continues to feel.
"Sisyphus" takes its title from Greek mythology, but the poem seems more inspired by Albert Camus's famous essay, which interprets the myth through the lens of existentialism. Kumin's speaker condemns inaction--her own inability to admit her identity as a Jew--viewing this failure to act as a choice, a moral weakness that must be confessed and regretted, a burden that must be carried forever. The poet's self-implication coupled with her handling of epigrammatic couplets elevates the text from a mere anecdote to a treatise on the self-hating Jew. Kumin has written elsewhere of the unsettling experience of being a Jew in a country of gentiles: "[i]t seems to me that Jewish consciousness is present in a goodly number of my poems from that first book onward. Frequently, my awareness is set against a Christian landscape, often Catholic, sometimes Southern Baptist" (Jewish American Poetry 96). With "Sisyphus," the so-called "Christian landscape" becomes a necessary foil for the speaker's Jewishness. Without the legless man, the young girl would neither be forced to face her Otherness nor would she learn of her resistance to playing the part of an outcast among Christians.
Kumin's concerns with ethical behavior extend to her thinking about the environment. As a writer of what might be termed "eco literature," Kumin demands principled behavior, both of her audience and of herself, asking that all human beings recognize their connections to the earth and to other living things. Indeed, Kumin's passionate connection to the environment is very much in line with her identity as an American Jewish poet; in Judaism, green politics may seen as an extension of the concept of tikkun olam, the idea that the world has been broken and that it is our responsibility to mend it. "Woodchucks," one of Kumin's most anthologized poems, is written in the persona of the Hermit, a character who symbolizes man's impulse to subdue or conquer the natural world. "I confess," Kumin writes in an essay entitled "Beans," "nothing looks prettier to me than a well-tended flourishing vegetable garden. Raised beds, mown or mulched walkways, an attractive fence all around impose the discipline and order that are in short supply in my somewhat chaotic life" (Always Beginning 14). It is this same desire for boundaries and for restraint which serves as a motivating force in "Woodchucks."
Ostensibly, the poem describes the killing of a family of woodchucks that are tunneling through the speaker's backyard. Yet, at its heart, the text is an illustration of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." As the Hermit tries to remove each pest from her garden, she appears increasingly comfortable with the animals' deaths, until their murders finally seem part of the natural order of things: inevitable, appropriate, and utterly civilized.
The poem employs a tightly controlled, almost invisible abcacb rhyme scheme. It begins with an excellent example of Kumin's distinctive use of understatement. "Gassing the woodchucks didn't turn out right" (1), the speaker explains matter-of-factly, arguing that the cyanide was meant as a "merciful" killing, "quick at the bone" (3). But with the failure of the gas, the speaker moves from cyanide to a rifle, the confrontation between animal and human suddenly made personal and direct.
As the poem progresses, it becomes evident that the speaker has stopped caring about the health of her garden and is now engrossed fully in the rituals of extermination. She justifies murdering the creatures by offering several different examples of the woodchucks' culpability. First of all, she argues that they are violent scavengers responsible for "beheading the carrots" (12). Furthermore, they are thieves who steal "the food from our mouths," the speaker proclaims righteously (13). And, finally, they are destined to die according to Darwinian philosophy, less fit and therefore less entitled to survive (16).
The closing stanza reads: "There's one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps / me cocked and ready day after day after day. / All night I hunt his humped-up form. I dream / I sight along the barrel in my sleep. / If only they'd all consented to die unseen / gassed underground the quiet Nazi way" (25-30). Although the nasty humor of the poem's last line may come initially as something of a shock, upon rereading "Woodchucks," it is evident that Kumin has laid the groundwork for the intersection of the historical and the pastoral. Throughout the text, she provides subtle clues--for instance, her reference to "cyanide"--that this vignette of rural life is in fact an illustration of how human beings may lose the veneer of civilization easily, with little consideration for the consequences.
Perhaps the most interesting presence in Kumin's poetry is that of the natural world. Her rural New England life informs so much of her work that a Jewish pastoral poet--one comfortable staining her stanzas with mud and dirt--suddenly seems possible. Interviewing Kumin for The Massachusetts Review, poet Enid Shomer has suggested that "the last stage of assimilation for Jews is going onto the land, because they were not allowed to own land in Europe. The idea of a Jewish farmer was so revolutionary; it's what fired up Zionism" (533). Other American Jewish poets like Philip Levine may be viewed as utterly inhabiting urban environments; they often regard the countryside with distrust, even fear, as though rural America evokes all the dangers and uncertainties of the Pale of Settlement. Yet, the neighing of horses, the feeling of tilled earth, the comforting smell of dew on cut hay--these sensory experiences permeate Kumin's writing in a way that remains unprecedented in American Jewish poetry.
Kumin, Maxine. Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry. Port Townsend: Copper
---. "Gymnastics: The Villanelle." An Exaltation of Forms. Eds. Finch, Annie and Kathrine Varnes. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002. 314-321.
---. "For Anne at Passover." Jewish American Poetry. Eds. Barron, Jonathan N. and Eric Murphy Selinger. Hanover: UPNE, 2000. 91-99.
---. "Writing in Multiple Genres. Prairie Schooner. 79.4 (2005): 5-8.
---. Selected Poems, 1960-1990. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
Meek, Martha George. "An Interview with Maxine Kumin." 16.2 (1975): 317-327.
Shomer, Enid. "An Interview with Maxine Kumin." The Massachusetts Review, 37.4 (1996):
Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems, 1958-1988. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
Closing the Ring: Selected Poems. Lewisburg: Press of Appletree Alley, 1984.
Connecting the Dots: Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Halfway. New York: Holt, 1961.
House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate. New York: Viking, 1975.
Jack and Other New Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
The Long Approach. New York: Viking, 1985.
The Long Marriage. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Looking for Luck. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.
The Nightmare Factory. New York: Harper, 1970.
Nurture. New York: Viking, 1989.
Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief: New and Selected Poems. New York: Viking, 1982.
The Privilege. New York: Harper, 1965.
The Retrieval System. New York: Viking, 1978.
Selected Poems, 1960-1990. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
Up Country: Poems of New England, New and Selected. Illustrator, Barbara Swan. New York: Harper, 1972.
Novels and Short Fiction
The Abduction. New York: Harper, 1971.
The Designated Heir. New York: Viking, 1974.
The Passions of Uxport. New York: Harper, 1968.
Daughter and Her Loves. London: Gollancz, 1965.
Quit Monks or Die! Ashland: Story Line, 1999.
Through Dooms of Love. New York: Harper, 1965.
Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings? New York: Viking,
Archibald the Traveling Poodle. New York: Putnam, 1963.
The Beach Before Breakfast. New York: Putnam, 1964.
Eggs of Things. Co-author, Anne Sexton. New York: Putnam, 1963.
Faraway Farm. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967.
Follow the Fall. New York: Putnam, 1961.
Joey and the Birthday Present. Co-Author, Anne Sexton. Illustrator, Evaline Ness. New York:
The Microscope. Illustrator, Arnold Lobel. New York: Harper, 1984.
Mites to Mastodons: A Book of Animal Poems, Small and Large. Illustrator, Pamela Zagarenski.
Editor, Liz Rosenberg. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Mittens in May. New York: Putnam, 1962.
More Eggs of Things. Co-author, Anne Sexton. New York: Putnam, 1964.
No One Writes a Letter to the Snail. New York: Putnam, 1962.
Paul Bunyan. New York: Putnam, 1966.
Sebastian and the Dragon. New York: Putnam, 1960.
Speedy Digs Downside Up. New York: Putnam, 1964.
Spring Thing. New York: Putnam, 1961.
A Summer Story. New York: Putnam, 1961.
What Color Is Caesar? Illustrator, Evaline Ness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
When Grandmother Was Young. New York: Putnam, 1969.
A Winter Friend. New York: Putnam, 1961.
The Wizard's Tears. Co-Author, Anne Sexton. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975.
The Wonderful Babies of 1809 and Other Years. New York: Putnam, 1968.
Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 2000.
In Deep: Country Essays. New York: Viking, 1987.
Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P,
Women, Animals, and Vegetables: Essays and Stories. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Honors & Awards
National Endowment for the Arts Award, 1967
Pulitzer Prize, 1974
US Poet Laureate/Consultant in Poetry Library of Congress, 1981-1982
The Poet's Prize, 1992
Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, 1999
The Aiken Taylor Award, 1995
Harvard Arts Medal, 2005
Robert Frost Medal, 2006
Paterson Prize for Distinguished Literary Achievement, 2008