In her own words
Being Maxine Kumin
Pulitzer-winning poet laureate on her career, influences and rising up in a man’s world
Poet Maxine Kumin is shown sitting at a friend's house in Dedham, Ma., on Nov. 5, 1974. Kumin won the U.S. Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1973 for "Up Country." (AP Photo)
Poet Maxine Kumin is shown in Warner, N.H., Sept. 21, 1999. Kumin's most recent book is a murder mystery, her first. The reviews have been good, and the phone is ringing with requests for her time. Although Kumin is no stranger to accolades, this latest success worries the hermit in her. (AP Photo/Concord Monitor, Ken Williams)
Poet Maxine Kumin is the Concord Reads writer this year. Her work will be celebrated and discussed in a series of public events beginning this month. Kumin, who is 88, won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize in poetry and later served as poet laureate of the United States.
In 2004-05, I interviewed her four times in the living room of her farm in Warner. I transcribed, compiled and condensed these interviews into an oral history in her voice.
The Kumin farm covers about 200 acres. Maxine and her husband, Victor, bought it in 1963 and moved there permanently during the mid-1970s. It is lovely rolling land that the Kumins turned into a gentleman’s and gentlewoman’s farm. They fenced pasture land, kept as many as seven horses and grew many of their own vegetables.
Kumin was badly injured in a horse carriage accident in 1998, but with determination and the help of her daughter she recovered to resume riding in the horse ring and swimming in the pond she and Victor had dug near the farmhouse. Although in ill health, she continues to write poetry and hopes to publish another book.
In the oral history that follows, Kumin talks about her career and her methods. She discusses her friendship with the poet Anne Sexton, the influence of the women’s movement on her life and career, the poets whose work influence hers, her parents, and the sense of place that is central to her life and work.
I was a closet poet always. I didn’t stop writing poetry just because Wallace Stegner told me I was a terrible poet. I went underground.
I had exempted English A at Harvard, which was a big mistake. Everybody should take it. They bucked me up to a high-level class in creative writing. It was all juniors and seniors, and I was the only freshman. I was 17 and Wallace Stegner was maybe all of 23 when I gave him a sheaf of poems. They were sonnets, all in iambic pentameter, but they were terribly sentimental and romantic. And he wrote at the top, “Say it with flowers, but for God sakes don’t write any more poems about it.”
After that, I was writing serious poems in the closet, but I was writing light verse for the slicks. For $3.95 I bought this book by Richard Armour called Writing Light Verse. I took it all very seriously, and by golly I started selling all over the place – Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, Baby Talk, New York Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, even the Wall Street Journal. I learned some things writing light verse. I learned how important closure is, and that has guided me ever since.
This was 1953 – that’s when I started, just before my son Danny was born. I made a pact with myself that if I couldn’t sell anything before I had had this child, I would give it all up. Well, it went swimmingly well, and I wrote a lot of light verse.
Then in 1957 I signed up for a poetry writing course at the Boston Center for Adult Education with John Holmes, who was a professor at Tufts and himself a poet but more importantly a teacher.
That’s where Anne Sexton and I met. She said of me that I was the frump of frumps; I was in awe of her. She wore high heels and pancake makeup and had flowers in her hair. You could not possibly find two more different women.
That course led us to develop our own little workshop with John Holmes, Anne, George Starbuck, Sam Albert, and myself. I started to place a few poems. One was in Harper’s, and the New Yorker took a long, funny poem of mine.
In 1958, John Holmes got me a job at Tufts as a part-time adjunct instructor. I was to teach freshman composition, but because I was a woman, I could teach it only to the phys ed majors and dental technicians.
On the home front, Danny was in kindergarten, and I had a neighbor who happily walked him to afternoon kindergarten and picked him up afterward and walked him back to her house, where he had milk and cookies. My neighbors were so upset that I was abandoning my children in this hideous way. I remember being told by my next-door neighbor that I was a failed mother. I might as well have been having an affair rather than commuting to Medford three afternoons a week to teach one course.
That was the atmosphere in the ’50s. These were people who were hand-making Halloween costumes for their kids, who were making elaborate birthday cakes with special icings. Well, I just didn’t have time for that, nor did I have the talent for it. My mother was an accomplished seamstress and fabulous knitter. I never wore a commercially made sweater until I was a married woman. I have none of those skills. My family learned to sew their own buttons on.
The other person who was hired with me at Tufts, Alberta Arthurs, went on to be the first woman dean at Harvard. We were aware, shoulder to shoulder, that we were doing something that hadn’t been done. We confronted the chairman of the department and said, “Look, there’s no ladies’ room in this building. This is the English department building, and now you have women teaching here. We demand a ladies’ room.”
Right about then, I became aware that we were in a different place trying to make explicit demands. I so resented being told by male poets, “You’re a good poet. You write like a man.” When you drove them to the airport to catch that flight at the last minute: “You did a good job. You drove like a man.” It was such a different world. The expectations were so different.
I don’t know when I first became aware of the women’s movement. I know I was still writing poems in a male persona all the way up into the early ’70s, when I wrote the Hermit poems. They’re all written in a male persona just because I didn’t think the world would take a female hermit seriously. The hermit in every instance was, of course, I.
When I did become aware of the movement, my reaction was thrill, delight, a little bit of terror mixed in: What would become of us? It was yeasty time. I was afraid of a backlash. I remember when Anne published her poem “In Celebration of My Uterus,” and there was that terrible review by Jim Dickey, who said he was offended, he didn’t want to read about women’s private parts, he didn’t want to read all this intimate crap. Of course, he had published Deliverance. But that was all right – because he wrote it.
Walt Whitman was not read when I was in college in the 40s because he was a homosexual. He was not in the canon. Edna St. Vincent Millay was dismissed as just a sentimental woman. Here are some of the best Petrarchan sonnets written in the English language. And now of course she’s back in the canon – not only the collected poems but the collected sonnets and two wonderful biographies about her.
I have lived long enough to see this happen. It’s okay for women to write about their bodies now. It’s alright to write about childbirth. There is no subject that’s off-limits. I like to say I wrote my excrement poem to prove that point – that you can write about shit. It depends on how you make a poem out of it. There are some perfectly terrible poems about childbirth and uteruses, but nothing’s taboo anymore.
The change has been gradual. It took a long time for women to be acknowledged as capable of writing the kinds of poetry that men traditionally were expected to write. I don’t think the playing field is quite even, but it’s getting there.
I was not influenced by women writing poetry. There weren’t any women to admire. I could admire Marianne Moore, but I certainly couldn’t write miniaturist poems like her. And I admired Elizabeth Bishop, but she was very classical and held everyone at a distance. “Mentor” was not a verb at that time. I certainly wasn’t being mentored by anybody.
There were two major influences on my poetry – two dead white males. I wrote in frank imitation of Auden, who taught me more about iambic tetrameter than anyone else possibly could. Both he and Yeats taught me about combining the political and the personal. I learned from them that one could write about the political climate and make poetry from it. No one quite matches Auden’s ability to combine metaphor with anguished political statement – “In the nightmare of the dark, all the dogs of Europe bark.” “Sept. 1, 1939” is a magnificent poem. So is “Easter 1916” by Yeats.
The other poet I admired hugely was Karl Shapiro, whose Person, Place, and Thing had just been published in 1942. When I read those poems, they just took the top of my head off. I could not believe it. There’s a poem called “University,” and it begins, “To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew is the curriculum.” Wow! That could be a poem! There was a poem called “Drug Store,” a poem called “Buick” – just the topics of the poems were a revelation to me. The most commonplace and contemporary matters I suddenly saw as subjects for poems. If you’ve been raised on Robert Bridges or any of the Augustan poets, this has got to come as a shock.
And an odd influence was A.E. Housman – A Shropshire Lad – because they’re so metrically tight, and I loved that. I’ve got seven or eight of them by heart, and when I was recovering from my accident, I would take this little book, and I would walk up to the horse ring – eight times around is a mile – and I would walk around reading and memorizing A.E. Housman. The thing about memorizing poetry is that it gets in the bloodstream. I say to graduate students who so resist the thought of having to memorize a poem a week: “I’m doing you a favor. I’m giving you an internal library to draw on when you’re taken political prisoner.” They rare back. I mean, what do they care enough about to be taken political prisoner for? It’s a worthy question to be asking in a creative writing class.
Anne Sexton helped me to open up in ways that I might not have achieved on my own. I helped to formalize some of her concepts. She would read these raw drafts – I even pulled some out of the wastebasket in her study – and I’d say, “This could be a pretty good poem if you could just hammer it into form.” That was pretty much my approach to the private, personal, anguished material which is now called confessional. If you could formalize it, you could make it work. Her best poems were those poems – the poems in All My Pretty Ones, her second book. She helped me get rid of the Latinate terminology in my poems. She was encouraging about my country poems – she titled Up Country. At that time you could put a second telephone line in your house if you were living in the same suburb or a contiguous one for 4 dollars and 80 cents a month, which we did. Then one of us would initiate the call and we would leave the phones connected all day and if we had something to share we would whistle into the phone. It really trains your ear to be hearing poems in process that way. We worked intimately together, and yet I think our voices are very different.
In the beginning, I didn’t really want to get into this relationship with her because I knew she had been suicidal and I had just lost a friend the year before. She had had post-partum depression and had killed herself. So I was leery.
I think about Anne’s suicide constantly. It’s fresh. I don’t think it will ever fade. I think I have finally forgiven her. I was angry, I felt bereft, betrayed. If we had had the good psychotropic drugs then that we have now, she would probably have lived a long and fruitful life, and certainly Sylvia Plath would have, too. Anne’s suicide was absolutely inevitable. Nobody fought harder to stay alive than Anne. She fought those voices every day, those voices that said, “Come to us. Die.” The medications that were provided then were so raw. First, she was sun-sensitive – she couldn’t be outside in weather at all. And second, they made her really woolly, and she couldn’t write. She turned to alcohol in those last years. She turned to whatever men she could find for companionship. There had been so many previous attempts – or mock attempts – but they were pretty serious. She would call Father Dunn and say, “I want you to give me the last rites over the telephone” – that sort of telegraphing what she was planning to do. He was a wonderful guy. He told her, “God is in your typewriter.” She was constantly in search of one absolutist thing that she could cling to. She thought maybe if she became a Catholic, that would be it, but she never quite made the jump.
COMING NEXT SUNDAY: Part 2. Kumin talks about her upbringing, her love for animals and her move with her husband Victor to New Hampshire.