Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Birthday: "So many poems you go into and come up empty."

Maxine Kumin.JPG

Maxine Winokur Kumin (1925-2014)
Poet, educator, novelist

Viewed from the conventional angle, Maxine Kumin’s life was, well, conventional. She was a girl from a good Jewish family, and smart, too: she read English at Radcliffe. She even got her MA there, two years after she married that nice Victor Kumin, the Army engineer. What a love match, those two! Sixty-eight years.

All the kids turned out well. I heard she wrote some poetry, too- she took some classes when the kids were older. Then they moved off to New Hampshire, to that farm they bought. Raised horses, they say.

The less conventional angle of view tells the rest of her story. Let Writer’s Almanac do a lap:

During her third pregnancy, she was feeling restless, and she happened upon a book called Writing Light Verse, which cost $3.95. She decided that if she hadn't published anything by the time her child was born she would give up forever. She was six months pregnant when The Christian Science Monitor accepted one of her poems and paid her $5 for it. It was just four lines long; it read: "There never blows so red the rose / so sound the round tomato, / as March's catalogues disclose / and yearly I fall prey to." She began publishing light verse in magazines like Ladies' Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. The Post required Kumin's husband to send a letter from his employer certifying that her poem was original, since, she later said, "Women, along with people of color, were still thought to be intellectually inferior, mere appendages in the world of belles lettres."

She was happy enough writing light verse, although she wished she knew some other poets. In 1957, she enrolled in a local poetry-writing workshop. One of her classmates was the poet Anne Sexton, and the two women became close friends and writing peers — they eventually installed separate phone lines in each of their homes so that they could be in constant communication. Very slowly Kumin began to have poems accepted that were not just light verse. She said, "Until the Women's Movement, it was commonplace to be told by an editor that he'd like to publish more of my poems, but he'd already published one by a woman that month."

Before Sexton’s death in 1974, they even wrote four children’s books together and won a Pulitzer Prize each.

Kumin held a series of ascending teaching posts in Boston-area colleges. Her rise as a poet was equally swift: she did not publish her first book until she was thirty-six; at forty-eight, her fourth won the Pulitzer. At fifty-six, she was appointed poet laureate of the United States.

After 1976 her home base was the two-hundred-acre farm she and Victor bought in 1973, and raised horses on. She dubbed it Pobiz, after the sometimes problematic marriage of poetry and business the couple’s life there embodied.

No one gets to be oneself as a writer any more. One must have influences, and be of a type, or a school. It seems to have been something critics took up to ease their ennui after Haydn's death left them with no more symphonies to slap silly names on.

Kumin was bracketed many ways: a latter-day New England Transcendentalist; a confessionalist, after Sexton, Plath and Lowell. She was compared to Elizabeth Bishop and twitted as “Roberta Frost” for her works on rural New England life:

Bucophilia, I call it —

nostalgia over a pastoral vista —

where for all I know the farmer

who owns it or rents it just told his

wife he’d kill her if she left him and

she did and he did and now here come

the auctioneer, the serious bidders

and an ant-train of gawking onlookers.

Mostly, Kumin wrote about life, and getting through it in a decent and orderly manner. Sometimes the poems gave her ideas she felt needed working out in a different way, and alongside her seventeen collections of poetry came five novels, eight essay collections, and eighteen more children’s books.

No hermit, she remained engaged with the world, through teaching, writing and a vast email correspondence, to the end. She insisted her students memorize thirty to forty lines of poetry a week.

It made them better writers, she said. Plus, it would stand them in good stead if they were ever jailed as political prisoners, a recurring fate for poets.

When the Academy of American Poet- founded in 1934 by a woman- showed no interest in its white maleness as the world of poetry became more inclusive (“Women are not supposed to have uteruses, especially in poems,” she said)- Kumin and Carolyn Kizer resigned as chancellors of the group to draw a more focused public eye upon it. The Academy instituted major changes as a result.

Like many poets, Kumin offered employment advice to her students: “I would not recommend poetry as a career. In the first place, it's impossible in this time and place - in this culture - to make poetry a career. The writing of poetry is one thing. It's an obsession, the scratching of a divine itch, and has nothing to do with money. You can, however, make a career out of being a poet by teaching, traveling around, and giving lectures. It's a thin living at best.”

Of course, no one paid the least mind, any more than they did when Homer told them about what a poor go life as a roving bard was. Life is like that.

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