Maxine Kumin, Prolific American Poet
By Lynne Weiss | On August 23, 2021 | Updated March 8, 2023 | Comments (0)
Maxine Kumin (June 6, 1925 – February 6, 2014) is known primarily as a poet, but she was also a prolific writer of children’s books, fiction, and essays.
She was born Maxine Winokur in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Reform Jewish parents.
Her father was the largest pawnbroker in the city of Philadelphia; her mother was a socially ambitious woman who loved dressing for nights at the symphony or the theater and discouraged any mannerisms that might, in her view, make her children appear to be immigrants.
Maxine was directed to list her father’s occupation as “broker,” rather than “pawnbroker,” whenever a form required that information.
Germantown was a largely Protestant neighborhood, and Maxine and her family faced many forms of anti-Semitism from both children and adults. “On bad days,” she says in her memoir The Pawnbroker’s Daughter (2015), “older kids chased us downhill from school yelling Christ-killer!”
An avid swimmer, Maxine hoped to attend Wellesley College, which had an excellent swimming pool and an underwater observation room for analyzing strokes. But in 1942, nearly all elite colleges and universities accepted only a limited number of Jews and other minorities.
She ended up instead at Radcliffe, which did not have a regulation-size swimming pool. But her disappointment over the poor swimming facilities at Radcliffe didn’t last. She quickly made friends “of varying beliefs and hues” and eventually became captain of the swim team.
In 1943, Maxine joined other Radcliffe students in supporting striking workers at a local shipyard, leafletting workers as the shifts changed, and writing and producing the union’s weekly newspaper. This activity brought her to the attention of the FBI, who contacted her parents.
Her father threatened to take her out of school if she continued her involvement in the union drive. She responded that she would support herself through school if necessary and continued her activism.
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The long marriage
In April of 1945, while a junior at Radcliffe, she went on a blind date with Victor Kumin, a 1943 Harvard grad serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in Cambridge on furlough. The remaining five days of Victor Kumin’s furlough were filled with long walks, visits to the zoo and the ballet, and intimate talks over drinks in a hotel bar. In short, they fell in love.
Over the coming months, they continued their long-distance love affair in 575 letters exchanged between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Maxine had no idea until after the war that Victor, a young chemist, was part of the team of thousands of people working to develop the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following the bombings, Victor refused to continue his work and eventually received an honorable discharge.
Maxine and Victor were married on June 29, 1946, just a little more than three weeks after she graduated from Radcliffe. In 2002, she celebrated their relationship (which lasted until her death in 2014) in The Long Marriage (2002). The title poem begins:
The sweet jazz
of their college days
spools over them
where they lie
on the dark lake
of night growing
old unevenly …
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Children and light verse
By 1953, Maxine was pregnant with her third child and she and Victor were living in Newton, a suburb of Boston. She had completed an M.A. in Comparative Literature at Radcliffe a few years earlier. Restless for an outlet for her love of poetry, she began writing light verse.
She was thrilled when her first effort was published in The Christian Science Monitor. Subsequent poems appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post.
So deep was the prejudice against women’s intellectual capabilities in 1955 that the Post required a letter from Maxine’s husband’s employer to certify that she had actually written the poem herself.
But her poetic aspirations weren’t limited to light verse. She admired Edna St. Vincent Millay and W. H. Auden and longed to produce work inspired by Millay’s sonnets and Auden’s “deft tetrameter.”
In 1957, Maxine enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. The workshop was taught by John Holmes, an English professor at Tufts, who became her mentor—in Maxine’s words, her “Christian academic daddy.”
It was in the context of this workshop that she wrote her first “true” poems, as she called them, which would ultimately appear in The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. In 1961, her first book of poetry, Halfway, was published. She details her transformation as a poet in “Metamorphosis: From Light Verse to the Poetry of Witness.”
Anne Sexton and the Radcliffe Institute
In addition to Holmes, Maxine met Anne Sexton in that poetry workshop. Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin had an intense literary friendship that lasted for seventeen years, until Sexton’s suicide. In daily phone calls, they read each other’s work aloud and offered feedback. They also collaborated on four children’s books.
Both women were thrilled when they were selected as part of the first group of women artists and scholars to join the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study in 1961.
The recognition, Maxine said, “authenticated us… said we were real and what we did was valuable.” For years after Sexton’s death, Maxine explored her grief through her poetry. Here’s more about The Literary Friendship of Anne Sexton & Maxine Kumin.
How It Is
Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you’ve come to visit, he’s ecstatic.
“PoBiz” and the Pulitzer Prize
In 1961, Victor and Maxine each inherited $5000. Frustrated with life in suburbia, Maxine felt she needed a retreat to become a serious poet. The reigning poets of her time were T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, as well as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. She noted that the latter two weren’t mothers.
The Kumins took their $10,000 windfall and headed to New Hampshire, near the area where they spent their honeymoon, to look for property. After more than a year of searching, they found an old white farmhouse at the end of a nameless dirt road.
Vacant for six years, the house was missing shingles from its roof. It was surrounded by a dense thicket of blackberry brambles. The interior was littered with dead birds and dead mice. They recognized it immediately as the home they sought.
The house became not just a retreat, but an inspiration. An elderly neighbor, Henry Manley, knew the history of the house and the land and became a character in many of Maxine’s poems. She rediscovered her love of riding and horses when their daughter, Judith, took riding lessons.
Maxine Kumin’s fourth book of poetry, Up Country: Poems of New England, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Suddenly, she found herself enmeshed in the poetry business, or what she called PoBiz. Interviews, TV appearances, invitations to give readings and teach made her fear she would never write again.
She fled to the farm, where she “took Candide’s advice to cultivate my garden … Once I had dirt packed under my fingernails I recovered my equilibrium. The poems inched back in their own time.”
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Nature and social concerns
Maxine Kumin’s attention to the details of life in rural New England and her use of traditional verse forms has led some to refer to her as “Roberta Frost.” But she also wrote about social and environmental problems.
Her daughter, Judith Kumin, worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for more than three decades, confronting the problems of Vietnamese boat people and the displaced and disenfranchised in Belgrade and Bangkok.
Maxine’s poems on these subjects were not as highly regarded as her poems about rural life, but she insisted that these were poems she needed to “write for sanity’s sake and because it is important to bear witness,” combining throughout her life the need to write poetry with the need to act. In “During the Assassinations” she recalls her life as a mother in the 1960s:
During the assassinations
I marched with other soccer moms.
I carried lemons in case of tear gas.
In 1981–1982, Maxine Kumin was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position now known as Poet Laureate of the United States. In this capacity, she was able to select several women poets to read in a monthly series, most notably Adrienne Rich, who had rejected similar invitations from male laureates.
Maxine was especially proud of starting a series of brown-bag lunches that allowed fans and admirers to meet informally with well-known poets.
In 1995, she and poet Carolyn Kizer were appointed chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. They lobbied for the appointment of African American poet Lucille Clifton to a vacant post on two occasions, but both opportunities went to white men. In November of 1998, she and Kizer resigned in protest.
Their action led to changes in the structure of the Academy that resulted in greater representation of women and minorities. “We were praised by many and damned by a Procrustean few,” she said.
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Inside the halo
In July of 1998, Maxine suffered an accident while preparing her beloved horse Deuter for an exhibition. Her injuries were so extensive that her surgeon told her that ninety-five percent of people with her spinal injuries did not survive, and of those who did, ninety-five percent ended up as quadriplegics.
She underwent months of painful rehabilitation, initially in a contraption called a halo meant to prevent patients with spinal injuries from moving.
Eventually, through her determination and the support of her family as well as countless medical professionals, she regained her ability to speak, read, write, and walk again. She documented her triumphant return to horseback nine months after the injury in her book Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (2000).
A Jewish Calvinist
Until her death in 2014 on her New Hampshire farm, Maxine Kumin continued to write, publishing children’s books, a novel, essays, and poetry.
“The garden has to be tended every day,” she said in a video interview near the end of her life, “just as the horses have to be tended to, not just every day, but morning, noon, and night.
The writing exerts the same kind of discipline. A day without sitting down at my desk seriously is a day full of guilt. I think of myself as a Jewish Calvinist. Salvation through grace, grace through good works. Working is good. It’s just that simple. I wouldn’t trade this life for any other.”
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Contributed by Lynne Weiss: Lynne’s writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review; Brain, Child; The Common OnLine; the Ploughshares blog; the [PANK] blog; Wild Musette; Main Street Rag; and Radcliffe Magazine. She received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has won grants and residency awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Millay Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. She loves history, theater, and literature, and for many years, has earned her living by developing history and social studies materials for educational publishers. She lives outside Boston, where she is working on a novel set in Cornwall and London in the early 1930s. You can see more of her work at LynneWeiss.
More about Maxine Kumin
On this site
Selected poetry collections
- The Privilege (1965)
- The Nightmare Factory (1970)
- The Abduction (1971)
- Up Country (1972)
- House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate (1975)
- The Retrieval System (1978)
- Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, New and Selected Poems (1982)
- The Long Approach (1986)
- Nurture (1989)
- Looking for Luck (1992)
- Connecting the Dots (1996)
- The Long Marriage: Poems (2002)
- Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems 1958–1988 (2003)
- Jack and Other New Poems, (2005)
- Still to Mow (2009)
- Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010 (2010)
- And Short the Season (2014)
- Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (2000)
- Braham, Jean The Light Within the Light: Portraits of Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur,
Maxine Kumin, & Stanley Kunitz (2007)
- The Pawnbroker’s Daughter: A Memoir by Maxine Kumin (2015)
Maxine Kumin was also the author of 25 books for children. See the complete listing on her website.
- Maxine Kumin website
- Video interview
- Poetry Foundation
- A selection of Kumin’s poems on Poetry Foundation
- Jewish Women’s Archive
- Washington Post obituary
- Atomic Heritage Foundation profile of Victor Kumin
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