The Literary Friendship of Poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin
By Lynne Weiss | On July 13, 2021 | Updated March 8, 2023 | Comments (0)
Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin were significant twentieth-century poets who provided deep friendship and support for one another as they developed and mastered their craft. Literary Ladies Guide has offered fascinating musings and insights into several significant literary friendships between women writers.
But none of these compare in intensity to the literary friendship of Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, a relationship brought to life in The Equivalents (2020) by Maggie Doherty.
This book is an exploration of the first group of poets and artists to be part of the Institute for Independent Study at Radcliffe College (later the Bunting Institute, and now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study).
Kumin and Sexton met in 1957 when both women took a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education. They had much in common — both were slender, dark-haired, and attractive; both came from upper-middle-class backgrounds; both lived in Newton, a wealthy Boston suburb; and both were married with children.
But the two women also differed in some ways. Sexton had never gone to college and had been told throughout her life that she was “dumb.” She was emotionally fragile. She had attempted suicide the year before and had been institutionalized for mental illness. She began writing poetry after she happened on a public television program called A Sense of Poetry.
Kumin, on the other hand, had earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Radcliffe College. She “kept her temper in check and steered away from instability,” according to Doherty. She regularly published poetry in outlets such as the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post.
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Anne Sexton (fair use photo by Elsa Dorfman)
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Her initial reaction to Sexton, who joined the workshop after Kumin had been attending for a while, was a mixture of fear and fascination. And as the weeks progressed and Sexton shared her poems about her suicide attempts and experiences in a mental institution, Kumin was repulsed and decided to avoid Sexton.
Over time, however, convenience overcame her initial disinclination. The two women lived near one another, and it was practical for them to commute to the Boston workshop in the same car. The conversations during the drive broke down Kumin’s dislike.
Soon the two saw each other often, attending and sharing impressions of readings by poets such as Marianne Moore and Robert Graves.
They turned to one another between workshop sessions to discuss their own writing as well. One of them would call the other, read a couple of lines, and wait for feedback. As their children demanded attention, the two women struggled to focus on one another’s work. Sometimes they left the phone line open for hours as they worked and took turns reading to one another.
Their differences inspired one another and deepened their writing: Doherty writes that Kumin “offered Sexton the knowledge she’d gleaned from college, and Sexton showed Kumin how to write from a place of feeling rather than thought.”
The Radcliffe Institute
Kumin and Sexton’s friendship was well established by November of 1960, when the latter read about the plan to form a new institute at Radcliffe, the women’s college of Harvard University, in the Sunday paper.
Intended as a center for “intellectually displaced women” the institute was meant to revive the intellectual lives of women who had achieved advanced degrees “or the equivalent” success in the arts but whose careers had been side-tracked by domestic responsibilities. Women chosen for the program would receive workspace, access to Harvard’s resources, and a stipend.
By then, Sexton had published her first book of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back. She and Kumin both applied to be among the first group of scholars and artists. When Kumin received her acceptance letter, she immediately called Sexton to celebrate. Sexton shared her friend’s delight, but when she checked her own mail, there was no letter of acceptance.
Crushed, Sexton took to her bed. But three days later, Sexton received her acceptance and ran through the streets of her suburban neighborhood, knocking on doors and announcing, “I got it!” to anyone who answered.
Both women were thrilled that they would be sharing the opportunity and the honor of being in the first group of women at the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study when it opened in September 1961.
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Learn more about Maxine Kumin
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Over the years, the two poets supported one another’s poetry and collaborated on four children’s books. The daily phone calls continued after the two poets were both fellows at the institute.
Both continued to work from their home offices: A typical workday started with a phone call. They often gave each other a series of twenty-minute interludes in which to write or revise a line of poetry before turning to one another for feedback.
They continued in this manner until it was time to make lunch for their children. On warm days, all five children gathered at Sexton’s backyard pool. The two mothers dangled their feet in the water and passed a portable typewriter back and forth as they worked on a children’s book.
Kumin and Sexton gave the first seminar for the group of twenty-four women who comprised the initial class at the Radcliffe Institute. They had promised to read from their poems and discuss their composition process.
Typically, Kumin was calm and well-prepared, having written out her planned remarks. Sexton, on the other hand, was anxious. A natural performer, she would rely on instinct and impulse. By agreement, the two women had kept their collaborative working style (the daily phone calls, the close feedback) secret.
They worried that others might try to turn their collaboration into a rivalry or would doubt the authenticity of their work. But when someone in the audience asked Sexton how she knew a poem was finished, Sexton confessed: “I call up Maxine and I ask her.”
She went on to explain that she and Kumin had known each other for years and described their daily phone calls.
The secret collaboration was a secret no more, and the scholars were charmed by the revelation. It was, after all, exactly the sort of supportive relationship the institute had been created to foster.
The Pulitzer Prize
When Sexton and Kumin met in the poetry workshop, people saw Kumin as Sexton’s teacher. Kumin and Sexton saw her that way, too. Kumin’s education and success in publishing made her the more advanced poet at the time that they met. But as the years passed, Sexton became the better-known writer. She published a book before Kumin did.
Both women were awarded a second year at the Radcliffe Institute, and Sexton published a second collection, All My Pretty Ones, in 1962. In 1963, in the final month of her second year at the Institute, Sexton received a traveling fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the first of its kind.
In 1967, Sexton won a Pulitzer Prize for her book Live or Die. There was now no thought of Kumin as Sexton’s teacher. Kumin never craved fame the way Sexton did, so the latter’s success posed no threat to their friendship.
In 1973, Sexton was on the Pulitzer Prize committee and argued vehemently to award the prize to Kumin for her fourth book, Up Country, an honor that many saw as overdue. As a past recipient of the award, Sexton knew well how the prize would affect her friend’s career.
Once Kumin won the Pulitzer, she was in demand — invited to speak around the country, hired to teach at Columbia University, profiled in magazines.
Kumin had become a professional poet in an industry she referred to as “PoBiz.” She and Sexton stayed in constant telephone contact but saw each other less frequently as professional demands took her away from Newton.
The two women were essential to each other’s creative and intellectual development, but Sexton’s needs were emotional as well. When Sexton set off for Europe after winning her traveling fellowship, she felt unanchored and adrift and relied on Kumin’s letters to calm her manic and unstable moods.
In 1973, following Kumin’s Pulitzer, Sexton got divorced. Sexton had initiated the dissolution of her marriage, but she came to regret the decision. In March of 1974, Sexton called Kumin and said she was sitting in front of a pile of pills and planned to keep taking them until both she and the pills were gone.
Kumin rushed over to Sexton’s house and drove her to the emergency room. Sexton was furious, but Kumin said, “If you’re going to telegraph your intentions, you don’t give me any choice.”
It was not by any means a one-way relationship. Kumin needed Sexton’s friendship. Doherty says she “needed Sexton to shake her up and pull her out of her proper, reserved self.”
But Kumin’s needs and friendship were not enough to sustain Sexton. In the months following her March attempt, Kumin believed her friend seemed “healed,” but in October of the same year, after what seemed like an ordinary lunch with Kumin, Sexton drove home and committed suicide by sitting in her idling car in her closed garage.
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10 Poems by Anne Sexton, Confessional Poet
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The underground river
After an initial statement in the aftermath of Sexton’s death, Kumin refused to speak about her friend. “I carried Anne’s death in my pocket,” she wrote to one friend, but she couldn’t help but resent the many messages she received from fans, friends, and acquaintances of Sexton and herself.
The bombardment infringed on her efforts to grieve her friend. She was especially angered by Tillie Olsen’s notes implying that Kumin had failed to be an “active sworn enemy” of Sexton’s suicidal thoughts.
Eventually, she was able to write a foreword to Sexton’s Complete Poems, published in 1981, in which she recalled their early friendship and the evolution of Sexton’s art and its role:
Kumin did not name herself, of course.
After Sexton’s death, Kumin and her husband moved to their house in rural New Hampshire. Kumin continued to write prose, fiction, children’s books, and especially poetry until her death in 2014. She won numerous awards and was named poetry consultant for the Library of Congress (a position now known as the U.S. poet laureate position).
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, she 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 literary friendships:
- George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
- Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker
- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston