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The love of poetry comes early. We learn language most readily in the sing-song meter of rhyme and scan. Poetry sings to us, our child selves, and we suck it in, unknowingly ravenous, like it’s a sweet we’ve suddenly been allowed when we’ve been deprived before. Our young brains embrace the order of synchronous sound, of vowels that widen our mouths, of diphthongs that roll across our tongues, of consonants that erupt from the backs of our throats. We intuit our own newly born etymologies.
Maxine Kumin was a poet who tapped into that primeval discovery of language. Her poems were earthy and of the earth. Her words were crisp and sharp and culled from the known world. She juxtaposed the broadly physical with a viscerally poetic approach to it. Her poems were deceptively simple, yet as with all the best poetry ever, they conjured images that were near-archetypal. We knew and understood them so well. Kumin said often in interviews, “If I had a religion, it would be poetry,” and we see that in her reverence for words, for cadence, for language itself.
Kumin–Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Poet Laureate–died Feb. 6 of natural causes at her home in Warner, N.H. She was 88. Her daughter, Judith Kumin, told reporters that her mother had been in declining health for over a year, but that death had come suddenly. They had been playing Scrabble together Feb.1, but the next day Kumin could no longer get out of bed.
The author of nearly 40 books, an advocate for women’s rights, political and social justice issues, the environment and animal rights, she wrote most often about life, death and the changing of the literal and metaphorical seasons–on her own New England farm and in the panoply of causes that compelled her, from war to the environment to AIDS. Her final collection, And Short the Season, is scheduled to be published later this year.
There had been many impediments to Kumin becoming the poet she was, one of the last, with Donald Hall, of her generation of poets. As an undergraduate at Radcliffe College, her creative writing professor was Wallace Stegner. After turning over a sheaf of poems to him for review, she received them back with the terse admonition, “Say it with flowers, but for God’s sake don’t try to write poems.”
Stegner’s words kept her from poetry for over a decade, but poetry won out, as did Kumin’s indomitability. (Though 20 years his junior, she would win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the year after he won the award.)
When she was 73, Kumin, who trained horses, had a horrifying accident with a horse who pulled a carriage weighing 350 pounds over her, breaking most of her ribs, bruising her internal organs and most damaging, crushing the vertebrae of her neck, causing a spinal cord injury. She was forced to endure a halo traction device, which she wrote about eloquently in 2000 in a memoir of the accident, Inside the Halo and Beyond: Anatomy of Recovery.
She wrote, “Imagine a bird cage big enough for a large squawking parrot. Imagine a human head inside the cage fastened by four titanium pins that dig into the skull. The pins are as sharp as ice picks.”
Her physician later said 95 percent of people who sustain this kind of injury don’t survive and of those who do, nearly all are left permanently quadriplegic. Kumin recovered most of her mobility, but endured chronic pain throughout the rest of her life.
Kumin draws on her experience of severe injury in her children’s novel, Lizzie!, due to be published this spring. It’s the tale of a young girl coping with a spinal cord injury.
The breadth of Kumin’s work was immense and spanned a vigorous career which began at mid-life, nearly a decade after she was awarded her master’s degree from Radcliffe College in 1948. In 1957 she met Anne Sexton in a poetry seminar they both took. It was a charmed meeting; the two would be best friends and the closest of colleagues, writing several books together, until Sexton’s suicide, Oct. 4, 1974. For Kumin it was the most enduring relationship of her life, except for those of her husband and children.
The two writers were very different poets structurally and otherwise–Sexton was the leading poet of a school of verse that was acutely personal and deeply interior, but which would come to be dismissively termed “confessional” poetry because many of its most brilliant expositors were women.
Kumin and Sexton worked so closely together, they each had a phone line in their homes specifically for each other, away from their respective husbands and children. Kumin explained that when she and Sexton were working, they would leave their phones in an open line to the other and the first to finish her writing would whistle into the phone so that she could read her new poem to the other.
Kumin said Sexton helped her to see that nothing was off-limits in poetry, writing, “She helped me to open up in ways I might not have achieved on my own.” It was Sexton who gave Kumin the title for her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Up Country.
Sexton suffered severe depression and Kumin had helped Sexton through suicide attempts. It was after having had lunch with Kumin and having gone over a manuscript together that Sexton went home and killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning.
In an interview with the Concord Monitor in 2004 on the 30th anniversary of Sexton’s suicide, Kumin said, “I think about it constantly. It’s very fresh. I don’t think it will ever fade. I think I have finally forgiven her.”
In her poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem in Memory of Anne Sexton,” Kumin compares her friend to an elk that loses and regrows its antlers year after year: “No matter how hardened it seems there was pain.//Blood on the snow from rubbing, rubbing, rubbing.”
When Sexton killed herself, Kumin was shaken deeply. She wrote another poem for Sexton, “How It Is,” which begins:
Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
…In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.
And then she ends: “I will be years gathering up our words,/fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,/leaning my ribs against this durable cloth/to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.”
Kumin wrote often of big subjects like life and death, but with an economy of language and a spareness that won her the moniker “Roberta Frost.” She said she didn’t mind the comparison to the brilliant New England poet, but she also said in more than one interview, “In the early years, ‘you write like a man’ was the supreme compliment.”
Kumin was also often compared to Elizabeth Bishop, but although like Bishop she was a poet first, last and always, her writing ranged wide over a vast landscape that included every and all wordsmithery: poetry, essays, novels, short stories and non-fiction. She also wrote children’s books, several of which she wrote with Sexton.
Kumin was one of a small group of women poets whose work blazed into the core of second-wave feminism, smashing up against the glass ceiling of American letters, demanding to be ceded space.
In addition to Sexton, her compatriots were Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kizer–the poets those of us in the first wave of Women’s Studies courses carried across campus in our backpacks in well-marked volumes and read to each other by candlelight in dorm rooms.
“Until the Women’s Movement,” Kumin wrote, “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. This attitude was the rule rather than the exception.”
It was that sexism in the Academy that Kumin sought to change, noting, “Women are not supposed to have uteruses, especially in poems.”
Although she never claimed the spot in feminist literary hierarchy owned by Adrienne Rich, Kumin broke her own barriers. She was Poet Laureate from 1981 to 1982. From 1989 to 1994 she was Poet Laureate of New Hampshire. In 1973 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems, Up Country, about the rural countryside she inhabited and the farm on which she lived.
As she got older, Kumin’s work became more and more political. In a 2008 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Kumin said, “Twenty years ago, I thought Denise Levertov was wrong to write political poems, that she would lose her lyrical impulse. But I’ve changed my mind. I didn’t write my poems because I wanted to, they were wrung from me. I had to write them.”
Her most controversial book of poems was Still to Mow, published in 2007, when Kumin was 82. In these poems she is determined and urgent as she juxtaposes the gritty world of her farm life with the harrowing world of war and retributive “justice” that so often recedes into the background of the news. In “What You Do” she takes on torture in a poem reminiscent of Auden:
when nobody’s looking
in the black sites what you do
when nobody knows you
are in there what you do
when you’re in the black sites
when you shackle them higher
in there what you do
when you kill by crucifixion
when you shackle them higher
are you still Christian
when you kill by crucifixion
when you ice the body
Kumin said she felt her words should speak to George Bush and Dick Cheney as well as her own readers.
Another poem in that collection, “On Reading The Age of Innocence in a Troubled Time,” she puts Wharton’s women in counterpoint to the story of the retributive gang rape of a Pakistani girl, Mukhtaran Bibi:
Gang rape. The definition
several attackers in rapid succession
in no way conveys the fervor,
the male gutturals, the raw juice as
the treasured porcelain of her vagina
was shattered. Splintered again and again.
And after, to be jeered at
The shame of it.
In an interview in Pedestal magazine in 2010, Kumin’s voice is no less strong for being 85. She commented on the controversies with blatant disdain for both the previous and current administrations, both having been found guilty of torture.
Kumin’s political passion is revealed as she says, “The so-called torture poems in Still to Mow were indeed written during Bush’s (and Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s) imperial presidency. I wrote them in outrage and despair and while I was hopeful that with the election of Obama things would change, there are still black sites, we are still being lied to. For example, the three suicides of June 2006 at Gitmo are now in 2010 exposed as homicides—we murdered these men, one by one, coldly, stuffing rags down their throats to suffocate them. None of them had been charged with a crime. One of them was seized at seventeen and likely sold to the US by bounty hunters. Why were they killed? Possibly because to release them would permit them to tell how obscenely they were tortured at Guantanamo. Obama’s vaunted promise to close the prison is well behind schedule. Campaign promises are one thing. Having the guts to carry them out is another.”
Kumin takes issue with the criticism of Still to Mow, noting, “The most recent criticism has been of my so-called torture poems in Still to Mow. Some critics feel that these are not the proper purview for poetry, some applaud them for bearing witness. I think the urgency of my political judgment has grown exponentially since we invaded Iraq as each new hideous, obscene torture event is brought to light there and now in Afghanistan, where prisoners are frequently sold to the US by bounty hunters. I am thinking of Omar Khadr, a fifteen-year-old when he was picked up and sold for $5,000. He is still in Guantanamo despite Obama’s pledge to close this facility. I am thinking of the three hunger strikers who were said to have committed suicide in June 2006 but are now known to have been murdered by our own forces, suffocated one by one by having rags stuffed down their throats. Well, you get the gist.”
The breadth, scope and excellence of Kumin’s work did not go unremarked. Among Kumin’s many awards were the Poet’s Prize in 1994, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry in 1995 and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1999. Kumin also won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1980. She was elected chancellor in the Academy of American Poets in 1996. She and Carolyn Kizer resigned from the Academy in 1998 to protest the absence of women, blacks and other minorities on the board of chancellors.
She was awarded six honorary degrees and taught at various prestigious colleges over the years, including Princeton, MIT, Columbia, Brandeis, Tufts, New England College and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Colony. In an interview in 2000 in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Kumin said she demanded that her students memorize several dozen lines of poetry each week so they could read it aloud, that it was an important skill for a writer.
She added, “The other reason, as I tell their often stunned faces, is to give them an internal library to draw on when they are taken political prisoner. For many, this is an unthinkable concept–they simply do not believe in anything fervently enough to go to jail for it.”
Born in Philadelphia, the fourth and youngest child to Jewish immigrant parents who had become wealthy, Kumin often wrote about being Jewish and Otherness. In her poem “Living Alone with Jesus,” she writes: “In the county there are thirty-seven churches/and no butcher shop. This could be taken/as a matter of all form and no content.”
Like Rich, Kumin wrote about the political and historical role of the poet and writer. In “The Amsterdam Poem,” after visiting Anne Frank’s house she writes of having been safe while other Jews were annihilated, ending, “for suffering there is no quantum.”
In her famous poem, “Woodchucks,” Kumin compares her intense desire to rid her vegetable garden of the rodents she has come to despise with the insidiousness of Nazism. The final line as stunning as the report of a gun, it resonates long after as a coda–we humans fall so easily into a thirst for killing:
Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoe-horned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub basement out of range.
Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.
The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the little woodchuck’s face.
He died down in the everbearing roses.
Ten minutes later I dropped the mother. She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next. O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.
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
That final, haunting couplet resonates a long while.
Writing, Kumin said, was her salvation. You see it here, in my favorite Kumin poem, “Grace,” from her first book of poems Halfway, in 1961:
Hens have their gravel; gravel sticks
The way it should stick, in the craw.
And stone on stone is tooth
For grinding raw.
And grinding raw, I learn from this
To fill my crop the way I should.
I put down pudding stone
And find it good.
I find it good to line my gut
With tidy octagons of grit.
No loophole and no chink
Make vents in it.
And in it vents no slime or sludge;
No losses sluice, no terrors slough.
God, give me appetite
for stone enough.
Kumin is survived by her husband, Victor, her three children, Judith, Jane and Daniel, and two grandchildren. And all those many poems we will read still, remembering her lean words, always, even though she has gone.