Pulitzer Prize winning poet Maxine Kumin has died at the age of 88. She was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1981-82, and of New Hampshire from 1989-94.
Kumin’s Reform Jewish family lived next door to the convent and teaching order where she attended elementary school, which, she said, accounted “for the juxtaposition of Jesus and Jewish rituals in many of her poems.” (With an education like that, you’re bound to end up a writer and/or the inspiration for a character in a Wes Anderson film.)
At Harvard, Kumin’s poetry was workshopped by Wallace Stegner. By her own admission, her early poems were “terribly sentimental,” and Stegner wrote at the top of one of her submissions, “Say it with flowers, but for God sakes don’t write any more poems about it.” (At the time he was only 23; Kumin, 17.)
In this fantastic oral history published in 2013, Kumin describes her experience as a working mother in 1958:
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.
But the sexist social mores of the post-war era were no match for Kumin’s tenacity, talent, and originality. She went on to publish dozens of books—not only poetry, but short stories, novels, children’s books (some with her close friend and artistic collaborator, Anne Sexton), and essays. Though she “was not influenced by women writing poetry”—she’s most often compared to Robert Frost—Kumin credits the women’s movement with widening the scope of what was considered acceptable subject material:
“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… 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.”
Here’s a stanza from her gorgeous poem “How It Is,” which she wrote following Sexton’s suicide in 1974:
Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
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.
Those lines seem a fitting tribute to Kumin today as well. May her memory—and words—be a blessing.