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Spotlight on Poet Maxine Kumin, born June 6, 1925

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Maxine Kumin was celebrated as “Poet of the Month” on The Lois Level in June, 2021.

Read her poem “Going Down” here.

Read her poem “Wellfleet, Cape Cod” here.

Read her poem “Purim and the Beetles of Our Lady” here.

Read her poem “Ancient History in the Eye Center” here.

A Snapshot of Maxine Kumin’s Life

Maxine Kumin was born June 6, 1925 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

In her early life, she followed the trajectory of a typical, if upper class, young woman who attended Radcliffe College (the women’s annex of Harvard) and married a Harvard graduate when he completed his military service right after World War 2. 

Instead of ending her career there, however, Kumin went on to mentor and teach poetry while continuing to publish poetry and raise her children. 

In her later years, she and her husband moved to Warner, New Hampshire, where they raised horses and where Kumin passed away in 2014. 

She won numerous prizes over the years, including the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Up Country, which is ironically out of print although many of her other works continue to be published. 

She also wrote poetry and prose for children, and seems to have been a pioneer in particular with regard to writing fiction featuring children with disabilities, such as her novel Lizzie. 

Maxine Kumin is known for her attention to nature and the environment, particularly in New England. For that reason, she is compared to Robert Frost. Her work is also known for its deceptive simplicity that invites the reader in. 

Kumin is one poet you don’t need a literature degree to connect with!

Why Read Maxine Kumin?

Maxine Kumin is known for the apparent simplicity of her writing. More will emerge each time you read it, but that first time, there’s no need to shut life down to get through one of her poems.

Although she’s thought of as a nature writer, she juxtaposes it with her personal experiences, history, politics, and science in unexpected ways.

I find her inspirational because she married young…as women did in the aftermath of World War 2…and didn’t start writing poetry until she was a young housewife and mother. I personally find that reassuring.

The Pawnbroker’s Daughter, Maxine Kumin’s Memoirs

As you get to know Maxine Kumin as a poet, and some point you should read her memoir, The Pawnbroker’s Daughter. Ironically, there isn’t so much focus on Kumin’s life as “the pawnbroker’s daughter”. What fascinated me about her early life really was her relationship with the man who later became her husband, Victor Kumin, who was secretly working for the government in the nuclear program at the end of World War 2, while she was dating him.

She also discusses her close friendship with Anne Sexton…she is believed to be the last person to see Sexton alive before Sexton’s 1974 suicide.

The latter part of her book focuses on her life in the New England countryside where she raised horses, which provides a backdrop to much of her poetry.

Spotlight on And Short the Season

I chose And Short the Season in part because it’s one of Kumin’s later works, and in part, I admit, because it was available at my library. They are poems from near the end of her life, and the themes reflect that stage. That’s the only way I can explain it without sinking into cliche. I certainly recommend this collection as a place to start with Kumin.

Many of her collections are available at the Brooklyn Public Library and, of course, for sale.

More by Maxine Kumin

It’s usually better to start with smaller collections of poems that have been put together and sequenced by design. Although many of Maxine Kumin’s books from her long career are out of print, these are in print at publication time and are also available digitally from the Brooklyn Public Library (membership $50/year for all U.S. residents).

Although I’m an avid Kindle reader, I do feel that poetry is in large part about the experience, and for me, reading off paper from a book is part of the poetry experience. I try to get ahold of paper books to read poetry as much as possible, but in the end, reading off a Kindle is better than nothing.

Poetry books have small runs, which causes them to be expensive, so it’s worthwhile to check out library books for sampling and save your purchases for the ones you really want to own permanently and savor. Poetry is about multiple readings.

These two larger general collections are also in print. They are useful to trace Kumin’s path as a poet chronologically.

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