When I read back in the winter that Maxine Kumin had died, time-sensitive tasks diverted me. There was snow to shovel, wood to tote, as well as submissions to read, students to tutor, a new issue of Shenandoah to proof, but I knew I wanted to find a day to read, reflect on and celebrate her work, which I have followed enthusiastically since I discovered “Woodchucks” in graduate school and began trying to write for myself poems of consequence that questioned my actions as much as others’.
This week, with finals marked and recorded and the new issue of Shenandoah up for the web world to explore or ignore, I saw my window of opportunity and Xed a day on the calendar. Looking over my shelves, however, I was disappointed to see that my various winnowings of books for shelf space had left me fewer of Maxine’s books than I’d expected. I still have Up Country and Nurture, two selecteds, Connecting the Dots and To Make a Prairie, a collection of essays, reviews and interviews, but that’s hardly ample evidence of her industry excellence. Then a new collection, And Short the Season, arrived from Norton with jacket copy that spoke of her in the present tense, as if still among us, which I believe is essentially true.
My intention here is not to praise this new work (which will likely be done by someone else in a forthcoming review on this site) so much as to say what kind of poet she was and to mourn her loss, as well as the loss of her brand of liberal activism among her colleagues and within myself, for Kumin had as many opinions as most poets, but more what I’d call “beliefs,” though not always orthodox or predictable. Maybe she took selfies and wrote blogs on recipes, but I’m skeptical. It has been easy for poets in this age of the academic sub-guild of MFA faculties to let matters of conscience go lax, if not lapse. After all, we work for institutions, entities which tend to have, eventually, as their prime directive their own survival, which confers a streak of conservatism perhaps counter to the exploratory enterprises of education and art. We get caught up in status and materialism – whether they be manifested in new accommodations and cutting edge technology, good scotches and fancy restaurants at conferences, man caves or glamorous travel. Nothing really new there, but the dual obsessions of self-promotion and reporting all manner of effluvia on social media further complicate matters. They are distractions, and they come at a cost.
It’s tempting to just start in here and praise Kumin for right reason and right attention. She was a meticulous gardener, mushroom hunter, equestrian, friend of the winged and the four-legged. After all, she was sometimes saddled with terms like “Roberta Frost” and dismissed or diminished because her querencia was rural, fecund, elemental, and not (in the popular mind) so nuanced nor cerebral as the domestic and social lives of academics and literary gadabouts. But when Kumin turned her attention to the fundamental human drama, even as manifested in the news headlines – war, famine, gender politics – she retained her curatorial instincts for precision, order and freshness of phrase. She honored her “calling, [which] needs constancy,/ the deep woods drumming of the grouse ….”
I think back to some of the poems we always need but which our current world would be without if we hadn’t had Kumin to say, “Now look here”:
her moose poems, her bear poems (Cherish/ your wilderness”), her hermit poems and Henry Manley poems, “How It Goes On” (O lambs! The whole wolf-world sits down to eat/ And cleans its muzzle after.), the swimming poems, the many horse poems, the political poems (whether about Bosnia, capital punishment, torture, fracking or driving birds to extinction), her elegies for her friend Anne Sexton (especially “How It Is,” with its final transformation: “leaning my ribs against this durable cloth/to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death”), and of course “Woodchucks” with its weighing of various “humane” actions, its self-indictment and respect for adversaries, guilt and confession amid the recognition of necessities and its moment of lovely elegy and regret – “He died down in the everbearing roses.” She knew that love and death are the two great subjects, but also that they subsume all.
But I do Kumin a disservice to imply for a moment that the subjects and attitudes of the poems are the marks of her “gift” (too light a term, but “genius” is worn out; maybe I should just say “of her light”). She was a formidable wit and a poet of form who understood that, as Sexton once said, “Craft is a trick you make up to let you write the poem.” A necessary trick. And her absolutely focused threshold of attention and verbal resource (or call it “damn good sense and the knowledge to keep working the tune”) kept her interesting and surprising. She knew, with Milton, that “purity comes through trial, and trial is by what is contrary.”
When Kumin read the poems of others (say Frost’s “Provide, Provide”) she brought both ingenuity and conscience to the task, continuing to pursue her responsibilities as witness, and some of her essays about her art, especially the “Three Lectures on Poetry” in To Make a Prairie, are rife with ore. I’m really happy to have whole books on topics like tone by the erudite Ellen Bryant Voigt, but I wish there were corresponding books by Kumin to set beside them on the shelf. She had, however, other promises to keep and wrote fiction and children’s books instead of abundant essays.
I did meet her once and spent a couple of evenings in her company, along with my wife and others. It was less than a decade back, and she was still suffering from neck injuries incurred in a buggy accident. She was not performing the glib celebrity reel many writers cultivate but seemed a genuinely serious person who believed in her calling and took others seriously, but she was also a good yarner and a wit who didn’t pause for applause. I thought she was tough and generous and saw that the poems I knew as written by her were her as fully as any poet I’ve met. Right up with Heaney, Warren, Merwin, Wilbur. Grit and patience were stitched into her nature. She seemed, as Henry James recommended, “one upon whom nothing is lost.”
I find myself wishing I were more like her in determination and steady practice, not so prone to inertia and frequently profitless reflection, but I want to think Kumin would have approved of my delays in writing this, try to imagine her saying, “Chores are not diversions. First clear a path, split the kindling, feed the creatures and read the student papers. Do it all with sensitive enthusiasm and a skeptic’s squint, the keen attention that amounts to prayer. Then find the words you need and put them to work.” As she showed us again and again, poems get made that way, and meaningful life.
[Anyone looking for a quick and spirited summary of Kumin’s career should consider reading her essay “Metamorphosis: From Light Verse to the Poetry of Witness” in the Winter 2012 (Vol. LXVI, No. 4) in The Georgia Review. It’s more personal/thematic than aesthetic, but it’s a marvel of candor and a valuable counterweight to the histories of poets who remained in university settings and whose work evolved as a result of critical fashion and the demands of tenure and vitaphilia.]