Saturday, April 9, 2022

Maxine Kumin and Two Sides of a Coin—National Poetry Month 2022


Maxine Kumin--a poet in her prime at her desk.

Maxine Kumin was born Maxine Winokur on June 6, 1925 in Philadelphia, the daughter of Jewish parents but attended a Catholic kindergarten and primary school. She received her B.A. in 1946 and her M.A. in 1948 from Radcliffe. In June 1946 she married Victor Kumin, an engineering consultant.  They had three children, two daughters and a son. In 1957, she studied poetry with John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There she met Anne Sexton, with whom she started a friendship that continued until Sexton’s suicide in 1974.  Kumin taught English from 1958 to 1961 and 1965 to 1968 at Tufts University and from 1961 to 1963 she was a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. She also held appointments as a visiting lecturer and poet in residence at many American colleges and universities.

The author of several esteemed collections of poetry, she was honored to be named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1981–1982.  From 1976 until her death in February 2014, she and her husband lived on a farm in Warner, New Hampshire, where they bred Arabian and quarter horses.

A happy Kumin on her Warner, New Hampshire farm.

Critics have compared Kumin with Elizabeth Bishop because of her meticulous observations and with Robert Frost because she frequently devoted her attention to the rhythms of life in rural New England. She has also been grouped with confessional poets such as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. But unlike the confessionalists, Kumin eschewed high rhetoric and adopted a plain spoken style. Throughout her career, she struck a balance between her sense of life’s transience and her fascination with the dense physical presence of the world around her.

Diane Wakoski wrote in Contemporary Women Poets:

The one thing that is clear throughout [Kumin’s] substantial body of work is that she believes survival is possible, if only through the proper use of the imagination to retrieve those things which are loved well enough.

My first selection of here work may surprise some folks but delight vegans.  After all, I am a notorious omnivore who vegan friends have denounced as social justice and environmental hypocrite and an active saboteur of the planet.  I would be shunned and shamed at a California brown rice and tofu Unitarian potluck.  But my discovery of Accolade of the Animals absolutely charmed and delighted me.

Life-long vegetarian George Bernard Shaw not long before his death from injuries in a fall at age 103.

Accolade of the Animals


All those he never ate

appeared to Bernard Shaw

single file in his funeral

procession as he lay abed

with a cracked infected bone

from falling off his bicycle.


They stretched from Hampton Court

downstream to Piccadilly

against George Bernard's pillow

paying homage to the flesh

of man unfleshed by carnage.


Just shy of a hundred years

of pullets, laying hens

no longer laying, ducks, turkeys,

pigs and piglets, old milk cows,

anemic vealers, grain-fed steer,

the annual Easter lambkin,

the All Hallows’ mutton,

ring-necked pheasant, deer,

bags of hare unsnared,

rosy trout and turgid carp

tail-walking like a sketch by Tenniel.


What a cortege it was:

the smell of hay in his nose,

the pungencies of the barn,

the courtyard cobbles slicked

with wet. How we omnivores

suffer by comparison

in the jail of our desires

salivating at the smell of char

who will not live on fruits

and greens and grains alone

so long a life, so sprightly, so cocksure.


Maxine Kumin


On the other hand, Kumin was no self-righteous scold.  She even admitted to a tinge of bloodlust herself though she wryly recognized her guilt.  This one is matter of fact and rooted in commonplace real life.

                                        A woodchuck and the means of his execution. 


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 shoehorned 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. 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.


Maxine Kumin

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