Feature

Maxine Kumin, 1925–2014

The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet who wrote about her farm

Poet Maxine Kumin made a lifelong habit of memorizing verse. She swam laps as a teenager to the cadence of W.H. Auden and later wrote about reciting Gerard Manley Hopkins during road trips: “The priest’s sprung metronome tick-tocks, / repeating how old winter is. It asks / each mile, snow fog battening the valleys, / what is all this juice and all this joy?”

Maxine Winokur was born in Philadelphia as “the youngest of four children of a Jewish family,” said The New York Times, and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1946. That year she married Victor Kumin and was soon “enveloped by marriage and motherhood in the Boston suburbs.” She became so close to fellow poet Anne Sexton, said The Boston Globe, that the two “kept a private phone line between their houses open during the day, whistling into the receiver to summon each other when they had lines to share.” Sexton suggested the title for Kumin’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Up Country, and remained a constant influence even after her suicide in 1974.

By then the Kumins had moved to “a rundown farm on land thick with brush and brambles” in New Hampshire, said the Concord, N.H., Monitor. Working the farm made Kumin’s language more muscular and her poetry, she later said, “more intimately about what I saw and what I felt.” Along with other works, Kumin wrote 17 books of poetry and served as the U.S. poet laureate. In her last collection, And Short the Season, due out this spring, she took a final look around the farm: “rich new grass the horses nose / and nibble like sleepwalkers held fast— / brittle beauty—might this be the last?”

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