Saturday, February 8, 2014

Making a Prairie: Farewell to Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin died on Thursday, and I found out from a Facebook post on Friday.  I keep almost all my volumes of poetry at work, and I looked for some Kumin to take home.  Apparently, although I liked her and taught a poem of hers here and there, I never bought a whole volume.

In fact, the book of hers that I like most is from the U of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series, To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry, and Country Living .  This volume shows the benefits of having other interests outside of one's writing.  I have no desire to own horses, but I've always loved the idea of a farm, and her essays show her delight in living in the country.

I also love the image that I have of her friendship with Anne Sexton.  They used to write in their separate houses while attending to their household duties as young wives and mothers.  They had their own dedicated phone line, and they'd often not hang up the phone and come back to talk to each other periodically.  They'd read each other their poems-in-progress as they worked, and they'd talk about their days, and they'd keep each other connected to the adult world, even as they cared for children.

Of course, I can't think about that relationship without being taken over by a sense of sorrow at the knowledge of Sexton's suicide.  But somewhere along the way, I glommed onto the example of Kumin as a poet who managed both sanity and creativity at the same time.

Younger poets and writers may have no memory of a time when it seemed that most famous/accomplished female writers had mental health issues.  When I was in undergraduate school, we didn't study many female writers at all, and the ones I knew about didn't seem to suggest that being a writer would help one's mental stability:  Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf.  Even the authors who beat their demons, or had no demons, the Brontes for example, died young.

Maxine Kumin showed us that you can have a suburban life and be a good poet. 

According to many people, she was also a fine teacher.  The New York Times had a great article about her which mentioned that she required students to memorize poetry, 30 to 40 lines of it a week:
“'The other reason, as I tell their often stunned faces, is to give them an internal library to draw on when they are taken political prisoner,' she told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans in 2000. 'For many, this is an unthinkable concept; they simply do not believe in anything fervently enough to go to jail for it.'”
In this week that brought us the news of brilliant artists dying too young (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), I'm glad to reflect on the fact that Maxine Kumin was with us for 88 years.  Again, I like an artist's life that shows us that we can live to a ripe old age, still creating solid art into our late years, still surrounded by friends and family.  May we all have that kind of good fortune.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

I used to talk a lot with my students about the poets of that era and how difficult it was to be a woman and be THAT gifted, and how we can do it because they did, but what a difficult path they trod. I wonder if I would emphasize the same things now. I don't think it's in the past. I don't think we've somehow made it. So, yes, I appreciate someone like Maxine Kumin who shows us possibilities...

I, too, was struck when I read the piece by the comment about being a political prisoner. And I loved the open phone line with Anne Sexton.