“Writers are all secret Jews,” declared poet and writer Maxine Kumin in a Massachusetts Review interview in 1975, two years after receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Up Country: Poems of New England. This statement is particularly significant for what it implies about Kumin’s Jewish background and the role it has played in her work—a role frequently overlooked by readers and critics. Because much of her subtle, elegantly crafted poetry focuses on the details of country living—gardening, mushrooming, horse raising, coping with wild animals, experiencing the change of seasons—it is frequently classified as pastoral. Kumin has been compared to Robert Frost, an association that pleases her. She has also been considered a confessional poet, in the manner of her friend and colleague Anne Sexton. These descriptions, though not inaccurate, are limited. For Kumin is also a Jewish American woman poet whose writing closely examines what it means to negotiate the demands of two different cultures. Her work constantly questions and expands the concept of Jewishness in contemporary, culturally divided America.
Born Maxine Winokur on June 6, 1925, in Germantown, a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she was the youngest of four children and the only girl. Her father, Peter Winokur, was a successful pawnbroker whose family had emigrated from Eastern Europe. Her mother, Doll (Simon), whose family emigrated from Bohemia to Virginia in the nineteenth century, had wanted to become a professional musician, an ambition thwarted by her father. Similarly, Maxine, an excellent swimmer, was prevented from joining Bill Rose’s Aquacade by her father. Peter Winokur, however, did approve of her writing. As a “Jewish patriarch,” he respected the written word.
As a child, she attended the convent school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph next door to her home for three years; later, she attended secular Philadelphia schools. She received her B.A. in history and literature from Radcliffe College in 1946. Soon after graduation, she married Victor Montwid Kumin, an engineer, with whom she had three children: Jane Simon, Judith Montwid, and Daniel David. She returned to Radcliffe for a master’s degree in 1948. Participating in a workshop conducted by the poet John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education proved to be extremely beneficial in Kumin’s own development as a poet. At the time, however, getting published presented a challenge. “Until the Women’s Movement,” Kumin says, “it was commonplace to be told by an editor that he’d like to publish more of my poems, but he’d already published one by a woman that month.” Such obstacles notwithstanding, Kumin’s first book of poetry Halfway was published in 1961. Since then, she has published thirteen additional books of poetry; taught poetry writing at Tufts, Washington, Columbia, Brandeis, and Princeton Universities; received the Pulitzer Prize (1973) and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1980); served as a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (1981–1982); and was elected chancellor in the Academy of American Poets (1996). She resigned from the Academy in 1998 to protest the absence of blacks and other minorities on the board of chancellors. Kumin has also published four novels, three collections of essays, two books of short stories, and numerous children’s books (four with Anne Sexton). She now lives on a farm in Warner, New Hampshire, where she writes and raises horses. While her fiction reflects Jewish concerns, it is in her poetry that such themes are most thoroughly explored. Kumin’s earliest relationships with gentiles initiated a dialogue between cultures that recurs throughout her poetry. In an early poem, “Mother Rosarine,” the poet expresses both the attractions of the convent world, from which the child-speaker steals a rosary, and a sense of alienation from it: “Wrong, born wrong for the convent games.” In “The Spell,” Kumin’s Jewish mother has apparent power in the garden that borders the convent’s yard. Perhaps the most powerful expression of Kumin’s ambivalence toward both cultures occurs in “Sisyphus.” In terse couplets, another child-speaker tells of helping a man in a wheelchair. When he praises her as “a perfect Christian child,” she wishes to contradict him, to assert her Jewishness, but cannot do so. This failure becomes her burden.
In a series of “tribal poems,” Kumin explores her family, its history, and its stories. “The Pawnbroker” is a moving tribute to her father, written after his death. “The Chain” evokes her mother’s life as a Jew in a small Virginia town and connects her parent to a “chain” of mothers and daughters. “Sperm” wittily traces the histories of seventeen cousins. “For My Great-Grandfather: A Message Long Overdue” describes her mother’s ancestor, a tailor from Bohemia, who has moved to Newport News, Virginia. In his new surroundings, he writes letters to his family, ending in blessings, on the backs of bills-of-sale.
Kumin moves from the personal sphere to a wider historical context in another group of poems. In “The Order of History,” the speaker dreams of a pogrom in which her Polish lover would be her enemy, not her ally. The subject of one’s role, whether chosen or not, in the horrifying events of the twentieth century is raised in “The Amsterdam Poem”: The speaker visits Anne Frank’s house, expresses guilt at having been safe in Pennsylvania while other Jews were murdered, and concludes, “for suffering there is no quantum.” In “Woodchucks,” the speaker compares her own escalating determination to exterminate the garden pests to the Nazis’ mad social Darwinism. Violence against a demonized enemy, the poet implies, is regrettably a universal human trait.
In two later poems, the cultural dialogue takes another turn. “Living Alone with Jesus,” written while Kumin was teaching in Danville, Kentucky, begins in a state of alienation and ends with a whimsical act of cross-religious communication. At first, the speaker appears overwhelmed by the “thirty-seven churches” and the hymns flooding her room. Then she imagines Jesus as a guest to whom she offers grapefruit with honey. Kumin shows that in the realm of imagination, religious and cultural differences can be bridged. In “For a Young Nun at Breadloaf,” the religious-cultural divide is resolved in human terms. The engaging Sister Elizabeth asserts that the speaker is, like herself, doing “Christ’s work,” but the speaker calls herself an “Old Jew.” In this poem, the tongue-tied, confused girl of “Sisyphus” has become an adult, well able to manage complicated issues of identity.
In her work, Kumin affirms her Jewish past in “a nation losing its memory,” and extends that past forward to encompass a wider cultural family. In doing so, she leaves her mark, deftly and sensitively, as an important contemporary Jewish American poet.
Kumin’s life changed drastically in 1998 when her horse, Deuter, bolted at a carriage-driving clinic. Kumin, who was driving, was seriously injured: eleven ribs and the vertebrae at the top of her spinal column were broken, her lung was punctured, her kidney and liver were bruised, and she lost feeling in all four limbs. The diagnosis was not encouraging. However, Kumin experienced a remarkable, even miraculous, recovery, aided by her family (especially her daughter), her love of language (she initially responded to subtitles on the hospital television screen) and the “halo”—a form of axial traction attached to a cage-like vest, in which the head is fastened by four pins. Inside the Halo: the Anatomy of a Recovery (2001) is a clear-sighted and moving account of this experience.
“In the early years,” Kumin once told an interviewer, “‘you write like a man’ was the supreme compliment.” But for Maxine Kumin, “you write like a Jewish woman” is the highest praise of all.
Connecting the Dots: Poems (1996); The Designated Heir (1974); The Eggs of Things, with Anne Sexton (1963); Halfway (1961); House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate (1975); In Deep: Country Essays (1987); The Long Approach (1985); The Long Marriage (2001); Looking for Luck: Poems (1992); The Microscope (1984); More Eggs of Things, with Anne Sexton (1964); The Nightmare Factory (1970); Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (1982); The Passions of Uxport (1968); The Privilege (1965); The Retrieval System (1978); Selected Poems: 1961–1990 (1997); To Make a Prairie: Essays on Poets, Poetry and Country Living (1979); Up Country: Poems of New England (1972); What Color is Caesar? (1978); Why Can’t We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings? (1982); Women, Animals and Vegetables (1996); Always Beginning (2000); Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (2000).
Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 21 (1987); Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 5 (1976); “Interview with Maxine Kumin.” The Pedestal Magazine (2003).