Quiet, quirky, and devoted to keen observations of the world, Maxine Kumin found a way to talk to wildness.
“Like the horses she raised on her farm in New Hampshire, Maxine Kumin was a thoroughbred,” Paul Muldoon wrote for The New Yorker upon her death in 2014, “she belonged to the line in American poetry that may be traced back through Robert Frost to Mistress Bradstreet.” An enduring presence in American poetry, the poet mined the inner and outer landscapes of life in rural New Hampshire to produce unflinching, elegiac, and meticulous portraits that expose the wonder in the seemingly ordinary. This keenly-wrought verse garnered Kumin the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her fourth book of poetry, Up Country: Poems of New England (1972).
Kumin translated the transience of life and dense natural world into poems characterized by matter-of-fact language and traditional poetic forms. “As you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form,” Kumin wrote, “the order—the marvelous informing order—emerges from it.” In key collections such as Up Country, Looking for Luck, The Long Marriage, and Still to Mow, critic Rachel Hadas has described Kumin’s work as “steady, grounded, almost stoical in comparison; the language less likely to transcend its occasion and engage in lyric flights. Kumin’s early work is more concerned with formal structures than her later work, but always her language is subordinated to observation and thought.”
Kumin’s fascination with the fragility of life took a dark turn in 1999 when she was seriously injured, breaking her neck while preparing her horse for a dressage event. A memoir recounting her experience, Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery, was published in 2000. The New York Times praised the book, likening it “to a dignified prayer of thanks,” resonating with “wisdom while announcing a triumph of body and soul.” In that same year, Kumin also published Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry, a collection of essays and poems describing Kumin’s daily life as a poet.
Kumin won many honoraria besides her Pulitzer, including the Ruth Lilly Prize and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She was the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1981-1982, and taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities, including MIT, Princeton, and Columbia.
A devotee to New England, Kumin lived on a farm in New Hampshire until her death in 2014.