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Maxine Kumin dies at 88; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet

Decades before she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Maxine Kumin was a student at Radcliffe College who had summoned the courage to show a handful of her poems to an instructor.

His comment couldn't have been more withering. "Say it with flowers," he wrote, "but for God's sake don't try to write poems."

Kumin heeded his advice. Seven years passed before she tried again, but this time her efforts brought far more encouraging results.

With a clear-eyed vision of the natural world, relationships, mortality and the inner lives of women, Kumin became one of the country's most honored poets, whose fourth book of poetry, "Up Country," brought her the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Kumin, who wrote more than three dozen books, including a memoir, novels and children's literature, died of natural causes Thursday at her farm in Warner, N.H. She was 88.

Although increasingly frail, "she was busy … right up to the end," Judith Kumin said of her mother, whose final book of poetry, "And Short the Season," will be published in the spring. "On Saturday night she beat me at Scrabble, and the next morning she couldn't get out bed."

Although part of a generation of poets known for confessional work — her close friend Anne Sexton who committed suicide in 1974, was an exemplar of that form — Kumin wrote poems that were personal without being overtly emotional.

She cited W.H. Auden as one of her chief influences, but she could be difficult to categorize: Critics variously described her as a transcendentalist and as a regional pastoral poet, whose subject matter and preference for traditional forms brought so many comparisons to a certain famous New Englander that she was nicknamed "Roberta Frost."

She raised horses on a 200-acre farm, and creatures like woodchucks and lambs abound in her poems, along with farm imagery that enriches her meditations on loss and life. The human heart, in Kumin's world, reminds her of "avocado pears," words are "living meat," and horse manure takes on existential weight, as in the 1976 piece "Excrement Poem":

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from

the least cast of worm to what must have been

in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor

of considerable heft, something awesome.

She nearly died in 1998 in a carriage accident, when her horse was spooked by a truck. Thrown from the carriage, she broke her neck and wore a metal brace during an arduous healing period that led her to write "Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery" (2000).

The farm was not part of Kumin's early years. She was born June 2, 1925, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, the youngest of four children and the only girl. Her mother, Belle, studied music in a conservatory before she married Kumin's father, Peter Winokur, a pawnbroker.

At Radcliffe, she joined the swim team and, through Radcliffe's association with Harvard University, studied creative writing with Wallace Stegner. It was Stegner who told her she should not write poems.

Majoring in English, she earned a bachelor's degree in 1946, the year she married Victor Kumin, an army sergeant two years out of Harvard. She earned a master's degree in comparative literature from Radcliffe in 1948.

Besides her daughter Judith and her husband, she is survived by daughter Jane, son Daniel and two grandchildren.

She spent several years as a suburban housewife, squeezing in a bit of freelance medical writing. But by the fall of 1952, when she was pregnant with her third child, she was feeling "woefully unfulfilled," as she later wrote in an essay for Contemporary Authors, and picked up copy of Richard Armour's "Writing Light Verse."

Armour's text provided enough inspiration to guide her back to poetry. By 1953 she began selling poems, which appeared in publications such as the Christian Science Monitor, Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping and the Wall Street Journal. Her first collection, "Halfway," was published in 1961 when she was 36.

In 1956 she had joined a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education, where she met Sexton and began what she later described as "the intense personal and professional relationship that sustained us both as we came of age as poets."

Kumin encouraged Sexton to develop the poems that became Sexton’s 1971 collection “Transformations,” named after Kumin’s suggestion. Sexton in turn suggested the title for Kumin's "Up Country."

They were so close that they kept phone lines open when they were writing, whistling into the receiver to get the other's attention when one needed guidance on a word or a phrase.

Kumin helped support Sexton through suicide attempts, but Sexton finally succeeded in 1974, killing herself by carbon monoxide poisoning after her weekly lunch at Kumin's house.

In "On Being Asked to Write a Poem in Memory of Anne Sexton," Kumin compared the poet to an elk that lost and regrew its antlers every year:

No matter how hardened it seems there was pain.

Blood on the snow from rubbing, rubbing, rubbing.

In later years, Kumin's subject matter ranged to war, environmental degradation and other issues, a shift that was not always welcomed by critics. In a review of "The Long Approach" (1985), which touched on pollution, religious persecution, nuclear threats and famine, Wendy Lesser in the Washington Post said Kumin's poems "founder on their opinion making."

But Kumin grounded her commentary in familiar terrain, merging violence and nature in "Still to Mow," from a 2009 collection of the same name:

Me in my bugproof netted headpiece kneeling

to spread sodden newspapers between broccolis

corn sprouts, cabbages and four kinds of beans

prostrate before old suicide bombings, starvation,

AIDS, earthquakes, the unforeseen tsunami

front-page photographs of lines of people

"Twenty years ago, I thought Denise Levertov was wrong to write political poems, that she would lose her lyrical impulse," Kumin told the Christian Science Monitor in 2008. "But I've changed my mind; I didn't write my poems because I wanted to, they were wrung from me. I had to write them."

She had numerous teaching appointments over the years, including stints at Brandeis University, Washington University in St. Louis, Columbia and Princeton. In 1981-82 she served at the Library of Congress as poetry consultant, which later became the position of U.S. poet laureate. Her other honors include the Ruth Lilly Prize in 1999 and a Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2011.

Calling writing her "salvation," she remained prolific into her 80s, meditating on universal concerns such as the end of life in works such as this one from "A Mortal Day of No Surprises":

When I'm scooped out of here

all things animal

and unsurprised will carry on.

Frogs still will fall into

those stained old tubs we fill

with trickles from the garden hose.

Another blue-green prince will sit

like a friend of the family

guarding the doomspout.

Him asquat at the drainhole,

me gone to crumbs in the ground

and someone else's mare to call

to the distant stallion.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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