It’s the birthday of poet Maxine Kumin (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1925). She was a good student and wrote poetry from the time she was a young girl, but she was equally interested in swimming, and even trained to become an Olympic swimmer as a teenager. When she was 18, Kumin was offered a job with Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a famous traveling dance-and-swimming show; but her father considered the spectacle too risqué and refused to give his permission. He did approve of her academic talents, so she went to Radcliffe and studied literature and history. She had continued to write poetry, and she showed her poems to one of her young professors, Wallace Stegner, who at the time was still an unknown novelist. Stegner handed them back with a note in red pencil: “Say it with flowers, but, for God’s sake, don’t try to write poems.” She was so hurt that she didn’t even try to write another poem for many years.
In the meantime, she got a master’s degree in comparative literature, met and married an Army engineer, and moved to the suburbs, where she concentrated on raising her children. During her third pregnancy, she was feeling restless, and she happened upon a book called Writing Light Verse, which cost $3.95. She decided that if she hadn’t published anything by the time her child was born she would give up forever. She was six months pregnant when The Christian Science Monitor accepted one of her poems and paid her $5 for it. It was just four lines long; it read: “There never blows so red the rose / so sound the round tomato, / as March’s catalogues disclose / and yearly I fall prey to.” She began publishing light verse in magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. The Post required Kumin’s husband to send a letter from his employer certifying that her poem was original, since, she later said, “Women, along with people of color, were still thought to be intellectually inferior, mere appendages in the world of belles lettres.”
She was happy enough writing light verse, although she wished she knew some other poets. In 1957, she enrolled in a local poetry-writing workshop. One of her classmates was the poet Anne Sexton, and the two women became close friends and writing peers — they eventually installed separate phone lines in each of their homes so that they could be in constant communication. Very slowly Kumin began to have poems accepted that were not just light verse. She said, “Until the Women’s Movement, 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.”
Her professor at the poetry workshop recommended her for a position at Tufts, where he taught, and so she began a long career as a teacher and mentor. As a teacher, she often asked her students to memorize 30 to 40 lines of poetry a week so that they grew familiar with the sound of poetry. She said: “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. For many, this is an unthinkable concept; they simply do not believe in anything fervently enough to go to jail for it.”
Her books include Up Country (1972), The Long Approach (1985), Where I Live (2010), and And Short the Season (2014).
Kumin died in 2014. She was 88.