Weekend Poem: Remarkable Women, An Apostrophe by Maxine Kumin

On Thursday, February 6, 2014, poet Maxine Kumin passed away at the age of 88. Having won, among many awards, the Pulitzer, she also served as the US Poet Laureate in 1981-82.

Kumin got started in poetry at a young age and at a time when women poets were still not well-regarded. At 17, when the 23-year-old Wallace Stegner handed back her poems to her and told her, “Say it with flowers but, for God’s sake, don’t write poems about it.”, it put her off writing poetry for quite a few years. When she finally got back to it, the highest compliment she often received was that she wrote like a man.

But, get back to it she did. And, becoming a close friend of Anne Sexton’s from the time they met at a poetry workshop and right up to Sexton’s suicide, Kumin began writing beautiful, extraordinary verse about ordinary, taken-for-granted life. Eventually, for her, this was on a New Hampshire farm, raising both animals and children. Also, a great number of poems were dedicated to her two favorite pastimes: swimming and horses.

Horse-carriage driving caused her a near-death injury that took years to recover from, though, never fully. A touching memoir, ‘Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery’ was released in 2000. It was mostly dictated in journal form as she was unable to write on her own and her head was, for several months, in a metal cage, called a “halo”, due to the broken neck. She credited poetry and her family for helping her get through.

A collection of essays called ‘Always Beginning: Essays on a Life in Poetry’ followed shortly after – composed of interviews, personal writings (letters, journals, essays) and materials from her own extensive teaching at various colleges and universities.

She was a prolific writer throughout her life: 5 novels, several essay and short story collections and nearly 20 children’s books in addition to the nearly 20 poetry collections. A new poetry collection, ‘And Short the Season’ is due out in April 2014. It is also reported that Norton wants to publish a memoir drawn from magazine and literary journal pieces about her coming of age as a poet and feminist.

As an outspoken feminist and activist, in 1998, Kumin, along with another fellow poet and Chancellor, Carolyn Kizer, resigned from the Academy of Poets to protest against the lack of minority groups on the Academy’s Board of Chancellors. Over time, this situation has been addressed somewhat, but it took that significant public act of objection to get the ball rolling.

While the predominant themes of her poetry were centered on the rhythms and transience in life and nature and she often used vivid, memorable metaphors and earthy images, she eschewed language that was too flowery or bucolic. She also favored form and structure, believing that they created a necessary tension in a poem’s language and ideas. And, indeed, her poems have a unique musicality and it is hard to find any flabbiness in them.

Being from a Jewish family and having studied at a Catholic school, many of her poems explored the concepts of religion and God both in her own culture and others. Yet, she called herself an “unregenerate atheist” and said that she did not believe in an afterlife.

In her later years, she did turn to the wider historical and political contexts because, as much as she was concerned about losing the lyricism in her poetry, she said that those more political poems were wrung from her.

Despite being of the generation of Greater Boston poets like Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath et al, her style was nowhere near as confessional as theirs. Instead, she preferred to tell profound, understated stories without much extremism or absolutism.

One particular and enduring theme in her works was that of paying homage to those poets and writers who had influenced or inspired her, for example: Wordsworth, Rilke, Gorky, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Frost, Milosz and various women like Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Anne Sexton, Muriel Rukeyser, Georgia O’Keefe, Carolyn Kizer, et al.

Today’s poem is just such a tribute to 3 different women writers. It is from ‘Where I Live’, a collection which spans the last 2 decades of her life from 1990 to 2010. It was published in 2010 and includes selections from 5 previous collections as well as a host of new ones. It was her second such collection, the first being ‘Selected Poems, 1960-1990’. While it is, by no means, the best of her oeuvre, it includes the key themes by which Kumin lived her own life and, in that sense, is, possibly, the best way for us to honor her.

The “apostrophe” in the poem’s title is a reference to the dramatic or literary device where a speaker or narrator breaks off from addressing the audience or reader and turns to address an absent third party. So, too, in this poem, rather than addressing us, the readers or audience, Kumin is addressing the three remarkable women who are the subjects of the poem – Beatrix Potter, Louisa May Alcott and Helen Nearing. These are three very different writers, but, what unites them is that they were women ahead of their times in terms of seeking and gaining their respective versions of self-reliance, which Kumin, as a female poet trying to break free of the male persona and establish her own voice, undoubtedly identified with. Equally as importantly, they all had a love of nature and rural life, also something that Kumin shared with them.

The first verse is addressed to Beatrix Potter, the early-20th century British illustrator and children’s books author – notably, the Peter Rabbit series that is still well-loved in Britain today. Potter was also well-known for being a natural scientist and conservationist with a deep love for the natural world. After her books brought her some financial success and she was left a legacy by an aunt, Potter was able to move to and run a farm in the Lake District. Over the years, she bought up many farms around that countryside for land preservation purposes. When she died, she left most of her land to the National Trust. Today, she is credited for having preserved much of the land that forms the popular Lake District National Park, which had also once been the home of poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Kumin opens the verse with an image of Potter in her old age – fat and wearing heavy tweeds (which would have been necessary in that bitter cold and open landscape where Potter farmed and raised livestock till the end of her days). Kumin acknowledges the sadness of the old woman who, looking back on the greener pastures of her younger life, had been known to muse how she could have done better if she’d had her chances earlier instead of in middle age. And, Kumin addresses Potter directly, saying “I salute what you became.” Because, indeed, Potter had accomplished so much more, for a woman of her time, than she had given herself credit for.

The second verse addresses Louisa May Alcott, the American late-19th century author, best-known for her novel, ‘Little Women‘,  which is still in print today and has had several movie, TV and stage adaptations. Born to Transcendalist parents who believed in community-based self-reliance versus organized religion and politics, the young Louisa did not have a comfortable life. Her father, Bronson Alcott was a teacher, philosopher, writer and reformer and spoke up for abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Yet, despite his innovations in teaching methods and the respect he gained from other Transcendalists, he was never able to properly support the family of four daughters. It fell to Louisa May Alcott, the second daughter, to find any job she could – seamstress, governess, teacher, writer – to support her mother and sisters. Having been educated by literary and philosophical greats such as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Fuller in Concord, MA, she was also an early feminist and eventually managed to earn a decent living off her creative writing talents. She died at 55 of a long-suffering illness or infection – never married, though there was an unrequited love.

Kumin reminds Alcott of how she’d said, often, that she was like the man of the house, going out and working to keep the family going: “the boy’s spirit under my bib and tucker, working to keep the clan afloat”. And, interestingly, Kumin tells Alcott that her favorite of Alcott’s novels is one of the later, not so well-known, works, ‘Eight Cousins’ where a sickly girl, Rose, is raised by her maiden aunts after losing her parents. And, then, her legal guardian, Uncle Alec, who returns from sea, brings her back to health and happiness with his unique child-rearing methods. It’s interesting that Kumin chose this book, where the male father figure is almost a benevolent savior, over ‘Little Women’, where the male father figure is all but absent. Of course, Alcott wrote ‘Eight Cousins’ almost 10 years after ‘Little Women’ and it would be safe to assume that she had come around to being more charitable towards her own father and, through the kinder depiction, perhaps, forgiven him.

The final verse is addressed to the 20th century author, naturalist and farmer, Helen Nearing. With her husband, Scott, Helen had fashioned a life where they could live off their land in rural Maine, then rural Vermont – which they famously called and wrote about as ‘The Good Life’ – with additional income from the occasional book or lecture. Yet, from Helen Nearing’s reasonably well-off urban beginnings, the agrarian life was highly unlikely. And, to live a simple life with only basic needs met through hard, manual labor, civic work and art is easier said than done. Still, the Nearings had managed to strike that elusive balance between a dependence on modernity and an elemental self-reliance. Their lifelong self-development process continues to be held up as an example and emulated by many even today.

Kumin reminds Nearing how she had said that, up to the age of 26, she had never even planted a vegetable. Yet, here she was, a woman of 90, still working away at her vegetable garden and feeding yet another of the many visitors who showed up at the Nearings’ homestead – built with their own hands, stone by stone. Helen, in fact, was known for her stonemasonry skills and the back-breaking work that she continued to do well into an advanced age, like her husband. The reference to sugarbush tending is related to the sugar maples that the Nearings cultivated in an orchard for another source of income.

The final 2 lines of this wonderful poem are a closing salutation from Kumin to all three women. And, she tells them that they have been such a strong influence on her own life that they are always with her wherever she goes, inspiring her with their spirit.

So, to this poem about remarkable women, I’d like to add an apostrophe to the late Maxine Kumin – a remarkable woman herself who will, no doubt, continue to inspire many with her own spirit.

Maxine, you, who never flinched from life,
even when it came trampling down on you
and, taking away your precious words,
caged you in titanium and graphite,
like a stationary, soundless parrot.
But, like those California peppers
setting fruit in your Zone-Three garden
after so many summers of failure,
your art won and your beauty rose.
“The victory of poetry over death,”
you said then. As we say now of
you, who will live forever with us:
such is the victory of your poetry.

~ © Jenny Bhatt. All Rights Reserved.

Remarkable Women: An Apostrophe

Beatrix Potter, on the stout side, dressed
“in tweeds thick enough to stop a bullet”
woven from the wool of your own sheep,
looking back across those green fields in
your old age you said, If I had been
caught young enough I could have become
anything. I salute what you became

and you, Louisa May, on record claiming
I was born with a boy’s spirit under my bib
and tucker, working to keep the clan afloat
that Bronson Alcott dreamily left drift,
inventions on a tribe, book after book.
Eight Cousins was my favorite, orphaned Rose
saved from invalidism by Uncle Alec….

and you, Helen Nearing, almost ninety, kneeling
to dig potatoes for a guest’s lunch, confessing
I was twenty-six before I planted so much
as a radish. Oh, I was lily-handed,
square-knuckled, liver-spotted, laying up
the house you built with Scott stone by stone,
tending the sugarbush, the raised-bed garden,

I salute you all, I take you with me wherever
I go to fire me with your fevers.

~ Maxine Kumin, from the collection, ‘Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010‘ (2010)

Links:

Maxine Kumin’s Website

New York Times Obituary

L A Times Obituary

2002 Atlantic Unbound Interview

– 2013 Concord Monitor Interview: Part 1 and Part 2

– Poems at PoetryFoundation, Writer’s Almanac, New Yorker

– Maxine Kumin reading 3 poems at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008

– A particularly famous poem she wrote about her close friend, poet Anne Sexton, who killed herself

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2 thoughts on “Weekend Poem: Remarkable Women, An Apostrophe by Maxine Kumin

  1. Enjoyed this poem and the brief obit. Women like Maxine Kumin, of her generation, have done a lot for others in the literary arts.

    What’s the reference to California peppers in your verse about?

    Like

    1. Oh, Ruth, sorry. Didn’t realize I hadn’t responded to this yet.

      First, I’m glad you liked this poem. It’s one of my favorites, though, not necessarily for technical/aesthetic reasons.

      The California peppers. Yes, so, there’s a poem by Kumin called “Surprises” where she writes about how, after 15-some years of trying, she finally gets some California peppers to bear fruit. And, she refers to this as a victory of poetry over death, which I thought was just lovely. The entire poem is rather beautiful as she weaves in memories of her mother.

      Like

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