Former U.S. poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner Maxine Kumin of Warner dies at 88

From Staff and Wire Reports February 07. 2014 10:24PM
Maxine Kumin 

WARNER — Maxine Kumin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and onetime U.S. poet laureate, died Thursday at her Warner home at the age of 88. Her death was reported on the website of the American Academy of Poets. No cause was given.

“I am honored to have known her, and honored to consider her my friend,” said Katharine Nevins, owner of Main Street BookEnds book store in Warner, where Kumin would frequently give readings of her work. “She was smart, she was opinionated and let those opinions be known. She was a strong woman, who grew up in a time when many women weren’t strong. Everyone in town knew her.”

Kumin began writing poetry in the 1950s, completing 18 poetry collections spanning six decades. Since the 1970s, she lived in Warner, raising horses with her husband on a 200-acre farm.

Kumin served as the poet laureate of New Hampshire from 1989 to 1994. From 1991 to 1994 she was a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, and taught at many of the United States’ most respected universities, including Princeton, Columbia, Brandeis and MIT. Kumin gave readings or conducted writers’ workshops in every state except Hawaii and North Dakota, according to her website, and in 2005, she received Harvard’s Arts Medal.

Kumin was born in 1925 in the Germantown community of Philadelphia, to a “nominally observant Reform Jewish family that lived next door to the Convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph,” according to a biography on her website. She attended primary school among the sisters, a fact that accounts for “the juxtaposition of Jesus and Jewish rituals” in many of her poems.

But much of her work would be grounded in New England — she moved there as a Radcliffe College student. Critics variously described her as a transcendentalist (like Thoreau), a confessional poet (like Sexton) and as a regional pastoral poet whose work shared enough concerns with a certain famous New Englander that she was nicknamed “Roberta Frost.”

“She loved writing about her life here in Warner, and about nature,” said Nevins. “She also enjoyed writing about her horses. She would also follow current issues in the world around her, and write about those. She wrote both poetry and prose.”

In the 1976 “Excrement Poem,” Kumin writes about shoveling horse manure. She begins with these lines: “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.”

Kumin published half a dozen novels and many children’s books, but it was the poetry for which she was best known.

She won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for her collection “Up Country: Poems of New England,” and her 2011 collection “Where I Live: New and Selected Poems” was the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award.Nevins said two new books by Kumin are due to be published this year — a young adult story called “Lizzie” about a girl in a wheelchair, due out March 11; and a new collection of poetry titled “And The Short Season”, due to be published in April by W.W. Norton.

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