Maxine Kumin was born on June 6, 1925, in Germantown, Pennsylvania to Peter and Belle (Doll) Winokur. She was the youngest and only girl of 4 children born between 1919 and 1925. They lived in a Georgian Colonial built in the last decade of the nineteenth century at 152 Carpenter Lane, down the hill from the Covenant of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
At the age of five, Maxine was sent to school to the nuns next door, which was immensely convenient. She wrote about that experience in her poem “The Nuns of Childhood: Two Views,” Looking for Luck, W.W. Norton, 1992 ( click here to read the poem.)She also wrote about the experience in an essay entitled “Singer Sewing Machine,” The Roots of Things, Northwestern Univ. Press, 2010. ( click here to read the essay.)
She switched to the public school in third grade since her father did not approve of private schools because it did not prepare you to meet the real world. When she was in eighth grade she was sent out of district to Elkins Park Junior High and then to Cheltenham High School.
Maxine attended Radcliffe College from 1942-1946, graduating with a B.A.. She was a member of the Radcliffe crew and swam all four years, captaining her senior year. The war was in full swing and Cambridge was full of uniforms. Radcliffe students no longer had to attend separate classes, but were finally integrated into the regular lectures in Harvard Yard.
Maxine joined the effort at Fore River Shipyard where the workers were attempting to unionize during her sophomore year. She became the chief headline composer of the union weekly newspaper. Her effort to work in a factory to support the war effort was thwarted by a mysterious fever which resolved itself eventually revealed as a severe case of measles.
On a blind date in April 1945, Maxine met Victor Kumin, an army sergeant and Harvard (’43) man. She describes their mutual infatuation as “instant and headlong.” For the next year they wrote over 550 letters to one another, rendezvoused in Texas during a three-day leave, and agreed to marry after Maxine’s graduation and Victor’s discharge from the army.
Instead of taking a fellowship to study in Grenoble, France, Victor and Maxine married on June 29, 1946 in Philadelphia, PA and set out for Woods Hole, MA, where Victor was to work at the Oceanographic Institute. See, “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year,” Still to Mow, W.W. Norton, 2007. ( click here to read the poem.)
A short time later, Maxine and Victor moved to Boston where Maxine completed her M.A. in comparative literature at Radcliffe in the summer of 1948. In the ensuing five years they had three children and moved several times before settling in Newton to take advantage of the highly touted Newton public schools.
Maxine free-lanced as a medical writer and wrote poetry and short verse essentially in the closet. Her breakthrough came with the publication of a four-line poem in 1953 in the Christian Science Monitor.
Discovering a poetry workshop in 1957 at the Boston Center for Adult Education conducted by John Holmes, a poet and professor from Tufts, would prove to be essential to the development of her career, in part because of the introduction to other poets, including Anne Sexton, with whom she maintained a close friendship and mutually supportive professional relationship until Sexton’s suicide in 1974. (See Selected Poems – About Anne Sexton)
Her first publication was a children’s book in 1960 called Sebastian and the Dragon, followed by the publication of her first collection of poems called Halfway. Soon after that she was awarded a fellowship by the Radcliffe Institute of Independent Study which essentially gave her a paycheck to justify setting aside time to write at the same time she balanced the responsibilities of mother and wife.
A year after attending Holmes’s workshop, Maxine began teaching English at Tufts University and continued teaching there until 1968. Between 1961 and 1972 she published four poetry collections, four novels, and nineteen children’s books.
This creative productivity culminated in the publication of Up Country: Poems of New England, Harper & Row, 1972, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. In Maxine’s own words, she “metamorphosed into a recognizable name” and “suddenly she was in business, the poetry business.” See, The Pawnbroker’s Daughter, W.W. Norton, 2015, p. 131.
Maxine struggled all her career to balance the conventional duties of a housewife and mother with her desire to fan the intellectual flame and excel as a writer. When she began her career the women’s movement did not yet exist, so she had few role models to rely on. After her star rose and she began teaching and landed the post of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1981-1982 (later renamed Poet Laureate of the U.S.), she promoted the work of her fellow female poets and mentored young and rising female poets at every opportunity.
Much of the inspiration for her writing comes from her farm in New Hampshire, which Victor and Maxine purchased in 1963 and moved to on a permanent basis in 1976, after their three children had grown and left home.
Maxine’s list of accomplishments, including awards, prizes, honorary degrees, teaching positions and publications, may be found in Career Highlights section. A video prepared by her longtime friend and personal assistant, Susannah Colt, for the Celebration of Maxine’s Life following her death on February 6, 2014, chronicles her life in pictures and ends with the following words by Maxine:
“The garden has to be attended every day, just as the horses have to be tended to, not just every day, but morning, noon and night. The writing, I think, exerts the same kind of discipline. A day without sitting down at my desk seriously is a day full of guilt. I think of myself as a Jewish Calvinist, you know, salvation through grace, grace through good works and working is good, just that simple. I wouldn’t trade this life for any other.” Maxine Kumin, recording by Mary Kuechenmeister for the Story Preservation Initiative in 2012. Full recording may be found at the Biographical Interviews page of this website.
Click the image below to watch Susannah Colt’s biographical video.