max-brothers 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 with 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.)
THE NUNS OF CHILDHOOD: TWO VIEWS 1. O where are they now, your harridan nuns who thumped on young heads with a metal thimble and punished with rulers your upturned palms: three smacks for failing in long division, one more to instill the meaning of humble. As the twig is bent, said your harridan nuns. Once, a visiting bishop, serene at the close of a Mass through which he had shambled, smiled upon you with upturned palms. “Because this is my feast day,” he ended, “You may all have a free afternoon.” In the scramble of whistles and cheers one harridan nun, fiercest of all the parochial coven, Sister Pascala, without preamble raged, “I protest!” and rapping on palms at random, had bodily to be restrained. O God’s perfect servant is kneeling on brambles wherever they sent her, your harridan nun, enthroned as a symbol with upturned palms. 2. O where are they now, my darling nuns whose heads were shaved under snowy wimples, who rustled drily inside their gowns, disciples of Oxydol, starch and bluing, their backyard clothesline a pious example? They have flapped out of sight, my darling nuns. Seamless as fish, made all of one skin, their language secret, these gentle vestals were wedded to Christ inside their gowns. O Mother Superior Rosarine on whose lap the privileged visitor lolled — I at age four with my darling nuns, with Sister Elizabeth, Sister Ann, am offered to Jesus, the Jewish child- next-door, who worships your ample black gown, your eyebrows as thick as mustachioed twins, your rimless glasses, your ring of pale gold — who can have stolen my darling nuns? Who rustles drily inside my gown?
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.)
THE SINGER SEWING MACHINE In the thirties, I attended Charles W Henry Elementary School in Germantown, then a sleepy suburb of Philadelphia. School was a sturdy down-one-hill-and-up-the-other one-mile walk from our house, and I trudged there and back twice a day. In those days, kids walked home for lunch and returned for afternoon classes, which consisted of home economics for the girls and shop for the boys. No one questioned this arrangement. It was simply a given. In sixth grade we girls went to sewing class, presided over in real life and half a hundred nightmares by a supreme harridan named Miss Morrison. At the front of the room an oilcloth chart the size of a pull-down map of South America displayed the steps to be followed in threading this diabolical invention, the Singer sewing machine. This is my garbled recollection of the eight steps, as foreign to me as a Sanskrit text. First you set the spool on a little spindle, then you gingerly coaxed the thread end through one little eyelet, then you drew this spidery thread across the top to· another eyelet, then down and around a small cog. Next you looped the thread under an upside-down hook, then crossed to another eyelet, finally down to the foot, after which you trepidatiously threaded the needle and lowered it with an abrupt snap-think spider trapping its prey-to catch the bobbin thread. That’s if you were lucky and had wound the bobbin correctly. (Winding the bobbin was another exercise in arcana.) Once these two threads had mated, you placed your right hand on the flywheel drawing it authoritatively toward you and at the same instant began to pump the treadle, one foot slightly behind the other. At this point the thread invariably broke, flew out of its several eyelets, and you began again. I could swim the Australian crawl, post to the trot, and smack a softball past third base, but I could not coordinate the flywheel and the treadle. My thread, so painstakingly arranged, broke and flew out of its settings. The bobbin thread, so assiduously wound, drawn up from its little coffin and conjoined with the needle, snapped free and retreated underground. Prisoner of clumsiness, I was told to begin again. “Follow the chart at the front of the room,” Miss Morrison said grimly. Eventually matters got personal. Why couldn’t I follow directions? Was there something the matter with my eyesight? Why did my fingers tremble? She disliked my hair, in two long fat braids that I was to scissor off the next year, to my mother’s dismay. I was terrified of Miss Morrison, who hinted that my hair was dirty, that it harbored disease, and that if I didn’t master the Singer, I would receive an F in her class and be forced to repeat home economics another year. 0 Sisyphus! Follow the chart at the front of the room. I sat frozen at the prospect, then put my head down and to my great surprise threw up all over the machine. A horrified Miss Morrison sent me to the nurse, who called my mother, who rescued me. Miraculously, I was excused from home economics the rest of the term and allowed to spend that period in the school’s little library, rereading my old favorites. To this day I like to think of Miss Morrison, imprisoned by my vomit, cleaning her perfect Singer eyelet by eyelet, visited by the gods’ own vengeance.
Maxine moved to the public school in third grade.  Her father did not approve of private schools because he felt it did not prepare children to meet the real world. While in eighth grade, Maxine was sent out of district to Elkins Park Junior High and then to Cheltenham High School. max-radcliffe 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 during her sophomore year, where the workers were attempting to unionize. 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 eventually resolved itself and was revealed as a severe case of measles. max-1945-a 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.)
LOOKING BACK IN MY EIGHTY-FIRST YEAR How did we get to be old ladies— my grandmother’s job—when we were the long-leggèd girls? — Hilma Wolitzer Instead of marrying the day after graduation, in spite of freezing on my father’s arm as here comes the bride struck up, saying, I’m not sure I want to do this, I should have taken that fellowship to the University of Grenoble to examine the original manuscript of Stendhal’s unfinished Lucien Leuwen, I, who had never been west of the Mississippi, should have crossed the ocean in third class on the Cunard White Star, the war just over, the Second World War when Kilroy was here, that innocent graffito, two eyes and a nose draped over a fence line. How could I go? Passion had locked us together. Sixty years my lover, he says he would have waited. He says he would have sat where the steamship docked till the last of the pursers decamped, and I rushed back littering the runway with carbon paper . . . Why didn’t I go? It was fated. Marriage dizzied us. Hand over hand, flesh against flesh for the final haul, we tugged our lifeline thru limestone and sand, lover and long-leggèd girl.
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 town’s highly-regarded public schools. max-family 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. sexton-max-a 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. pulitzer 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. They moved to the farm permanently 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.