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Belated Tribute To a Fine Poet

Somewhat belatedly, I want to add my voice to the rightful chorus of tribute to poet Maxine Kumin, who died Feb. 6 at 89. She lived in New Hampshire, about an hour and a half to my southeast, and I had known, admired and greatly liked this marvelous woman for nigh on 40 years. 

To my mind, she was for most of those decades the premier poet of upper New England (not to slight the estimable likes of Ellen Voigt, John Engels, Cleopatra Mathis, David Budbill, David Huddle, or Maine laureates Wesley McNair and Baron Wormser, to name far too few). 

This is scarcely to reduce Maxine’s work to mere regionalism. She was regional only in the sense that Frost was: her gimlet eye for local detail and character — both human and beastly — provided her with a keen perspective on the world at large, including the political world, which in later years angered her enough to impel some truly feisty, and truly excellent, poems.

One has to think of a select company like Robert Penn Warren and my Vermont laureate predecessor Ruth Stone to recall American writers who, like Maxine, turned out some of their very best work, which is to say something indeed, well into their eighties. I give one Kumin example from among scores:

Jack

How pleasant the yellow butter

melting on white kernels, the meniscus

of red wine that coats the insides of our goblets

where we sit with sturdy friends as old as we are

after shucking the garden’s last Silver Queen

and setting husks and stalks aside for the horses

the last two of our lives, still noble to look upon:

our first foal, now a bossy mare of 28

which calibrates to 84 in people years

and my chestnut gelding, not exactly a youngster

at 22. Every year, the end of summer

lazy and golden, invites grief and regret:

suddenly it’s 1980, winter buffets us,

winds strike like cruelty out of Dickens. Somehow

we have seven horses for six stalls. One of them,

a big-nosed roan gelding, calm as a president’s portrait

lives in the rectangle that leads to the stalls. We call it

the motel lobby. Wise old campaigner, he dunks his

hay in the water bucket to soften it, then visits the others

who hang their heads over their dutch doors. Sometimes

he sprawls out flat to nap in his commodious quarters.

That spring, in the bustle of grooming

and riding and shoeing, I remember I let him go

to a neighbor I thought was a friend, and the following

fall she sold him down the river. I meant to

but never did go looking for him, to buy him back

and now my old guilt is flooding this twilit table

my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons

the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.

Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone

did you remember that one good winter?

Let me make a little detour here to make a point. The marvelous poet-physician William Carlos Williams once insisted, “No ideas but in things” (perhaps repressing his own awareness that that exhortation was a thing-less idea itself). His insistence is a bit too rigorous for me. I would not gladly sacrifice this, say, from Emily Dickinson:

Publication — is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man —

Poverty — be justifying

For so foul a thing ...

Or this, from Robert Frost’s Birches:

Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

And I scarcely need mention the end of Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn:

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Now none of the poems just cited, of course, is remotely reducible to the few lines I reproduce. But, with the possible exception of Dickinson’s (and she is always somehow exceptional), it’s worth noting that each passage, thing-less as it may be in and of itself, always refers to something concrete. In Keats’ case, of course, we have the urn itself, whose appearance is limned with skillful particularity in the preceding portions of the poem. In Frost’s case, the argument for love as an earthly thing is made after the narrator’s having experienced what it is to “get away from earth awhile” by being carried by a birch tree.

There is a sort of workshop mantra, more prevalent, happily, in the seventies than now: “Show, don’t tell.” On the face of it, that directive is as overwrought as Dr. Williams’. Both these pronouncements would deprive us of the passages above, and literally thousands more. But each does contain a germ of truth: namely, that telling, rhetoric, and abstraction are always the more compelling for being grounded in particularity. A poem consisting of generalized diction alone ends up, unavoidably, sounding like greeting card verse.

I have wandered so in the last few paragraphs by way of getting at a marvelous quality in the Kumin poem reproduced above, though it’s a quality evident in her entire body of poetry. I refer not so much to something like “a big-nosed roan gelding, calm as a president’s portrait,” which is at once witty and all but uncannily accurate, as to how Kumin can nail us with an emotion — guilt the prevailing one in Jack — by rooting it so exquisitely in observations and events that exemplify it, and that are entirely accessible to us as readers. No one could improve, say, on the following:

and now my old guilt is flooding this twilit table

my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons

the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.

The poet’s guilty conscience is the more painful for her having reached an age, like Jack himself, when her mortality weighed upon her more heavily with every minute.

For my part, I wish that this remarkable artist and human being could have conquered that mortality altogether, that she could have lived on forever. I am consoled by the fact that her work will have that distinction. But that is scarcely to deny how deeply I shall miss Maxine, no matter that the world of letters will feel her absence even more acutely.

RIP, great soul.

Sydney Lea, Vermont’s Poet Laureate, is a resident of Newbury.