News & Politics

Writer’s Corner: Poet Maxine Kumin

A former poet laureate goes off the beaten path at the Library of Congress.

Event: Maxine Kumin poetry reading at the Library of Congress. The fourth reading of the Library of Congress literary season organized by Donald Hall, the poet laureate for 2006-2007.

Date: November 9, 2006

Midway through her reading at the Library of Congress, Maxine Kumin, the 81-year-old Pulitzer-prize winning poet, interrupted her introduction of some new poems, saying “I don’t know what’s happened to me.”

What followed was a flurry of verses filled with more fire bombs than New England blizzards, more references to Iraq than her home in New Hampshire, and more “damn you’s” than praises.

Kumin, who served as the U.S. consultant in poetry (a post now called poet laureate) from 1982-84, has long found in her New England life a theater for the greater conflicts in the world, lamenting in one poem from 1972 that the woodchucks she set out in futility to exterminate wouldn't consent "to die unseen gassed underground the quiet Nazi way." But the political statements in that bold poem and others were no more than slight undercurrents beneath the beautiful language, pastoral imagery and country vernacular that Kumin mastered at home on her horse farm.

In the new batch, however, she has set aside restraint, turning her poems into full-fledged polemics and rantings about war, American culture and the toll of it all on the natural world.

The poetry suffers severely behind such angst. Many of us poetry-lovers duck into readings in Washington to escape the world of power and politics and to go deeper, to rediscover the things we’ve overlooked or forgotten at home and in our hearts.

Sitting in the reading, in a crowd of 100 or so, listening to the walker-supported grandmother of American poetry call on her soul, which once celebrated this land, to be turned to compost and buried in the soil of the country she “once loved” it was hard not to wonder—what’s happened, that even our poets can’t stay off of the soapbox?

[For more info about the Library of Congress and upcoming poetry readings visit their site.]