Friendships: Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton
The time was the 1960s in Boston and Anne had been visiting a local bar with Sylvia Plath to drink Martinis in the afternoon and although she enjoyed the company of her fellow poet she felt she needed to broaden her connections a little.
She made her way to a local poetry group that John Holmes had recommended. The group met at a small coffee house near downtown Boston. As she walked with her portfolio under her arm and ringlets of smoke from her recently lit cigarrette circling her head she wondered who her audience would be. As she approached the actual building she felt her nerves and decided that she needed a drink but pushed her way inside instead.
Anne found a seat near the back of the room next to a lady who introduced herself as Maxine Kumin and behind a man who introduced himself as Robert Lowell. She quietly listened to the poets and their poetry and when Robert Lowell read she felt that she was in the presence of a powerful voice.
Maxine read after Robert. Her voice was soft and lyrical and her poetry was eloquent and beautiful. Anne knew that she had to get to know this woman, this soft spoken poet she had just met.
Anne then shared her poetry. She controlled the podium and performed each word with skill and accuracy.
Even though Anne enjoyed hearing Maxine's poetry she judged Maxine as frumpy and even though Maxine enjoyed Anne's poetry she judged Anne as attractive, flamboyant, and self-centered.
They both attended the group often and became closer and closer. After awhile Maxine and Anne only needed themselves and the group fell to the wayside.
Anne and Maxine could not be separated. For years they worked near each other sharing their ideas and their poems. Anne would drop everything to review any new work of Maxines and Maxine would do the same for Anne. Once when Anne was on vacation in Rome she gave up her scheduled readings and spent the time in her hotel room editing Maxine's new book.
Anne, who had struggled with mental illness, began writing poetry as a way to deal with her illness and Maxine began to write her poetry simply due to a love of language. Both of their creative energies seemed to be compatible and their friendship became a part of history.
While Anne enjoyed reading in front of audiences and centered her energy into performance as well as writing Maxine was less of a performer. Due to her strong presence on stage Anne made a name for herself in America and worldwide. Even though Maxine created volume after volume of poetry, novels, and childrens books she never had the notoriety that Anne was able to obtain.
At this time, the peak of their friendship, both poets were producing amazing amounts of incredible poetry.
"How It Is..."
Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you've come to visit, he's ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.
I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.
Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing our letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.
Maxine Kumin, "How it is" from Selected Poems 1960-1990. Copyright 1997 by Maxine Kumin.
To many readers of contemporary poetry Anne Sexton is remembered most for her suicide. Her poetry was confessional and she wrote about the hardships of her depression with much clarity and depth.
The friendship, or bond, that had formed between Maxine and Anne lead her readers to understand her as a woman, as human, and not just an icon of suicide or mental illness.
Maxine and Anne's friendship was based purely on their love of poetry and their need to share their creative process with a fellow writer. Granted their friendship was much more than this but their writing was what gave them such a strong connection.
Anne completed her suicide and placed herself amongst other contemporary American poets and Maxine though deeply saddened by her loss continued to write an amazing amount of work.
So why write this small article about a friendship between two poets who have passed on into literary history.
There are many legends of friendship in the history of American Poetry. I think that we believe that poets are hermits who sit by themselves and think up great lines. This may be true to a certain extent but we are social creatures and if one looks back at the movements of art in history one can see that certain collections of artists formed these movements that built up enough momentum to create change.
It is important to find other artists and to work as a collective. It is important to find friends in the arts to help the creative process.
There is not a lot of historic details in this article on when Maxine Kumin went to what University and what school of poetic thought did Anne Sexton follow. This article simply wants to highlight friendship in the arts and the power of the collective.