Friday, August 01, 2008

A Peek Into the Poet Laureate Life

Sorry to be fairly quiet this week -- it's the Festival and Conference on Poetry up at the Frost Place, and I've been attending a good share of the free public evening readings ( "Work" has to fit in around those.

But here's a quick little insight into what it was like to Maxine Kumin as she stepped into the U.S. Poet Laureate-ship -- actually, then, the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress -- in 1981.

She read Monday night at the Frost Place, first with a semi-autobiographical "golden oldie" poem called "The Hermit Wakes to Bird Sounds" (she said her hermit poems spoke from a male persona "because I didn't think the world was ready for a female hermit"), then moved into some political work -- what she calls her "torture poems" -- from her newest collection, STILL TO MOW.

"My torture poems are in Still to Mow but I didn't just start writing them," she reflected. "I was writing them way back when... Life was different at the Library of Congress because I had come out as a feminist." The librarian Daniel Boorstin disapproved. And then within her public position came her poem "Heaven As Anus," and made the situation worse. Kumin read it to the crowd in Robert Frost's barn. It begins,

In the Defense Department there is a shop
where scientists sew the eyelids of rabbits open
lest they blink in the scorch of a nuclear drop

and it ends,

It all ends at the hole. No words may enter
the house of excrement. We will meet there
as the sphincter of the good Lord opens wide
and He takes us all inside.

(Read it all at

"And that's quite an early poem," she commented. "It sort of surprises me. It's true I've been writing poems for an awfully long time, so that they can now surprise me."

She went on to read the very entertaining "Seven Caveats in May" -- her bear poem -- then delighted listeners with "The Sunday Phone Call," in which she finds her (dead) father on the other end of the phone. After reading "Jack" (title poem to her previous collection, which is rich with horses and dogs), and "Mulching," she offered her own Robert Frost poem, "The Final Poem." And then she gave us the poem for which she says she's been in equal measure praised and damned, the one from a tag line in The New Yorker: "Please Pay Attention As the Ethics Have Changed."

There were more to come, and she brought the crowd to sustained applause. I was just thinking: Kumin became Consultant in Poetry some twenty-seven years ago. So it's not an end-of-career flag, a reward for having hit the peak -- rather, it can be a middle point, from which there's a lot of good road in front of you. Or, as Kumin quoted John Gardner for the epigraph of her book: "When you look back there's lots of bales in the field, but ahead it's all still to mow." It's still a good description for what she'd doing with her work.

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