Maxine Kumin on Poetry

At first sight, Maxine Kumin is not the obvious poet that would appeal to me. Calm, contained, not really confessional or overtly feminist, she writes lovingly observed nature poems, depicting life in New England, her horses, her garden. Yet there is something there, in that deliberate simplicity, a real warmth beneath the coolness, that makes me feel like I am drinking delicious fresh spring water when I read her. In the Poets on Poetry series that I am currently slightly obsessed with, she has some brilliant insights into her own poetic work and that of others (she was famously great friends with Anne Sexton, who’s a very different type of poet).

I often go in search of one thing and come back with another. Yes, there is a definite spin-off from one poem to another, because in the process of narrowing in on a subject a lot of peripheral i deas occur which then struggle to announce themselves. Some of them insist on becoming poems.

Writing a poem, she insists, is ‘at least to some extent a mysical process’. When a poem is ready to be written, she gets ‘a real prickle at the base of my neck’. She doesn’t think things through before writing, just scribbles things down, because she is often startled and perplexed at what is building. ‘The whole process of writing the poem is a process of elucidation’.

You begin with the chaos of impressions and feelings, this aura that overtakes you, that forces you to write. And, in the process of writing, as you marshal your arguments… your metaphors really, as you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form, the order – the marvellous infomring order emerges from it… You feel, to that degree, reborn.

Of course, there are a lot of things that fall by the wayside in the process, what she calls the ‘bone pile – all the little snippets that failed and the aborted poems and stuff’. She tells poets to never throw any of that away, because later in life you might come back to it and find something that you couldn’t deal with earlier.

There’s a line from a Sexton poem: ‘The writer is essentially a crook./Out of used furniture he makes a tree.’… That is what art should do: create something natural out of all the used-up sticks and bureaus of our lives, the detritus of our lives.

She admits to being somewhat scared of free verse, that she prefers to have some constraint in poetic form, which gives you permission to be more honest with your feelings.

When I’m writing free verse, I feel as though I am in Indiana, where it’s absolutely flat and you can see the horizon 360 degrees around. You feel as if you have no eyelids, you can’t blink. I lose, I have no sense of the line.

She is surprisingly upbeat about the effect that teaching has on her poetry:

It’s very good for me. I think of it as a discipline… I feel I get as much as I give… It keeps me on my toes, probably stimulates me to write more poems than I otherwise would. I’m really very lazy by nature…. I find more ways to evade getting down to business than a centipede has legs. It’s just astonishing the things that I can suddenly decide need doing that have nothing to do with writing.

She finds her family, her community, with other writers, because it is such a solitary job that writers like to get together and moan about how terrible and lonely and difficult writing is. That aspect of the writing life certainly seems to be timeless!

But there are some interesting historical observations as well: even back then in the 1970s, she said she would not recommend poetry as a career, because it is ‘a thin living at best’. Only do it if it’s ‘an obsession, the scratching of a divine itch… nothing to do with money.’ She remembers back in the 1950s, early 1960s when editors would write to her that they could not accept any poems from her for 6 months or so, because they had already published a woman poet in the preceding month.

Above all, I appreciate her ‘kick-in-the-backside’ advice for wannabe poets and writers:

I thin there’s a real value to forcing [yourself to write]/ I do not think it hurst at all to write to assignment… Get in the habit of jotting down states of mind or weather reports. It’s habit forming and it’s good. Also, I do not think anybody becomes a writer who is not a juge reader, omnivorous and wide-ranging. You have to love words, and you have to be willing to take lots of risks with words, and be willing to write really bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. You only grow by doing…

As we turn to writing again…

Let’s face it, for many of us the summer did not involve quite as much writing as we had planned, because of childcare responsibilities.  Frustrating though it may have felt at times, I do know in my heart of hearts that downtime does have its uses!  I can see it in the way the children relate to me now, and I swear I can feel new paths forming between my neurons.

But now it’s autumn, it’s the start of the schoolyear, it’s Vive la Rentrée, as the French call it.  A season when I always feel new energy and new resolutions coming along…

So here are some of my favourite inspirational writing thoughts to get you in the mood:

1) Geoff Dyer (author of the wonderfully if tongue-twistedly entitled ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’):  ‘Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about ­perseverance.’

2) Neil Gaiman: ‘The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.’

3) AL Kennedy: ‘Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.  Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.’

4) Hilary Mantel: ‘You can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.’  N.B. So that’s why it isn’t working for me at the moment…!

5) Joyce Carol Oates: ‘Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst.’

6) Helen Simpson: ‘The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”‘

7) Jeanette Winterson: ‘Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.’

8) Franz Kafka: ‘ You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice…’

9) Simone de Beauvoir: ‘Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.’