Maxine Kumin (right), who died on February 6 at age 88, was the second writer-in-residence at Centre College. She taught a six-week term in 1973 in the English program, and that same year she won a Pulitzer Prize for her fourth volume of poetry, “Up Country.” In 1976 she was invited back to Centre to deliver the Commencement address, almost certainly the first woman poet to do so. She was named U. S. Poet Laureate in 1980-81. Faculty members who knew her at the time remember her as elegant, witty and convivial.
Kumin’s poems are admired for their crisp, often startling language. Much of her work, set on her New Hampshire farm, expresses a close connection to the life of animals and an appreciation of nature’s continuities and losses.
Kumin’s passing serves as a reminder that a remarkable trio of poets taught at Centre in the early 1970s. At that time, long before Centre offered a creative writing minor with full-time authors on the faculty, the writer-in-residence program allowed students to have at least some contact with the larger literary scene.
The first writer-in-residence was Howard Nemerov (1920-1991, right). Already established as a major figure in American letters, Nemerov was twice named U.S. Poet Laureate and went on to win a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his “Collected Poems.” A WWII bomber pilot and acclaimed scholar and poet, Nemerov was a bit imposing but generous in sharing his immense knowledge of poetry, art, music and history.
The third writer-in-residence, Ruth Stone (1915-2011, bottom right), was invited at the suggestion of Centre alumna George Ella Lyon ’71, who had studied with her at Indiana University. A red-haired dynamo, Ruth, as everyone called her, was a force of nature. She inspired creativity in every one of her students, with whom she had an especially close rapport. At term’s end they compiled a booklet of their poems entitled “We Love You, Ruth.” Another winner of numerous poetry prizes, she was praised for her wry, bold, comic literary imagination.
But Maxine Kumin was the only writer-in-residence to produce a series of poems about her Kentucky experiences. She zipped around the state in a borrowed Subaru, and later included a suite of six “Kentucky Poems” in her book “House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate.” Claiming, with bemused exaggeration, “I am the only Jew residing in Danville, Kentucky,” Kumin laments that the churches outnumber butcher shops, thirty-seven to none.
More happily, she swims laps in Boles Natatorium, “gliding back and forth / erasing my own stitch marks in this lane.” In Lexington she attends a horse sale: “The brood mares on the block at Tipton Pavilion, / have ears as delicate as wineglass stems. / Their eyes roll up and out like china dolls’.” And she pays a visit to Wendell Berry on his farm in Port Royal, “A man with eyes bluer / than his Kentucky sky ponds.” Sharing Berry’s well-known passion for the environment, she writes, “his god is in the furrow.” She even makes use of Berry’s outdoor privy and humorously shares that moment in the poem: “I find myself in the outhouse / and am emptied / and am filled.”
Playful wit is one thing all three of these poets had in common. All three continue to be anthologized as major poets of their time, and all of them briefly played a part in Centre’s intellectual history.
By Dr. Roberta White, Luellen Professor Emerita of English (pictured at top)