Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 21, 2014

Always Beginning: Maxine Kumin and Rainer Maria Rilke

The recent death of Maxine Kumin sent me to her poems as well as a collection of essays called ALWAYS BEGINNING published when she was in her seventies. She looks or looks back at a good life filled with reading and writing poems, teaching, children, grandchildren, raising horses, growing green beans, and more, including speaking out against some people’s tendency to idolize poets who are suicides, despite, or because, one of her best friends was Anne Sexton, who died by her own hand. Her memories of Anne include collaborating on four books for children and days in the 1960s when they left their phones off the hook and whistled if they wanted the other to respond to some lines of a poem. I loved learning about how Maxine Kumin attended a reading given by Alice Walker who urged every woman present: “Each one save one,” meaning each woman writer should save another from anonymity. Maxine Kumin had strong political convictions she wanted people to know, while spending most of her time in rural New Hampshire. She wrote,  “Poetry’s like farming. It’s/ a calling, it needs constancy.” In this collection of essays, she praises Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and the teachers who had her memorize poetry in fourth or fifth grade, giving their students “an inner library to draw on for the rest of our lives.”


This volume also shows her love for the work of Rainer Maria Rilke. Here’s the line which gave her the title. “If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced him, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner.”

Some words from Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy inspired the title of one of Maxine Kumin’s volumes of poems. Here’s what she typed and pinned over her writing desk: “For we are here perhaps merely to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, jar, fruit tree, window – at most, pillar, tower? But to say them … to say them in such a way that even the things themselves never hoped to exist so intensely.”

Thank you, Maxine Kumin, for nudging me to read more of Rilke’s work as well as yours. And something to aim for in my verse.  For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit Karen Edmisten* The Blog with a Shockingly Clever Title.



  1. Thank you for this appreciation, Jeannine. Maxine Kumin is one of my favorites. I especially love her poem “Morning Swim.” And I love the story and the thinking behind her title Always Beginning.

    • Thanks, Sarah. I’ll look for that poem. There’s a whole essay in this book on swimming. Sad about her passing, but it is lovely to spend some late afternoons with her work.

  2. Wonderful post, Jeannine. She was a steady presence in Sexton’s life. Thanks for sharing!

    • I really like Anne Sexton’s poems, too, so different, as they were in personalities. How lucky they were to find each other, and persevere into a friendship, despite differences on the surface. I think it was the Boston Globe memorial that mentioned Anne called Maxine a frump, and of course was about what might be worn in a life much dedicated to horses, while Anne loved pancake makeup and high heels.

      Thanks for stopping by, Karen. She left such a mark in your general neighborhood.

  3. Lovely post, Jeannine. Will have to look for that book of essays. Love the story of she and Anne Sexton whistling to each other. 🙂

    • I do love that quote about beginnings. I can imagine those bulky black dial phones, and the humming. What would it have been like if they could have been facebook friends?

  4. I hadn’t known of the close relationship between Kumin and Sexton, Jeannine – I always admired Kumins spare and fierce honesty, while I often found Sexton’s poems a bit too self dramatizing, to confessional and “let me rip open my body and soul to share” (if you know what I mean. But I think I will enjoy this collection of essays you mention. And thank you for this lovely tribute!

    • If you read their poems, or probably saw them drinking martinis in Boston Ritz after their Adult Ed class, where they met, you’d guess they had nothing in common, which is partly what makes their friendship moving. They were women and poets in a time when that was enough to make a bond. I do read more Kumin now, but like Sexton’s language if not always her themes, and she meant a lot to me in my grittier twenties. I remember taping “The Ambition Birds” to the cinder block walls of my dorm room. Now I most like her volume “Transformations” based on fairy tales. .. hope you like “Beginning Again” — I may have liked the interview the most!

  5. I enjoyed this so much, Jeannine. “Each one, save one” – what great words to live by.

    • Yes, love those words — simple and wise. Thanks for reading amidst your marathon!

  6. I enjoyed your writing about Maxine Kumin, Jeannine-always learn something new when I visit you. The quote you shared is special: ““Poetry’s like farming. It’s/ a calling, it needs constancy.” “

    • Thanks, Linda — I think she really did take her writing and her farming that seriously. You really can’t ignore hungry horses, but she fed her writing, too.

  7. just lovely! “to be always beginning” so glad you shared.

    • Thank you stopping by … with that beautiful baby!

  8. I always visit Poetry Friday posts with tabs open for my library and Amazon… 🙂 I’ll be looking for Always Beginning … love the Rilke quotes you included here, too.

    • The great things with these collections are that there are some pieces you flip through, and then words that stop you. Some of the poets she considers didn’t interest me at the moment, but then.. it is clearly the right time for Rilke. … we will never run out of books!

  9. All the words here from Kumin to Rilke to the comments, all inspiring. We are intense and emotional poets. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you for stopping by and joining the intensity and emotion and inspiration! Onward to new poems!

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