Hall, Kumin, and Wilbur Take the Stage: Postcard From Boston

Henry Stimpson

The three former poets laureate who read at the Boston Public Library last month appeared in inverse proportion to their age. Donald Hall, the youngest at seventy-nine, seemed the oldest, moving slowly, almost fragilely to the podium. Maxine Kumin, at eighty-two, a little bent over, but otherwise in good form, nevertheless looked older than Richard Wilbur, a robust eighty-six, unbent, brown hair, strong voice.

The occasion for the reading was the recent publication of The Light Within the Light: Portraits of Donald Hall, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kumin, and Stanley Kunitz (David R. Godine), which features conversations by author Jeanne Braham with each poet and engravings by Barry Moser. All, Braham said in her brief introduction, are “poets who make a difference.”

Hall, with a crop of wild gray hair and a bardic beard, may be showing his age, but his mind is sharp as ever. He’s still a productive poet and essayist who finds that he’s “writing about old age all the time.” He doesn’t see his New Hampshire neighbor Kumin often enough but is comforted to know that she’s just on the other side of Mt. Kearsarge, about “eight miles as the crow flies but thirty miles as the Honda chugs.” His reading was impassioned, but his voice was soft and sometimes hard to hear. (The library’s sound system wasn’t great.) Among the poems he read was a heartfelt piece about his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who died at age forty-seven twelve years ago.

Though a bit stooped, Kumin moved more easily than Hall. Like Wilbur, she’s an avid gardener, and she said they compare garden notes whenever they chat. This year she had “onions to die for.” Kumin survived a near-fatal fall from a horse when she was seventy-three and spent months with her head immobilized in a metal halo, but she recovered completely. Her voice was clear and strong, though she stumbled over her words in a few places. She read a poem about Anne Sexton’s suicide. One day in October 1974 Kumin had lunch with Sexton, who seemed fine but then went home and promptly killed herself.

More than fifty Wilbur poems have appeared in the New Yorker, making him “the Barry Bonds of the New Yorker,” according to the president of the Boston Public Library. But Wilbur—who lives in rural western Massachusetts—hasn’t taken any banned substances to achieve his remarkable vigor in old age. Before reading his popular poem, “Blackberries for Amelia,” he revealed it was originally titled “Blackberries” and dedicated to his granddaughter Amelia. The New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn accepted it but said the magazine doesn’t allow dedications. “So I very cleverly moved it up into the title,” he chuckled.

The late Stanley Kunitz was fondly remembered by all in attendance. “Stanley was good at everything he did,” Wilbur said, citing his achievements as a carpenter, cook, and master gardener. Braham said she felt privileged to interview him in the months before his death.

There was even a little controversy. In response to a question about more political themes in her recent poetry, Kumin said she had been acted upon by events like torture. The poems were “wrung from me…. I had no choice in the matter.” Wilbur said he was wary about addressing overtly political topics in poetry because it usually leads to bad poetry. He said the late Anthony Hecht referred to the poets who assembled an anthology of poetry protesting the Vietnam war as “war profiteers.” Kumin said she disagreed with Hecht, and pointed out that some great poems, like Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” and Auden’s “September 1, 1939” have political themes. And if political protest also produces some not-so-good poems, that’s not so terrible. There "has to be a response by poets,” she said. “We’re citizens, too.”

It was inspiring to see these three great New England poets on one stage and to know that as time goes on they’re still producing top work.