Maxine Kumin

The Poet and the Mule

Not all poets survive the circumstances of their downfall. Indeed, a considerable code has grown up around the famous poet/suicide, a John Berryman, a Hart Crane, or Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton [that] excites the combined prurience and sympathetic imagination of the general public to an astonishing pitch. Actuarial tables indicate that psychiatrists, dentists, painters, and lawyers all have higher suicide rates than poets. But none of these groups captures the interest of the general readership. Is it because the public expects the poet, that maverick, to be tougher than the rest of the community, not subject to the same stresses, not requiring the same rations, as it were, in order to keep working?

The prodigiousness of the poet has been frequently remarked and needs no documentation here. As for nipping, and pestering their own kind, poets are no better or worse than politicians or other performing artists. It is a trait that has been deplored or admired depending on circumstances, and frequently receives more attention than the poetry itself. Famous poet antipathies spring to mind: William Carlos Williams and T.S. EliotLouise Bogan and Muriel Rukeyser; Ivor Winters and Robinson Jeffers.

We have Allen Tate writing in the Consultant’s chair in 1944, that Edna St. Vincent Millay is “definitely from first to last a minor lyricist, and in my opinion, never the equal from any point of view of Miss [Marianne] Moore, and several other women poets of our time.” And we have Allen Tate on Amy Lowell: “I find Miss Lowell interesting from the historical point of view only. She seems more remote than Mrs. [Elizabeth Barrett] Browning and not quite so good, which isn’t very good.”

Some poets, to be sure, go about their work without any fuss. Most poets, like most mules, die unsung. The mythology of each species persists.


From “The Poet and the Mule” by Maxine Kumin. Delivered May 4, 1982, in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.


Maxine Kumin (June 6, 1925 - February 6, 2014) served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1981 - 82. Other honors include a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, an Academy of American Poets fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for excellence in literature. Kumin is the author of eighteen books of poems, including Up Country (1972), Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (1982), The Long Marriage, (2001), and Where I Live (2011). She also published a memoir, The Pawnbroker's Daughter (2015), and 25 books for children. To read more about this author, see Dan Vera's "The Library and its Laureates: The Examples of Auslander, Williams, Dickey & Kumin"