Farewell Maxine Kumin and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Two major artists died in recent days, one from an overdose of heroin, the other at the end of a long and well-lived life. Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor of extraordinary depth, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin seem, at first glance, to represent two poles of artistic sensibility. I find myself reflecting about the relationship between an artist and his or her life, and the myth of latent madness that still clings to the intensely creative among us.
I once had a Jungian analyst friend say to me that when the gates of the imagination are opened, one cannot predict if angels or demons or both will sail through. True enough. But isn’t it also true that depending on temperament, social conditions, and pure luck, some of us come equipped or grow skilled at battling even the fiercest demons? Why some survive and thrive despite enormous suffering continues to capture my attention.
Hoffman’s work shows an actor capable of embodying the dark recesses of the human psyche, those shadowy aspects of our nature that we deny, ignore, or hide in shame.
In the Sunday New York Times Week in Review of February 9th, Serge Schmenmann writes:
Since his death, there have been many articles about his life, his love of theater, his extraordinary talent. None of them can fully explain why he used drugs, but they do give us some sense of the intense emotional and physical exertions required of someone who fully lives not only his own life, but also the life of each of the people he portrays. All who saw Mr. Hoffman in different roles were astounded by how fully and convincingly he became the other person.
Maxine Kumin lived and died on her New Hampshire farm among her beloved family, horses and garden. She was 88. An accomplished horsewoman, in 1998, Kumin was thrown from a carriage she was driving and suffered severe injuries, including a broken neck. Though miraculously she recovered, the end of her life was lived in considerable pain. She kept writing poems and prose. Her memoir Inside the Halo and Beyond addresses her accident and the experience of recovery.
Clearly Ms. Kumin was a survivor, though we dare not guess why she and not Philip Seymour Hoffman lived into old age. It’s not as though she dismissed the tragedies inherent in the human condition, or that she herself did not suffer. But perhaps her closeness to the natural world with its beauty, predictable rhythms, glorious surprises, and cycles of renewal acted as an antidote and a container for the inevitable misfortunes of sorrow and loss.
Both these artists deserve our unqualified praise not only for their enormous talent, but also for their willingness to accept public scrutiny and the risk of personal vulnerability for a life dedicated to craft and illuminating truth.
Here is a poem I find quintessential Kumin from her book The Long Approach. If you would like to read more of her work, please visit her website: http://www.maxinekumin.com/
By Maxine Kumin
I want to apologize
for all the snow falling in
this poem so early in the season.
Falling on the calendar of bad news.
Already we have had snow lucid,
snow surprising, snow bees
and lambswool snow. Already
snows of exaltation have covered
some scars. Larks and the likes
of paisleys went up. But lately the sky
is letting down large-print flakes
of old age. Loving this poor place,
wanting to stay on, we have endured
an elegiac snow of whitest jade,
subdued biographical snows
and public storms, official and profuse.
Even if the world is ending
you can tell it’s February
by the architecture of the pastures.
Snow falls on the pregnant mares,
is followed by a thaw, and then
refreezes so that everywhere
their hill upheaves into a glass mountain.
The horses skid, stiff-legged, correct
position, break through the crust
and stand around disconsolate
lipping wisps of hay.
Animals are said to be soulless.
Unable to anticipate.
No mail today.
No newspapers. The phone’s dead.
Bombs and grenades, the newly disappeared,
a kidnapped ear, go unrecorded
but the foals flutter inside them
warm wet bags that carry them
eleven months in the dark.
It seems they lie transversely, thick
as logs. The outcome is well known.
If there’s an April
in the last frail snow of April
they will knock hard to be born.