Kumin Selected Poems

Poetically Versed: “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin

(Poetically Versed is a series about poetry.  It’s about sharing poetry — both the visual sharing of the words, and the spoken words of the poem.  My belief is that poetry should be read out loud, as it not only helps us better understand the meaning of the poem, but, also, because hearing a poem read aloud brings the poem to life.  And, the beautiful thing about reading poetry out loud is that there is no right or wrong way to read it — there’s only your way.  I always suggest that you read the poem first, then listen to my reading of the poem — which is posted after the poem– that way I’m not influencing how you hear the poem.  When you first read the poem, it will be in your voice. My reading is my way of sharing how I hear the poem. Do you hear it the same as I do, or is your reading much different?  Do the differences make the poem seem more meaningful?  If you’re so inclined, I’d love to hear your recording of any of the poems I post here.  Feel free to post a reading on your blog, on Soundcloud, or YouTube, and I’ll happily share it!)


On Thursday I posted a review of Maxine Kumin’s book, Selected Poems: 1960-1990. In the review, I made the following remark:

Her poems are not all idyllic images of happy summer days in the country. Some of the poems realistically depict life in the country (and, for a pampered city boy, some of the images are not easy to read), as in this verse, fromWoodchucks, describing what happened after a failed attempt to plug the woodchuck holes, and gas them to death.

I don’t know about you, but often after I post something, I wish I’d done the post a bit differently. In this case, it’s not so much that I wish I’d written the post differently (ok, I admit, in rereading it, I think “Oh, let me change this sentence a bit..”), but, really, it’s more about using the except from the poem Woodchucks, which, in many ways, is a rough, rugged poem, about the trials of farm life. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that there’s more to the poem than just a depiction of rural life. There’s a bit more of a personal side to it than I pointed out in the brief remark and small excerpt of the poem. There’s a depth to the poem that can’t be seen in just a small except.

In a book review, it probably is best to use a few lines of poems to illustrate your points, but, including an entire poem might distract from the review itself, so I didn’t include the entire poem. But, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to share the whole poem, because there is another level of the poem that gets lost in just an excerpt. The excerpt simply illustrates the farmers attempt to eradicate the woodchucks who destroy the vegetable garden, whereas reading the poem in its entirety one gets the sense that Kumin wrestles with having to kill the woodchucks, but, also, is surprised by the ferocity of feeling that getting rid of them gave her — she’s discovered that she, in a strange way, enjoyed the kill, yet, at the same time feels remorseful. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that she would have preferred the original method employed (cyanide gas) to the use of a firearm.

Then there are the final lines of the poem, which brings a powerful image to mind, and leaves the reader feeling unsettled, because the last lines add a new dimension to the poem, making the poem feel slightly allegorical, rather than autobiographical. It’s really a well done poem, and, I want to share the whole poem, rather than just an excerpt.

Read the poem (aloud is always best!) then listen to my reading (which is posted below the poem). And feel free to let me know what you think. Do you see the allegory in the poem?


My reading can be heard here:

6 thoughts on “Poetically Versed: “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin

  1. Oh wow! I never heard of woodchucks (bird or rat?),What ever they are they sound like a difficult problem and are probably not very endearing. but your voice remains beautiful throughout and manages to make me sorry for the woodchucks…..which had to go. It also made me understand the excitement (or satisfaction) of the ‘shoot’ itself. Then ultimately ( the surprise) feelings of the guilt in having to take care of the wily old one.. It seems that the poet had toughened up to the fact that the mother and babies had to go first and knew that with the right mind set, would get over it;, but was ultimately traumatised and guilty about getting rid of the old one. …. Difficult poem beautifully read..

  2. Oh John, you know I love this poem, and now your reading! Good god, man, you nailed it! Artfully, expertly done. I am envious. And I enjoyed your further thoughtful comments on the review as well.

  3. Provocative poem, the last line particularly. I like the idea of a “lapsed pacifist”. I’ve lapsed at several beliefs. I’m a lapser, thank you, John. I’ll be working that into conversations for days to come!

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