Born in Philadelphia, Maxine Winokur, the daughter of Jewish parents, attended Catholic kindergarten and lower schools. She received her B.A. in 1946 and her M.A. in 1948 from Radcliffe College. In June 1946 she married Victor Kumin, an engineering consultant; they have two daughters and a son. In 1957, she studied poetry with John Holmes at the Boston Center for Adult Education. There she met Anne Sexton, with whom she started a friendship that continued until Sexton's suicide in 1974. Kumin taught English from 1958 to 1961 and 1965 to 1968 at Tufts University; from 1961 to 1963 she was a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. She has also held appointments as a visiting lecturer and poet in residence at many American colleges and universities. Since 1976, she and her husband have lived on a farm in Warner, New Hampshire, where they breed Arabian and quarter horses.
Kumin's many awards include the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize for Poetry (1972), the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1973) for Up Country, the Aiken Taylor Prize, the 1994 Poets' Prize (for Looking for Luck), an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for excellence in literature (1980), an Academy of American Poets fellowship (1986), the 1999 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and six honorary degrees. In 1981-1982, she served as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Critics have compared Kumin with Elizabeth Bishop because of her meticulous observations and with Robert Frost, for she frequently devotes her attention to the rhythms of life in rural New England. She has been grouped with confessional poets such as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. But unlike the confessionalists, Kumin eschews high rhetoric and adopts a plain style. Throughout her career Kumin has struck a balance between her sense of life's transience and her fascination with the dense physical presence of the world around her. She served as the 1985 judge of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry and she selected Patricia Dobler's Talking To Strangers.
She currently teaches poetry in New England College's Low-Residency MFA Program. She is also a contributing editor at The Alaska Quarterly Review.
Together with fellow-poet Carolyn Kizer, she first served on and then resigned from the board of chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, an act that galvanized the movement for opening this august body to broader representation by women and minorities.