Lesser Lights

By Gretchen Gibbs

Ralph Kiner

Ralph Kiner

In the last few days, the Times has announced the deaths of two of my favorite public figures, Ralph Kiner, the baseball legend and long-time announcer for the New York Mets, and Maxine Kumin, Pulitzer Prize winner for her wonderful poems and the equivalent of poet laureate before we had an official designation. If you think this an odd conjunction of public figures for me to be mourning, keep in mind that Kumin was an ardent Red Sox fan, and Kiner had a relationship with Janet Leigh. People resist pigeon holing.

Did they have anything in common? For all their fame, both Kiner and Kumin received less acclaim than they deserved. Kiner was described in the Times as “vastly undersung.” He had one of the most impressive home run records in the history of the sport, but because he played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, perpetually at the bottom of the standings, he wasn’t much noticed. He became an announcer for the Mets from the beginning of their franchise in 1962, because, as quoted in the Times obit, he “had a lot of experience with losing.”

In 1972, I was ill for an entire summer, not in pain, but with nothing to do but lie in bed and watch television. Daytime television in that era was six or seven channels of soap operas, with a little baseball thrown in. In those days there were many more afternoon games than there are today, and I became a Mets fan. Ralph Kiner, with Bob Murphy, and Lindsey Nelson of the florid sports coats educated me and turned me on to the glories of the sport.

Kiner, in spite of a speech problem brought on by Bell’s palsy, still announced once in a while this last season, and his comments were always intelligent and generous. I never heard him make a mean remark about anyone, regardless of their team.

Maxine Kumin certainly achieved fame as a poet, but she always existed in the shadow of her friend, Anne Sexton. Even the obituary in the Times devotes several paragraphs to Sexton. She was a gifted poet who, like Sylvia Plath, committed suicide after years of struggling with the impulse.

Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin

The two friends had an open phone line between their houses. Sexton is described, by her daughter and many others, as self-centered, narcissistic and demanding. I can’t imagine a more difficult friend.

I discovered Kumin’s poems in the New Yorker in the 70s, and was pleased to find a great poet of the everyday, who was not suicidal or difficult. “I was not influenced by women writing poetry,” Kumin is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. “There weren’t any women to admire.” She herself became the model for many women, including me, who aspired to write.

What is to be concluded? There should be bridges to rename, but that will not happen. I’m sure that some portion of CitiField will be named Kiner’s Korner, and I’m sure there will be a Maxine Kumin prize in the literary world. Let us just remember that success does not always come with a lot of hoopla.

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4 Responses to “Lesser Lights”

  1. Geoff Howard Says:

    Nice personalized comments about two shoulda-been greats.

    I think it must be the secret hope of all of us who are not famous or who have achieved “less claim than deserved,” that there will be a Gretchen Gibbs around somewhere to say “Stop! Pay attention! Something important has been lost!” when we shuffle off.

    Thank you and if perchance I shuffle off before you, perhaps …

  2. Jean Webster Says:

    I am a Maxine fan, and found this poem. It makes me think of the days when we “foraged” for blackberries on the hill across the street from our house in Sullivan County, with our cat as company.
    Jean Webster

    : A LOVE POEM – Maxine Kumin

    going for grapes with
    ladder and pail in
    the first slashing rain
    of September rain
    steeping the dust
    in a joyous squelch the sky
    standing up like steam
    from a kettle of grapes
    at the boil wild fox grapes
    wickedly high tangled in must
    of cobweb and bug spit
    going for grapes year
    after year we two with
    ladder and pail stained
    with the rain of grapes
    our private language

  3. Anita Page Says:

    Gretchen, a thoughtful, interesting piece.
    Jean, thank you for posting that wonderfully joyful poem.

  4. Michael Kaufman Says:

    Kumin would have made a great guest on Kiner’s Korner.

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