HALLOWELL, Maine - For most of his writing life, poet Baron Wormser has lived in the Maine woods, in a house he built but that lacked electricity, plumbing or conventional heat. It had three wood stoves, an outhouse with screened windows and a garden teeming with flowers and vegetables.
Wormser earned his living as a school librarian in an area of central Maine populated by woodsmen, truckers and back-to-the-landers. In between chopping wood to feed the stoves, tilling and tending the garden, he wrote. First fiction, then poetry, in longhand, on a yellow legal pad. His was a solitary literary life - no poetry workshops, no writing group, no master mentoring his verse.
At age 52, Wormser is Maine's poet laureate, the author of five books honored for his poetic storytelling in a state known more for its rugged beauty and lobster catch than its literary genius. He was appointed in March.
"As we put it, the state honors poetry by having a poet laureate. And the poet laureate honors the state by accepting," says Marion K. Stocking, editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal who helped select the poet laureate. "Poetry gives people a language for the things they can't otherwise express."
Wormser has lived in rural Maine for most of his adult life, but his poetry originates not in the outdoors but in the nature of man. His poems are narratives as varied as those of a Jewish furniture store owner in the race-divided Baltimore of Wormser's youth and a timber-hauling trucker traveling the roads of rural Maine. The poems are set in places as diverse as Las Vegas, Pikesville, Dachau. They touch on subjects as current as war crimes and AIDS. They feature figures of history and art such as St. Augustine and Mark Rothko. They speak in the voices of Beethoven's maid, a cook named Mulroney, a draft dodger in Canada.
He tells stories of, among others, a Vietnam veteran driving hundreds of miles a week to forget; the waiters at a 1953 delicatessen discussing their "profession"; the Monster Boy and other patients wheeling through a children's ward.
But his storytelling is no woodsman's tale.
In the poem "Weather," Wormser recounts the legacy of a neighbor named Ray, who bequeaths a crate of journals to the couple who live next door. Poetry, the husband jokes. Instead, he finds a lifetime of weather, recorded in Ray's "white-church, dry-beans, backyard-violets way." The couple realizes that they had been trusted with "something truer than common. ... The feeling of being present each day was - when you got right down to it - lordly."
Wormser's three-year appointment as Maine's poet laureate has not yet changed some people's perception of him and his 25 years in the woods. Wormser recalls the reaction of a woman who attended a poetry reading he gave recently in Massachusetts: "I thought you were a hick from Maine," she remarked, "but you're a Jewish intellectual."
Two years ago, Wormser gave up his library job and back-to-nature lifestyle. He traded his hand-built house in the country for a restored farmhouse here in Hallowell, overlooking the Kennebec River, a few miles from the state capital, Augusta. Poetry is his vocation and avocation now.
Wormser was serving as writer in residence at the University of South Dakota when a panel of his peers chose him poet laureate. The practice of publicly honoring poets dates to ancient Greece, where they were crowned with a laurel wreath. In Renaissance Europe, kings and queens employed poets to celebrate the rulers' accomplishments in verse.
In the United States, the Library of Congress first appointed a poetry consultant in 1965. Congress elevated the post to poet laureate 20 years later and awarded each honoree a $35,000 salary and an office. In Maine, the designation brings no duties or stipend: It is a recognition of a poet's work in a society often dismissive of the craft and its practitioners.
In choosing Wormser, "we looked at nothing but the distinction of the poetry," says Stocking. "He really is a national figure. We're just lucky that he lives in Maine."
Wormser wants to use his position to promote poetry in schools and to teach workshops throughout the state. His recent book, co-written with David Cappella, is Teaching the Art of Poetry, a guide for high school teachers.
"We feel real strongly poetry is neglected in American classrooms," says Wormser, whose reserved manner masks a sly humor. "Kids want poetry. They want to read it. They want to write it. The whole intensity of poetry appeals to kids."
"People just really aren't brought up with an appreciation of poetry, which means you spend your life at a hidden art. As Calvin Trillin once said, on vocational night, there aren't a lot of people hovering around the poetry booth."