For state's poet laureate, life could be verse

A figurehead, a public speaker, a promoter of all things poetical

First Person

December 21, 2003|By Michael Collier | Michael Collier,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Ebenezer Cooke hands a letter of introduction to Lord Baltimore in John Barth's historical farce, The Sot-Weed Factor, Baltimore notices that it is signed Ebenezer Cooke, Poet. It prompts him to ask: "What might that mean, pray? Can it be you earn your bread by versifying? Or you're a kind of minstrel, belike that wanders about the countryside, a-begging and reciting? 'Tis a trade I know little of, I confess't."

Cooke responds: "Poet I am ... and no mean one may it be; but not a penny have I earned by't, nor will I ever. The muse loves him who courts her for herself alone, and scorns the man who'd pimp her for his purse's sake."

The Poet then proposes that the governor employ him as his province's "Poet and Laureate." His ambition, he declares, will be to write the Marylandiad, "an epic to out-epic epics: the history of the princely house of Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore and Lord Proprietary of the Province of Maryland, relating to the heroic founding of that province!"

In April of 2001, when I raised my right hand in an ornate reception room of the State House in Annapolis and swore to carry out the duties of Poet Laureate of the State of Maryland, I was at once terrified at the formality of the ceremony and delighted to think that I was following in the shoes of Ebenezer Cooke. (The historical Cooke was the author of The Sotweed Factor or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr, 1708.) I was also thinking I'd better get my hands on a copy of the statutes I had just sworn to uphold.

Perhaps because the tradition of poet laureate in Maryland extends back to before the revolution, I did not have to wonder for long what its poet laureate does. Or perhaps it's because the state is small and its citizens are well-educated and curious and accepting of odd things.

More likely, it's because the modern position of its poet laureate, which I will vacate in the new year, has been defined by four distinguished and extremely generous poets before me: Lucille Clifton, Reed Whittemore, Linda Pastan and Roland Flint. Each of these poets visitedmany schools and community groups, presided as judges for local literary contests and advised arts and education panels, but, as far as I know, were never asked nor volunteered to write an epic to out-epic epics.

Twixt flower and song

When I did get around to investigating just what my oath bound me to, I found that the State of Maryland's Acts of 1959; Chapter 178; Annotated Code, Section 13-306 allows for the governor to "designate a citizen of the State as its laureate." It says as well that the poet laureate may not receive compensation but can be reimbursed for any expenses incurred in the performance of his duties, up to $1,000 for any fiscal year (from the Emergency Fund of the Board of Public Works, in fact).

I also discovered that Section 13-306 is a sub-section of Title 13 "Emblems and Commemorative Days" which lists the state flag, seal and a catalog of other official state things such as the state insect, fossil, crustacean, reptile and dinosaur. Poet laureate is sandwiched, so to speak, between the state flower (the black-eyed Susan) and the state song ("Maryland, My Maryland!"). The designation comes with no proscribed duties. My oath, however real, was one that could never be broken.

At the time of my appointment, an entity called the Governor's Office for Special Projects coordinated the Poet Laureate's appointments and events. When Jody Albright, the gracious and steadfast director of the office, welcomed me to the laureateship, she asked what plans I had for my tenure. Having known all of my immediate predecessors and knowing what sorts of duties they had performed, I thought I would merely do more or less the same.

It was clear from Jody Albright's question, though, that I was meant to come up with a plan of my own. After thinking about it, I decided simply to make public libraries and community colleges the focus of my tenure. From my experience, these two institutions rarely offered literary programs.

Libraries have figured importantly in my life. But also, public libraries are perhaps the most democratic of institutions in the country, and the range of services they provide is remarkable, if largely unheralded. Additionally, libraries and their librarians for decades have been battling, sometimes alone, to protect privacy, access to information and free speech.

For almost three years now, about twice a month, I have visited county libraries and community colleges throughout Maryland. I also have spoken before just as many schools and community groups, including a Rotary Club breakfast meeting, a Catholic Worker home, senior centers, museums, and have participated in panels about careers in the arts.

Shortly after my appointment, editors at The Sun suggested I contribute a monthly column on poetry to the paper. That column, called Poet's Corner, began appearing in June 2001.

A hunger to be serious

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