When Vincent Godfrey Burns assumed his life-term appointment as Maryland's official poet laureate in 1962, the feisty, one-time segregationist began a 17-year tenure marked by rhymes, name-calling feuds, annual legislative attempts to oust him and saccharine odes to his political benefactors.
This week nationally recognized poet and children's author Lucille Clifton assumes the post, which has been vacant since Burns' death in february. A black woman and mother of six who writes free verse, Clifton promises a different approach to the job.
"Poet laureate is something that you are rather than something that you do...Vincent Burns had a great desire to be poet laureat. I have a great desire to write poetry," Clifton said.
The position, which comes by appointment of the governor offers only a $1,000-a-year stipend. In the past the only official duty of the poet laureate was to write new poems for specific state occasions, such as a governor's birthday.
"Hail to the Chief! On his natal day/May blessings abundant come his way..." wrote Burns in "A tribute to the Governor on His Birthday."
"We don't know yet what kind of profile [Clifton] will maintain," said Gene Oishi, press secretary to Gov. Harry Hughes, who made the appointment Tuesday. "We just hope that she will write poetry about Maryland on the appropriate days."
But Clifton, 43, has a different idea: "You don't go around asking poets to write verse on request. That's not poetry - that's greeting cards. You don't write a poem for the governor or a new mall opening, on assignment.... Poetry doesn't happen that way, it's something beyond assignment."
Clifton, author of 18 children's books, an autobiography and four books of poetry, said she bases much of her work on her experiences as a black woman in America.
In an untitled poem that led to the name of one poetry book, "An Ordinary Woman," she extolled the extraordinary traits of American women and said that these traits made up what is the "ordinary woman."
During his tumultous tenure as poet laureat, Burns coined rhymes that hailed the state bird, saluted former Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes and several other state politicians who defended his position, and commemorated George Washington and Patrick Henry.
In addition, Burns accused critics of being atheists and Communists when they advocated removing him from the post. He once pleaded before a legislative panel considering his fate that if he were stripped of his title, "My life would be over."
Maryland's new poet laureate, who will hold the title for three years, said the position is not that important to her.
"It's not something that any contemporary American poets aspire to;" Clifton said. "In that I take poetry seriously, I take [the position] seriously. It is not that thing for which I burn bridges, it is not that thing I sought to be."
What Clifton does seek, she said, is to continue writing poetry as poignantly as possible. "I write out of the circumstances surrounding my life...I celebrate life," she said. "I try to tell the truth as I see it."
Her predecessor's verse was of a different vein. Clifton said. Pressed to say whether she felt Vi ncent Godfrey Burns' work was poetry, she said. "I don't think so. A lot of people would, but I don't. It's a difference between a print and an original, maybe that's it."
In an untitled piece that is one of her earlier and favorite works, Clifton wrote:
Let there be new flowering in the fields...let the fields turn mellow for the men let the men keep tender through the time...let the time be wrestled from the war let the war be won let love be at the end. CAPTION: Picture, Maryland poet laureate Lucille Clifton