When Reed Whittemore was sworn in last month as the fourth poet laureate of Maryland, he was low key and gracious, but also a little perplexed: Exactly what, he wondered, does a poet laureate do?
A few days after the ceremony with Gov. Harry Hughes, Whittemore received a letter from a state legislator urging him to "do something" about the state song. The controversial "Maryland, My Maryland," written in 1861, contains references to "Northern scum" and "patriotic gore" and labels Abraham Lincoln a "despot."
While Whittemore has doubts about his future as a songwriter, he has noticed his appointment book filling up with ceremonial duties -- a reading before a Baltimore teachers group one week, the judging of a senior citizens poetry-writing contest the next.
"What I'm going to do with that," he said, referring to the latter commitment, "I don't know. But I'm honored, I'm honored."
Forty years ago, Whittemore, fresh from Army service in World War II, published his first book of poetry. Since then, he has published 11 other books, accumulated 35 years of teaching experience (first at Carleton College in Minnesota and most recently at the University of Maryland) and has served twice as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. From 1969 to 1973, he was literary editor of The New Republic.
Now, at 66, Whittemore, a small man with graying hair and bright blue eyes, is proof that poets never retire. "I just mow the lawn," he said with a laugh, looking out over the back yard flower garden of his College Park home.
"I don't think one stops being a poet," he said. "I think you get stopped in your tracks because you don't get published anymore. I don't really know the witching age for poets. Swimmers peak at 18. Poets -- Frost, others -- go quite late in life."
He paused and spoke with the deliberate self-mockery evident in much of his poetry, "Sometimes," he said dryly, "when I sit in front of the typewriter, I think I'm 66 years old."
Whittemore, a Yale graduate and the son of a New Haven physician, made his reputation on spare, polished lines about subjects often not associated with poetry: clamming, a porch chair, mud pies made by his four children when they were small, the high school band. "I've been trying for a long time to keep my poetry away from the obvious milieu," he said with a smile.
For a man who has made a career of teaching and giving readings of his work, Whittemore is modest when it comes to speaking about himself. Dressed in a striped pullover sweater and tan slacks, he frequently looked out the window and fingered objects on a nearby table when asked about his writing.
In the adjoining kitchen, his daughter, Daisy, 18, a University of Maryland student, and son, Jack, 25, a cook, talked and laughed. Another daughter, Kate, is an artist; son Ned, a student in medical school; his wife Helen, said Whittemore, "at one time hung most of the wallpaper in Georgetown."
Does Whittemore read much? "More than my children ever do," he said loudly, his reply met with instant boos and hisses from the kitchen. His favorite poets and writers, he said, are T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, Graham Greene and James Gould Cozzens.
In an essay titled "But Seriously," he once described himself: "When I look at history, literary and social, I find that I side pretty steadily with history's eccentrics. I don't mean all the mad astrologists and mystics -- the best satirists have not, I think, gravitated toward exotic ideals and idealisms -- but simply the mundane eccentrics who have stood on the sidelines with the game in progress, and made frosty remarks instead of cheering."
When reminded of the essay, he said, "I've always been a half-baked radical."
These days, Whittemore, who once wrote a biography of poet William Carlos Williams, is writing another book about biographers. And then, there is also that poet-laureate matter. "The whole business of being poet laureate is a little bit suspicious," he said.
"There's a comic element to it."
He produced a huge cream-colored scroll plastered with gold seals proclaiming him to be the state poet laureate, a ceremonial post observed by some states, but not all. It is an "elaborate document," he acknowledged. Then he riffled through the cards in his wallet to find a flimsy yellow identification card, not unlike a library card, that says, "This is to certify . . . " that he is indeed the poet laureate for Maryland.
"Is this a joke?" he asked with a laugh, then pondered the yellow card and shrugged. "I guess the governor must have thought it was a joke to sign that thing."
Whittemore succeeds Lucille Clifton, who resigned her post when she moved to California. The term is three years; there is no salary.
"They asked me," said Whittemore, still looking a little perplexed, "and I said okay. It's an odd job, but it is an honor."