Like children at storytelling hour, students circle Roland Flint. But there is no need. He is big and burly and his soothing, deep voice rumbles into all corners of the classroom. He leans forward, as though into the poem he is reciting. It is about plums. Little by little, his low voice entrances. The plums are so sweet and so cold they can nearly be tasted. Slouchers straighten. Note-taking stops. Listening begins.
For 36 years, Dr. Flint has shared with students his love of poetry. It is a love that has led him to read aloud in elementary schools, in prisons and on ABC's "Nightline." It has driven him to publish seven books of poems. It has caused him to carry in his head for months the beat of a line that begged to be written -- no words, no image, just rhythm.
In recognition of his accomplishments, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to announce today the appointment of the Silver Spring resident as the state's poet laureate. It is a post that bestows prestige but no salary.
"It is a great honor because of those who have had the post before me," says Dr. Flint. The roster is impressive and includes outgoing poet laureate Linda Pastan and the nationally renowned Lucille Clifton.
In at least one way, the governor's timing is impeccable: After nearly four decades, the 61-year-old professor has announced that this will be his last year teaching full-time at Georgetown University.
"I love to teach, but 36 years is a lot of freshman papers," he says. "I have a lot of stuff to do: a lot of reading, a lot of writing."
As poet laureate, Dr. Flint plans to give voice to his art -- in public schools, nursing homes, prisons -- wherever poetry may be scarce. In this way, he will continue what he has been doing for most of his life: teaching others how to love poetry.
How to love, understand, revere, memorize and free it from the page by letting it rumble over their tongues the way it rumbles across his when he speaks it aloud and by heart.
Like craggy buttes against the rolling prairies of his native North Dakota, raw emotions in Dr. Flint's poems stand out against the ordinariness of his words. Some tell of joy or are amusing: the love he glimpsed in a jar of amber honey presented to him by his wife, the feel of his bony head while he shampoos it.
Dr. Flint wrestles with feelings like jealousy or grief, no less sharp for their mundanity.
North Dakotan Thomas Mcgrath once referred to his home state as "one of the dark places of the earth for poetry," and as a child, Roland Flint gave little thought to the subtleties of language. Nor did he know anyone else who did. He was, however, attracted by the rhyme and rhythm of singing, which he did, he says, "in and out of doors, early and late, in barns and to the cows."
But by the time he was an undergraduate at the University of North Dakota, he was experimenting with poems.
"I would write and send it off and would get rejected and resolve never to write again," he says. "But I never could quit."
Images from his youth, from the two years he spent in the Marines, from his friendship with a young assistant professor and poet named James Wright, wend their way through his poems.
His father, now 91, is a farmer who lost his land during the Depression; by the time Roland was born in 1934, his dad was working other men's farms.
One poem recalls the heat of the summer sun and a boy, red-faced and sweating, who is cutting grain with his "dreamless father." But the youth hugs close his own visions of adventure in far-off places.
Another, "Heads of the Children," begins "Father your voice was a fist . . ." It is a prayer that the generation-to-generation cycle of verbal abuse will end with the poet.
"But listen to me," the poem's last stanza pleads:
"I'm doing the same thing
To my small son.
If my voice said what I mean
He could sleep all night in its branches,
But I hear your outrage in me,
Over nothing, a bare lie, or nothing,
And I see him cower for the storm cellar,
Just like me, his knuckles white with my yelling
Father -- I love you.
Jesus Christ, where does it end?"
A growth in poetry?
Nearly everywhere in every city are cafes and bookstores filled with people drinking coffee and listening to poetry. In "poetry slams," performers are assigned numerical scores by a panel of judges, like competitors in a diving contest. There are poetry chat groups on-line, poetic hip-hop singers on CD; there's even a poet on MTV.
Still, poetry can be a hard sell. "It's like what they tell you about AA -- there's a meeting in any part of town any day of the week. I think it's great," says Clarinda Harriss, editor of the New Poets Series and professor of English at Towson State University. "But keep your day job."
Even for published poets like Dr. Flint, that means teaching -- and writing when they can. At readings, they must be raconteurs, bards, stand-up comedians, as well as their own marketing agents. They know that often, when they arrive at a gathering to offer their souls for public consumption, they need to be armed with jokes, prepared to win over reluctant listeners.
"I have given readings where people sat in the front row surly and unresponsive, where nothing was done about publicity, where I wondered why I came," says Dr. Flint, and his voice trails off wearily. Then he gives himself a shake and says: "I can usually get them."
Few, it seems, can resist. Both gravelly and melodic, his voice rises and falls along the lines of a poem like a river following its bed. "His voice is really the archetypal bard's voice," says Michael Collier, a University of Maryland associate professor and director of the Breadloaf Writers' Conference in Vermont.
"It's the voice I would like to imagine that Chaucer would have spoken in. Who knows what Shakespeare would have sounded like, but Chaucer! Chaucer, like Roland, would have the ability to be very bawdy and suggestive and at the same time deeply melancholy and bittersweet."
A few years ago, Dr. Flint read his work at a Rotary Club. "It was a roomful of businessmen and they were very dubious," says Ellen Kennedy, head of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Dr. Flint arrived "ready to mesmerize his audience. He has a great sense of his audience, and he comes with great poetry that will zing in like an arrow to their hearts."
After a few limericks (quite possibly a shade off-color), and a light verse or two, followed by some weightier poems -- the club members were rapt. Afterward, she says, "one told me, 'I'd like to go drinking with that guy.' "
A few months later, the Rotary Club named Roland Flint, poet, its all-time favorite speaker.
In many ways, however, a poet's speaking abilities should have little bearing upon his art. After all, there are many great readers and performers of poetry who are not great poets.
"The voice is in the poems," says Dr. Harriss. "Roland has a big, romantic voice, but his true voice is in the poems."
Listening for his voice
It is during the silent hours of very early morning that Roland Flint listens for his voice. He has not needed an alarm clock since his days as a Marine, and any time from 1 a.m. on, he awakens, ready to begin. Leaving the side of his wife, H. Rosalind Cowie, he makes his way to his study on the second floor of their medium-sized brick home.
There, in the small room lined with books and file cabinets, he sits. Surrounding him are photographs of his wife, two daughters, his old friend James Wright. Stacked all around are dog-eared books by or about Milton, Shakespeare, Frost and Merwin.
He used to write in spiral notebooks everything that happened the day before. His trip to the dentist. The O's winning a game. What the TV weather woman said. As he wrote, a phrase, an idea, an image might emerge.
"T. S. Eliot said a poet is always making new wholenesses out of bits and pieces of everyday life. I write down things about the coffee, the noises in the morning, the smells," he says. "I think there are possibilities for poems in everyday life. Keeping a journal encourages you to at least get down the minimum: Just say what happened."
But a few years ago, after he'd switched from spiral notebooks to floppy disks, after decades of keeping a journal, he began bypassing it. Still, he keeps monthly files on his computer.
As each month ends, he scrolls through his notes and decides what to carry over -- works in progress, worthwhile thoughts, an interesting image or a line that, as yet, has no verse of its own.
It is here in this room and in the poems he creates that he wrestles with the hardships and emotions of everyday life. Nearly 25 years ago, his son was killed at age 6 by a car and, though it still is too painful for him to discuss at much length, he revisits it in his mind. Over and over, his poems ask: Why? How?
"One thing you feel about Roland as soon as you meet him is that though there is an affability about him, he also understands the great sadness of the human condition," says Dr. Collier. "That's part of the real beauty of the man, this openness to life and, subsequently, to art."
Again and again, Dr. Flint's poems mourn his son's death and grapple with a father's anguish -- and that of the little boy's twin sister. Again and again, his poems "illustrate the way that the human spirit is persistent in recognizing the grief and sadness that experience deals us," says Dr. Collier. "And in that persistence, there is a form of redemption."
Dr. Flint may spend hours on a poem, or years.
In "Stubborn," he captured in a few moments the battle he has waged with grief for years. But even as he wrote the poem, he wondered if using his grief as inspiration would somehow diminish that emotion's purity:
". . . I'm furious and groan with it to know,
even then, in spite of myself, that I'll write about this
as well, pulled through the ages by something,
as if in the hand, to write it down here.
Besides despair of writing it well enough
is this revulsion at smearing grief
in order to do it, to use a poem as if you were
trading what you have lived for words,
selling out, by using, the worst secrets.
+ But the words come anyway."
Sometimes, infrequently and gloriously, the words come freely, spilling out of him as though directed by another hand. "The times that I've actually felt this magic, the intensity hasn't lasted," he says. "I feel grateful for these moments."
"Follow," which appears in his book "Resuming Green," sprang from such a moment. At a luncheon with colleagues, the question came up: At what time in history would you have liked to be present? One professor said at the flowering of Byzantine culture. Dr. Flint thought, "I would have liked to have been there when Jesus called the fishermen." But only to himself: "I thought it was too silly."
RTC The notion stuck. About two years later, Dr. Flint woke up abruptly.
At last, he was ready for the poem: "My hands were trembling, I wanted to write the poem so badly. My punctuation was bad, the poem changed a lot after that, but I just had to write it then."
Encouraged to work
Back in class, verse spouts from Dr. Flint like water from a spigot. He can't help it. A bit of Shakespeare. Two versions of a child's playground chant (one you'd let your mother hear; one you wouldn't). His rich belly laughs boom out in the midst of a discussion of e.e. cummings. "Don't you like it?" he asks.
Students who sign up for one of his courses know it will be demanding, with many small papers and a professor who won't let you slide. Blow a paper for Dr. Flint and you don't get an F; nothing so easy. His students write and rewrite until he feels sure they've learned the lesson at hand.
"He does demand a lot of work," says Angela Moore, who has taken three Flint courses. "But it's worth it. He cares."
And for those who don't venture into his classroom, there's poetry available through readings, often held in the late afternoons of fall. In these gatherings, Dr. Flint places his students with renowned artists, to encourage the shy to read aloud as well as to write.
"He was sort of a magician. He made a reality out of poetry," remembers Robin Diener, a Georgetown alum and co-owner of Washington's Chapters Literary Bookstore.
Again and again in his class, Dr. Flint recites and reads, then he pushes and prods. "You don't have to understand it," he says. "But you do have to loosen up a bit."
This may be the last year the new poet laureate will teach full-time at the university, but there are potential students everywhere.
His voice rumbles on, dipping and building with the poem until its end. Then he leans back in his chair, smiles and asks, "Isn't it fun? Isn't it fun?"
Now here is this man mending his nets
After a long day, his fingers
Nicked, here and there, by ropes and hooks
Pain like tomorrow in the small of his back,
His feet blue with his name, stinking of baits
His mind on a pint and supper -- nothing else --
A man who describes the settled shape
Of his life every time his hands
Make and snug a perfect knot.
I want to understand, if only for the story,
How a man like this,
A man like my father in harvest,
Like Bunk McVane in the stench of lobstering,
Or a teamster, a steelworker,
How an ordinary working stiff,
Even a high-tempered one,
Could just be called away.
It's only in one account
He first brings in a netful --
In all the others, he just calls,
They return the look or stare and then
They "straightaway" leave their nets to follow.
That's all there is. You have to figure
What was in that call, that look.
(And I wouldn't try it on a tired working man
Unless I was God's son --
He'd kick your ass right off the pier.)
If they had been vagrants,
Poets, or minstrels, I'd understand that,
Men who would follow a different dog.
But how does a man whose movement
Day after day after day,
Absolutely trusts the shape it fills
Put everything down and walk away?
I'd pass up all the fancy stunting
With Lazarus and the lepers
To see that one.
From "Resuming Green,"
( selected poems 1965-1982