Well-Versed Roland Flint: With a deep, romantic voice, Maryland's new poet laureate pours emotion into his poems and his readings.

September 27, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

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.

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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."

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