Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2061
The achievement of Roland Flint’s poetry is its remarkable accessibility. Although he was a career academic (teaching for more than thirty years at Georgetown University), Flint’s poetry is not marked by the heavy-handed intellectual embroidery, lexical experimenting, obscure symbols, and erudite allusions that put so much contemporary poetry out of...
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- Critical Essays
The achievement of Roland Flint’s poetry is its remarkable accessibility. Although he was a career academic (teaching for more than thirty years at Georgetown University), Flint’s poetry is not marked by the heavy-handed intellectual embroidery, lexical experimenting, obscure symbols, and erudite allusions that put so much contemporary poetry out of reach of a large audience. Reflecting perhaps his rural upbringing on the Great Plains or his early dissatisfactions with higher education (he dropped out of college his first try), Flint’s poetry is, as he often described it, “user-friendly,” poetry intended to be read within public forums rather than treated to classroom analysis. During his five-year stint as Maryland’s poet laureate, Flint worked tirelessly to bring poetry to audiences across his state not often exposed to it: rural schools, retirement homes, prisons, business clubs, private homes, and even local cable and national talk show audiences. With a rich, engaging voice, he was known for spellbinding readings. Because his poetry itself celebrates the ordinary miracles of daily life as well as the pain and the wonder drawn from Flint’s own emotional experiences, audiences are compelled by such honesty and directness. By forsaking the posture of imperial poet, Flint imbues his poetry with a most affective intimacy and vulnerability.
Not surprisingly, such intimacy is achieved via a poetic line that dispenses with the intrusive play of anticipated rhythm and strict rhyme. What Flint offers instead is a blank-verse line that sounds its musical best when read aloud in subtle manipulations of sound and line length that create a sophisticated pace to poetry that sounds deceptively simple, even conversational. He often described his work as “common feelings captured in uncommon language,” poetry within the colloquial range that defined the midcentury work of poets such as Theodore Roethke (the subject of Flint’s doctorate), James Wright (a friend and colleague at the University of Minnesota), and William Stafford (an early mentor and eventual collaborator).
Roland Flint’s first collection, And Morning, is haunted by what he does not directly treat: the death of his son (the title puns on morning/mourning). Flint acknowledges only that on reaching midlife, he finds himself “broken, permanently/ in some ways I did not devise/ and may not speak of.” The poems are each pressured by time, by the perplexing drama of mortality and the quick moment of translation from presence to absence. Deaths and funerals, illness and accidents, violence and bad luck haunt the narrative line of poem after poem. “Heads of the Children” recalls the verbal abuse of Flint’s father and the anger Flint himself directed at his own son—it is the unspoken pain of the poem that the reader understands that this recollection is part of the grieving process of the father for his now-dead son. Flint speaks of his need for consolation, for his Christian upbringing to give logic to events that appear to be paradoxically both shattering and pointless. A preacher, he says, “just opens his mouth/ and there is that parabola/ draining into peace.” However, Flint’s poetry refuses the simple surrender to grief. The collection moves in its two stunning closing poems to solutions. In “Wheel,” Flint observes his wife and daughter awkwardly fashion a gift-cup for him out of clay and compares such a clumsy process to his own writing and argues that in language he has found a way to fashion, perhaps awkwardly, moments of clarity from painful experience. In the simple quatrain of the volume’s closing poem, “And Morning In,” Flint offers a simple image: a rooster on a fence post crowing to the sunrise, “I’m up again/ and so are you,” a strategy of embracing each morning as opportunity despite (or perhaps because of) the knowledge of mortality. It is Flint’s characteristic achievement to draw from the natural world an accessible image that so easily becomes a suggestive symbol.
As the bold title suggests, the poems gathered in Say It refuse self-pity and negotiate strategies for adjusting to the bewildering time-bound world defined in And Morning. Each piece is cast in straightforward and undecorated blank verse, the language accessible and immediate. For the first time, Flint directly treats the death of his son, but the emphasis here is on recovery and spiritual resurrection. In “Shim,” Flint recounts sharing a drunken embrace with a woman, a stranger at a wedding reception. Although he discounts the possibility of any affair, he calls the embrace an act of love that caught them both at an inexplicable moment of mutual need, and he reassures the woman, “today I’m here to give you balance.” The title itself refers to a home-repair process of filling cracks, usually with putty. Restoring fractures metaphorically relates to the repair work Flint is undertaking on his heart.
Other poems celebrate the unsuspected richness of the simplest moments: the first blush of sunrise, the call of an early spring bird, a bowl of late-morning oatmeal, the gift of two jars of honey. In “Say It,” Flint summarizes this strategy by recalling the terror when a bug crawled into his ear as he slept. Later he claims the invading bug had whispered an urgent message, “listen”: “the brown, ugly, implacable bug saying/ pay attention.” That the instrument of such an epiphany, the resolution to take in every moment of the ordinary world, would be a repulsive bug suggests how the most repellant events can trigger such splendid resolve.
Flint then moves into a cycle of prose poems, intensely felt quasi parables, that highlight such moments when the unadorned world unexpectedly teaches lessons rich with emotional import. The closing section is a potpourri of recovery poems, Flint recalling a wonderful afternoon with Ethan, relishing the scent of a student who wears the same perfume as his long-dead grandmother, watching a man on his way to Mass stealing a ripe apple from a neighbor’s yard, trying to explain the mystery of why his houseplants exploded in fecundity under a neighbor’s care. In the closing piece, “Jog,” Flint accepts the “ghosts” that have become his life” but humbly asks God “to go on blessing [his] life.” That humane resolution, of course, risks sentimentality and cliché. However, given Flint’s devastating experience, such a prayer fixes the poet’s determination to accept hard experience and to demand nevertheless the right to live in permanent expectation of surprise and delight.
More than ten years later, Flint finds delight elusive and grief stubborn. Poems in Stubborn exist within that difficult balance. For example, in the opening poem, “A Letter Home,” Flint admits to his mother with matter-of-fact directness that nearly forty years earlier he had clumsily tried to commit suicide. She had surprised him as he struggled trying to hang himself with a towel, and he had lied elaborately. He now offers no rationale for the action save his growing awareness even then of how random and pointless death seemed. However, the poem closes with a difficult gesture of gratitude: “Thank God you came in when you did/ mother, for the life you gave/ what it’s been, what it will be.”
In the centerpiece poem, “Stubborn,” Flint recounts an afternoon’s drive when he chanced on a small boy apparently lost. Stopping to help, he eventually finds the distraught parents who say only that somehow the boy had gotten out of the house. The implications of such carelessness for Flint are devastating. Barely restraining his tears, he tells the father about his own son’s accident, but the father, indifferent to such pain, barely responds. Flint turns to his poetry—“go and write/ do what has been given to do”—to shape his grief into a prayer that the small boy might have the life his own son never had.
In the closing poem, “Sicily,” Flint decides that life must be lived within a “permanent radius of risk,” amid recovery from and expectation of catastrophe, like living beneath a volcano. Although he relishes the unearned joys of nature and of poetry itself, he acknowledges as well the deep grief in his heart and how, as much as he wants to accept the implications of a Christian afterlife, the closest he can come is the simple gesture of remembering those he has lost already. Thus even when he celebrates unexpected moments of joy, grand and small—cutting firewood, sharing whiskey with friends, listening as a child to his parents make love, or watching cats and grackles—he knows inevitably that everything curves toward death.
Pigeon represents a radical departure in tone and style for Flint. Forsaking the intimacy of first-person narrative, here Flint fashions for himself a third-person poetic persona: He calls himself “Pigeon” or simply “p.” With often biting wit, Flint irreverently adopts the guise of a bird that is everyday and ordinary and clumsy in flight and whose beauty must be appreciated only after accepting its evident ugliness. Each characteristic comes to be part of Flint’s own self-deprecating dissection of his roles as husband, poet, and teacher. The poetic line itself playfully toys with rhymes and rhythms and even typography. The titles serve as first lines, further disrupting the reading process and demanding a lighter approach.
To be sure, Flint still treats those stubborn griefs— the persistent tick of time, the inevitable experience of mortality, the onset of creaking bones and forgetfulness—but here Flint cannot resist undercutting the evident tragedy of such experiences with a poetic line that refuses to take itself seriously. It is as if the persona of the pigeon allows Flint a respite from poetry otherwise engaged in the sobering business of living amid catastrophe. At one point, Pigeon receives a phone call bearing bad medical news about his brother, and Flint acknowledges later when he recalls his dead son that he “can’t quite hang on to pigeon when/ The night bores in like this.” Yet Flint moves by volume’s close to a difficult gesture of thanksgiving, appropriately on Thanksgiving morning, when Pigeon gives thanks for the remarkable wonder of the simplest gifts: his children, his wife, “the fat bird in the oven,” and, perhaps most important, the fact that he woke up that morning to give thanks at all.
There is a valedictory feel to what proved to be Flint’s last published volume, Easy, the feeling of a man who has come to terms at last with the difficult realities of his life, a poet looking back on his own emotional life and his achievement as a chronicler of that experience. In “Little Men Who Come Blindly,” Flint watches a father testily instruct his young son on the mechanics of bike riding and how the child handles such hurting and decides with a wisdom born of experience that there is nothing he could do, except write about it. He extends to the reader what he knows he cannot say to the father, a caution to remember how stunningly brief life can be and how persistent rebuke can prove.
Set against poems that lovingly recollect friends and family now dead (“Tom” is a particularly poignant lyric on the first spring after his brother’s death) are brief moments the poet has caught that remind the reader, amid so much catastrophe, of the stunning, fragile miracle of beauty. Yet it is supremely love that Flint offers as resolution. The title poem lingers on every element of an ordinary evening meal between Flint and his wife; Flint extends the promise of such intimacy by using third-person pronouns. The poem is executed with long lines rich with long vowel sounds and in-line punctuation that force the reader to slow down and relish the lingering evening. It is a remarkable moment of comfort and ease secured, Flint’s longtime readers understand, amid a lifetime rocked by the unpredictable intrusion of chance. This is finally the role of the poet, which Flint acknowledges in his closing “Prayer”: to remind readers that sorrow is never the last word, that joy is always a moment away, and that, without trivializing its cutting stroke, death alone justifies relishing every moment. If “Any day’s writing may be the last,” he gives humble thanks to a Lord, who must be in charge of such evident chaos, for giving him the gift of writing: “The work is all.”