On "Cuttings" and "Cuttings (Later)"
Perhaps the best way-in is through the thirteen flower poems that comprise the first section of The Lost Son. The two opening lyrics, "Cuttings" and "Cuttings (Later)," present the vital strivings of coronated stem, severed from parental stock. Clearly the imagistic figuring of a human situation, they view minutely the action of vegetal "sticks-in-a-drowse". . . .
The second of the two--
Severdness, dying that is at the same time a fanatic tenacity; submergence (fish, and the sheer mindless nerves of sensitive plants); envagination as a homecoming.
From "The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke."
This, then, is the esthetic of the greenhouse poems: the rooting of poetry in sensuous experience, the search for naive, even prerational, modes of expression, and a more dynamic concept of the correspondence between the vegetable and the human.
The greenhouse land of Roethke's father and uncle provided a setting particularly suitable to the development of these esthetic ends. But the most important reason Roethke chose to write a sequence of poems about this vegetable realm is probably far less complex: as the scene of his childhood, it was a world highly charged with experience and significance. It was, as we have seen, both fertile womb and rigid principle of order imposed upon chaos, both heaven and hell; it was nature and society, mother and father. It was all of life.
The first five poems, for example, are explicitly concerned with the struggle to be born. In "Cuttings," "small cells bulge" until a single "nub of growth" nudges and pokes its way through the sand. The second "Cuttings" poem picks up this strain toward becoming at a later point, at the "urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks."
From Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. Copyright © 1966 by Columbia University Press.
Roethke once described the greenhouse as a tropics in the savage climate of Michigan. The first six poems of the greenhouse sequence show it to be precisely this: a closed artificial world concentrating and accelerating growth, in itself a morbid metaphor for the degrading biological processes of life. "Cuttings" is a poem written in two sections--an early and a later view of severed plants struggling to recover life. With a compulsive fascination, the poet watches, or rather imagines, the desperate effort of the delicate slips for growth beneath the seemingly dead and dried surface of sticks-in-a-drowse. With slow, tenacious energy, the plants penetrate the barrier into life in an atmosphere of pure suspension, as if the silent process had no relation to human time. As Roethke himself said: "Intensely seen, image becomes symbol." "Cuttings" discovers the unobtrusive, mysterious coming into being of all life as it "Pokes through a musty sheath / Its pale tendrilous horn."
"Cuttings (Later)" recovers the process at a more advanced, more violent stage of pure incipience. Here, creation is a humiliation, with the plants "sucking" and "sobbing" in a struggle which the poet feels at the core of his own anatomy: "In my veins, in my bones I feel it." Roethke's analogy to the saint is remarkable, as though the biological struggle were a penitential process. The dead stems struggling to regain vitality are engaged in a naturalistic resurrection which he wishes to duplicate: "Slippery as fish, / I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet." For the first time, he uses the metaphor of the fish, the irreducible denominator of all life, the half-way point, as it were, between plant and animal, which defines the interdependence of all living matter. It is as though he wishes to recover from the biological the pure unidirectional impulse toward life, but it is an impulse which is, at present, terrifying to him in its sheer tenacity.
From Theodore Roethke: The Garden Master. Copyright © 1975 by the University of Washington Press.
Roethke's stylistic use of hyphenation, irregular strong-stress rhythms, and colloquial diction create primitive effects in the opening poem, "Cuttings." Here the poet presents a kind of time-lapse view of root systems drawing nourishment from the micro-environment of "sand-crumbs." Roethke's use of intransitive verbs ("droop," "dries," "bulge") and his eye for striking detail ("pale tendrilous horn") invest the natural processes of cellular growth with a unique strangeness.
In "Some Remarks on Rhythm" Roethke described how the use of Anglo-Saxon monosyllabic words can create an intuitive and evocative poetics. Such direct and rustic speaking, he said, appeals to our basic rooting in the unconscious. "We all know that poetry is shot through with appeals to the unconsciousness, to the fears and desires that go far back into our childhood, into the imagination of the race. And we know that some words, like hill, plow, mother, window, bird, fish, are so drenched with human association, they sometimes can make even bad poems evocative." Moreover, by hyphenating nouns and modifiers into unexpected surrealistic juxtapositions ("sticks-in-a-drowse," "slug-soft," "thorn-bitten," "snuff-laden," "stem-fur," "monkey-tails," "adder-mouthed"), Roethke jars one's conventional experience of nature. By employing assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and spondaic stress patterns, he recreates the alien textures of the glasshouse landscape. Another technique used to evoke nature's irrational rhythms is the disruption of the iambic line with strong stress and sprung rhythms. In two essays, "How to Write Like Somebody Else" and "Some Remarks on Rhythm," Roethke explained how irregular stress patterns can achieve "memorable" and "passionate" verbal performances: "If we concern ourselves with more primitive effects in poetry, we come inevitably to consideration, I think, of verse that is closer to prose. And here we jump rhythmically to a kind of opposite extreme. For many strong stresses, or playing against an iambic pattern to a loosening up, a longer, more irregular foot, I agree that free verse is a denial in terms." Roethke's goal in such experiments with language and prosody is to invoke and mime the spontaneous, organic life he finds in nature. But his close attention to the garden world serves a further end. The small yet exemplary "beginnings" he witnesses in the greenhouse nurseries, as Kenneth Burke pointed out, are metaphoric models for Roethke's own imaginative growth toward a mature self.
This correspondence between self and landscape is the explicit subject of "Cuttings (later)." Roethke's tentative experiments with language flower out of the same "urge, wrestle, resurrection" that the cuttings undergo. Stanza 2 shifts this close observation of nature inward as Roethke interiorizes his witnessing of outer growth:
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,--
The small water seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.
So intense is the poet's sympathy for this sprouting that he hears "underground" the visceral "urge, wrestle, resurrection" of "new life." Poetry in these writings is Roethke's way of consecrating the "sheath wet" beginnings of vegetal birth in the greenhouse.
The "Cuttings" group enacts a primal, organic struggle that sparks correspondent beginnings within the poet's interior life. To behold the self's organic underpinnings is also, for Roethke, to suffer one's own imaginative birth.
From Understanding Theodore Roethke. Copyright © 1987 by University of South Carolina Press.
The problematic nature of making contact with another and thereby singing the self has, of course, been central to Roethke's work throughout his career, although perhaps only his extended "North American Sequence" works out and puts into practice all of the implications of that process. The two "Cuttings" poems from his early greenhouse sequence, however, quite dramatically frame Roethke's approach to the problem. The first poem points to the occurrence of a progressively deeper embrace--and thus "a corresponding heightening and awareness of ... [the] self"--by tracing the movements of the poet's eye. We see the just-reviving cuttings from a distance as "Sticks-in-a-drowse," then are brought close enough to notice their "intricate stem-fur," moved inside to notice how the "small cells bulge" as water is gradually absorbed, and finally are brought to rest under the soil--face up against "one nub of growth" that actively "nudges a sand-crumb loose" (CP, 37). Two things happen: the poet struggles through to a fuller, more participatory way of seeing, and the cutting comes back to life.
What this parallel implies but never states is that the struggle with medium--the struggle to see it, use it, enter it--has led to growth in the perceiver as well as in the cutting. If that was so, the next poem speculates, turning to the same cuttings "(later)," what sort of poetic implications would follow? Roethke is of two minds in answering. His first try is the traditional one: ignoring his own struggle to see, he turns the slips into tortured, reviving saints, declaring his own distance from them to be a non-issue: "This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks, / Cut stems struggling to put down feet, / What saint strained so much, / Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?" Then he revises himself: if that distance was the issue, then what those changes in seeing accomplished was the spurt of his own new beginning:
Rather than stepping back from the problem of distance, this second attempt insists that in acknowledging the gap between himself and the cuttings, then working by observation and imagination to cut that separation down, his initial response had suggested a new way of speaking. That these two opposing responses to what is "sharp" and vibrant in something other are simply juxtaposed here suggests that Roethke hasn't yet explored the full implications of embracing and working with a medium. But, as the following reading of "North American Sequence," his strongest work, argues, the techniques developed near the end of his career to weave himself into something external are quite similar to what is proposed in the last stanza of "Cuttings (later)."
From Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
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