Thomas Gardner: On "Cuttings" and "Cuttings [Later]"

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)."

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Criticism Overview
Title Thomas Gardner: On "Cuttings" and "Cuttings [Later]" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas Gardner Criticism Target Theodore Roethke
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem
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