Walter Kalaidjian: On "Cuttings" and "Cuttings [Later]"

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.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Walter Kalaidjian: On "Cuttings" and "Cuttings [Later]" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Walter Kalaidjian Criticism Target Theodore Roethke
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Understanding Theodore Roethke
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