Thomas Gardner

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)."

Thomas Gardner: On "Dream Song 29"

… The thing that has broken his heart seems simply a heaviness to which no action ("weping") or amount of time can adequately respond. So dominant that any sound or smell recalls it, that heaviness remains a tangling of rage and responsibility for which Henry has no adequate object. … 

 
 

from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 40.

Thomas Gardner: On "Dream Song 5"

 

[Gardner quotes the second stanza.]

On a plane, passing over a statue of the virgin atop a mountain, Henry is so excited when the clouds clear and she seems to drop down a ray of light that he claims the plane’s turbulence as his own inner rocking and bucking. This feeling of union seems so powerful that when Henry apologizes to a lady he bumped in the turbulence he seems also to be talking to the virgin – who answers back! The third stanza, backpedaling, establishes a middle ground between the two – essentially, the middle ground that Henry will seek to inhabit throughout The Dream Songs:

[Gardner quotes the last stanza.]

Each pair of lines in this stanza shows Henry as both "free and determined": he is in "de netting" but sings; he is like Crèvecoeur, author of Letters from an American Farmer – limited by his heart and the crazy land but farming nonetheless; or he is a newborn, carrying an image of the dead with him even as he is told "De Day’s Yo’ Own." In each case, both action and limitation are inexorably linked.

from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 37. Copyright 1989 University of Illinois Press.

from Thomas Gardner, "John Berryman’s Dream Songs," Chapter 1 in Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1989), 37. Copyright 1989 University of Illinois Press.