on cutting and growing


    Sticks-in-a-drowse over sugary loam,
    Their intricate stem-fur dries;
    But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
    The small cells bulge;

    One nub of growth
    Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
    Pokes through a musty sheath
    Its pale tendrilous horn.

    Theodore Roethke, “The Lost Son and Other Poems” (1948)

An aphorism is a “cutting,” because the Greek verb aphorizdo is to “cut.” So a book of aphorisms is a selection of short pieces cut and pasted together. Wittgenstein was in the habit of writing short passages, cutting them out with scissors, and throwing them in a box. The results were published as a book entitled “Cuttings” (Zettel) which might be considered an unpretentious word for “aphorisms.” That form had attained high esteem but also some pomposity with Schlegel, Kleist, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, and other German authors.

Blog posts are also “cuttings” in this sense. I think many people who write or read blogs would be embarrassed to call them “aphorisms,” but they hope that the juxtaposition of short snippets of text will be generative, like sticks in wet soil. Good blogs are contributions to something more ambitious and more coherent. Our quick and scattered thoughts have the potential to come together in linear form. Which brings up another meaning of a “cutting”–a piece of a plant that could begin to grow. Theodore Roethke explores that meaning in remarkable pendant poems from 1948.

    Cuttings (later)

    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?

    I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
    In my veins, in my bones I feel it, —
    The small waters seeping upward,
    The tight grains parting at last.
    When sprouts break out,
    Slippery as fish,
    I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

    Theodore Roethke, “The Lost Son and Other Poems” (1948)

In both poems, especially the latter, the verbs are hard to distinguish from the nouns. In “Cuttings (later)”, the words “urge,” “wrestle,” and “cut” are used as nouns. That first sentence has no verb at all. In line three, “strained” is a verb, but it first struck me as an adjective. Plants, of course, are objects; we think of action taking place in the animal kingdom, which is also the realm of suffering. But vegetable cuttings are acting when they begin to sprout–they need verbs. Roethke’s language represents the pain of moving into action, of nouns taking on verbs. The verse shifts from objective description (about the plants) to Roethke’s own response. The two poems are themselves cuttings, separated from each other in the original volume, removed from any lengthy narrative or argument, but straining to grow and to inspire growth.