Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Burning the Tomato Worms” is more of an experience than a statement of specific and definitive meaning. It dramatizes a rite of passage into womanhood, the sexual awakening of a girl who, through that passage, finds the dark bond that links her to all other women. It depicts the necessity of succumbing to the processes of being human, which entails both joy and pain. The poem affirms the importance of relations, especially familial relations, in establishing a personal identity. It enjoins the reader to live according to her own inner promptings and personal history at the same time as it reveals the inexorable and universal processes that unite all women, all humanity.
Returning to the epigraph with which the poem began, the reader may consider the poem an attempt to tell a truth, to capture both the personal and universal inherent in a single experience. “Burning the Tomato Worms” explores the ways in which an individual acquires knowledge and constructs truths, a process that logic and reason cannot necessarily capture. The end of the poem implies, too, that truth is neither simple nor clear. Like many poems, “Burning the Tomato Worms” requires the reader to accept the ambiguous and the paradoxical in life.