“A Cut Flower” is about life and death in an indifferent universe. It holds a mirror to the human condition: The flower tries to make sense of what is going on in its small world just as generation after generation of human beings have tried to make sense of theirs. At first the flower sees the world as beneficial; even when it bends from lack of rain, the woman tends it and brings it water. The flower believes that the woman is somehow a servant of the sun, sent to help it grow. The flower has mistaken the woman’s purpose, however, and is horrified at what happens to it—just as human beings are sometimes shocked when their apparently benign world seems to turn on them with earthquakes, tornadoes, accidents, wars, or other disasters.
One can interpret the poem as a statement about religion without forcing the metaphor. The flower sees the sun as a divine, life-giving force and speculates that the sun may have sent the woman to tend it, yet the woman kills the flower. In the same way, human beings try to make sense of the universe and interpret as benign certain forces that in fact are indifferent; they are merely working out their own processes. Although many people have seen others die, they remain shocked at and even deny the idea of their own death. The flower understands that it is fading and tries to make sense of approaching death. The conclusion to the poem, “Is this a part of life?” is poignant and ironic, for the reader knows the answer.
Karl Shapiro was a loner whose poetry is related to, but does not completely belong to, several movements in modern poetry. Shapiro, Robert Lowell, and Randall Jarrell are the three major poets to have been influenced by the Fugitive school, a movement that flourished in the 1920’s and was centered at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The Fugitives’ poetry was inclined toward irony, wit, satire, death, subtle cruelties, and indifference to suffering, many of which can be seen in “A Cut Flower.” The Fugitives were a southern, regional movement, and Shapiro wrote a great many poems about the South and his place in it as a Jew. Later Shapiro was associated with the Beat generation of Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac, yet he maintained his individuality and distance.