The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

“A Cut Flower” is a poem of twenty-seven lines divided into three nine-line stanzas with no apparent rhyme scheme. Most of the lines fall into regular iambic pentameter, which means that each line has ten syllables, with five stresses, or accents, and the stress is on the second syllable in each metrical unit of two syllables. This meter is considered to mirror the natural rhythms of English speech most closely, and it contributes to the illusion that the poem is spoken testimony. Several of the lines deviate from this strict meter, which prevents the pattern from becoming monotonous and obtrusive.

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From the first word, “I,” it is clear that the poem is written in the first person, and by the second line it is apparent that it is not the poet speaking, but the flower itself. At the beginning of the poem the flower is growing in the ground. The first four lines speak of the freshness and beauty of the flower, qualities that attract bees who “sack my throat for kisses and suck love.” The remainder of the first stanza hints that all is not well. The wind causes the flower to bend, because it is sick from lack of water and longs for rain.

The second stanza begins with a description of the creature who takes care of the flower, posed in the form of a question. The reader knows that it is a woman, and she seems to inspire love and awe with her tender acts of loosening the soil and touching the flower. The flower speculates on the origins of this creature and wonders if she is “Sent by the sun perhaps to help us grow.” The remaining lines of this stanza introduce a darker theme with the opening of the seventh line, “I have seen Death,” and the stanza concludes with a description of another flower, which apparently died a natural death. After opening on a positive note, the last stanza builds quickly to its conclusion. By the third line it is clear that something horrible is occurring from the speaker’s point of view. The flower does not really understand what is happening, but it describes the experience of having been cut by “The thing sharper than frost” and its own subsequent sufferings in a vase of water. The stanza builds in intensity to the anguished cry of the last line: “Must I die now? Is this a part of life?”

The poem was written in 1942, when Shapiro had been in the U.S. Army for a year and was stationed in Australia. “A Cut Flower” appeared first in a privately printed collection that is not available because one of Shapiro’s senior officers bought out almost the entire printing. It appeared subsequently in Person, Place, and Thing (1942), his first American collection, and was reprinted in Selected Poems, 1968.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

“A Cut Flower” is a conceit, a type of intricate metaphor in which the spiritual qualities of the described subject are presented in a vehicle that shares no physical features with the subject. The vehicle in this case is the flower that wonders, questions, and tries to make sense of what he sees happening around and to him. In the first stanza, when the flower speaks of its own physical attributes, the reader accepts the idea of a talking flower, an example of the poetic device, personification. Yet by the second stanza, when the flower questions the identity of his caretaker and wonders where she comes from and where she goes, the reader understands that the poem is not about a flower. The subject is really a person who describes what is happening to him through the vehicle of the flower.

This realization that the poem is not about a flower is part of the irony used to heighten the effect of the poem. The title suggests a poem about a flower, yet a surprise occurs when it becomes apparent that the cut flower is not the true subject. Other ironies unfold. The flower wonders what kind of an animal the creature who tends him is, whereas the reader knows immediately that she is a woman tending her flower bed. The “thing sharper than frost” is recognized as scissors or garden shears, and the reader understands what is happening although the flower does not. Another irony is that the flower longs for angry rain that “bites like cold and hurts” in the first stanza, but in the last stanza the flower is “waist deep in rain,” and dying. An important irony that provides tension in the poem is the difference between the flower’s point of view and the woman’s point of view, although the poem never describes what the woman is thinking. The reader understands that tending, cutting, and displaying the flower give the woman pleasure. Poetic compression allows the poet to suggest a great deal in a limited space.

Eight recurrent images have been identified in Shapiro’s poetry. The second most common one is glass, often used to symbolize human barriers or painful confinements that must somehow be shattered to achieve release. The glass objects are typically items common in everyday life. This early poem foreshadows the prominence of Shapiro’s glass imagery with the vase that will eventually be the flower’s passageway to death. “My beauty leaks into the glass like rain,” the flower says. The word “rain” occurs four times in the poem, twice in the first stanza and twice in the third. Rain has some of the same qualities as glass; it is transparent and, when it collects, can reflect objects.

Another use of a recurring image in Shapiro’s work is the flower’s confinement. Images of confinement, containment, encasement, and imprisonment abound in his poems, often in obvious ways. In “A Cut Flower,” imprisonment in the vase where the flower finds itself trapped, awaiting death, is a logical outcome of the action. “Conscription Camp,” “Troop Train,” “Terminal,” and “Garden in Chicago” are other examples of Shapiro poems that use images of confinement. In “Garden in Chicago” he finds himself confined by “elegant spears of iron fence.” In another poem, “Surrounded,” the poet suddenly sees his suburb confined by churches, “hemmed in by love, like Sunday.” The churches themselves are surrounded by a ring of missiles with atomic warheads. Both positive and negative images can suggest confinement, and sometimes the image is both—as is the vase-enclosed flower, a lovely image that is nonetheless horrible to the flower itself.

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Themes