Section I (lines 1-4) Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
All the new thinking is about loss.
- The poem begins with a short, simple statement which tells us that it’s fashionable to think about loss. Loss is "hip" – it’s "in." It’s going to be invited to all the best parties and mingle with the stars.
- OK, maybe abstract concepts can’t mingle.
- But, loss is "all" people think about, at least the really smart people – the trendsetters of "thinking." Sounds like a small group to us.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
- Hm. It turns out that the hip thing to do – thinking about loss – is pretty much the same thing that people have been doing for a long time. It’s vintage! Or, just "old."
- The poet makes fun of people who fancy themselves innovative and cutting-edge for thinking about loss. They are like the people in fashion magazines who say that "black is the new red is the new green," or however it is they talk.
- Turns out there are no new fashions or styles – it’s just the same thing coming back over and over again.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea.
- The "idea" the poet talks about is Plato’s big idea, or, ahem, Plato’s Idea.
- Plato is the famous Greek philosopher who argues that "real" things differ from the appearances of things. The things we think of as real – this table, this computer – aren’t "really real." They are just appearances – the same way that the image of something in a mirror is just a very life-like appearance, and not the real thing.
- The "really real" things, Plato says, exist in some higher, spiritual realm where everything has capital letters.
- We’re only half-joking. See, we have to thank good old Plato for the charming practice of using capital letters to refer to things in general. There’s this table over here, and then there’s (drum roll) the Table, a thing with four legs that can hold stuff on top.
- A "table" is a thing, but the "Table" is an idea. Ohhhhh.
- If you think this sounds like a kooky idea, you’re not the only one. But, chances are, you also think like Plato without even knowing it.
- Plato’s philosophy of things and ideas is (no joke) probably the most influential philosophical idea in the history of the Western civilization. The entire history of Western philosophy centers on it, not to mention religion. Even the language we use has Plato’s idea built into it. No wonder Hass calls it "old thinking."
- Because Plato’s idea was so outrageously influential, it’s funny for the poet to use the phrase, "for example," to bring it up. It’s not just any old example – in a sense, it’s the only example, because it’s impossible for us to talk about ideas without referring to the theory of, well, Ideas. (Don’t think about this one too much – you’ll go crazy.)
- The point is that the poet sounds like a lawyer constructing a very careful argument, which is humorous because we’re reading a poem, and not a legal brief.
- So, to summarize: the "particular" is a unique thing in the world – you, your table, your dog, whatever.
- The "general idea" is the true, spiritual essence of the thing. The essence of a table is that it has four legs and can hold stuff (and a couple of other things, as well).
- The "loss" here is the difference between the lowly old thing and the perfection of its idea. The table might be wobbly or chipped, and your dog might have lice. There are all kinds of little imperfections which keep things from measuring up to our perfect idea of what they should be.
- By contrast, general ideas are so "clear" that thinking about them is like shining a light on the world. They have a "luminous clarity" which gets all muddled up ("erased") when we compare them with everyday "particulars."
- There’s one other thing we should mention here, which is that Plato hates poets.
- Okay, maybe "hates" is the wrong word; he just wants to kick them out of Greece and send them packing into exile.
- The problem with poets, Plato says, is that they always praise specific things – that is, imperfect things – instead of talking about the perfect, spiritual world. Remember that the title of the collection to which "Meditation at Lagunitas" belongs is Praise. It’s as if Hass tries to stick his finger in poor Plato’s eye.