Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light.
- Now, we’ve got this idea that the world of individual things, particulars, is somehow not as good as the world of ideas.
- The world of the particular seems "fallen" – in the sense of Adam, Eve, and apples – from the spiritual world.
- How does Hass show this? The clever man puts a line break between "clown-" and "faced," so that the "particular" of the woodpecker literally "falls off" the line that talks about the general idea.
- These lines are all about showing an image of a "particular" thing: a thing which exists in only one place, at one time. It’s not just any woodpecker; it’s that woodpecker.
- To pound the point home, Hass makes the image of the woodpecker as specific as possible, telling us about its clownish face and the "dead sculpted trunk of that black birch" that it pecks.
- The word that is the kicker. It acts like a finger pointing at the object. "Look! Over there! (Pointing.) That black birch!"
- But, poor woodpecker, it doesn’t know that its life is a "tragic."
- By its mere "presence," the woodpecker reminds us that it’s not, alas, the one and only true woodpecker – the idea of the woodpecker – which lives in the perfect "first world of undivided light." (More fun with line breaks: "undivided light" is actually "divided" from the "first world" by the break.)
- Does this sound ridiculous yet? Good, because that’s what Hass thinks, too. It may be tragic to Plato-reading Westerners, but the woodpecker probably doesn’t give a hoot one way or the other.
Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
- This one’s a bit harder, but the key phrase is: "A word is elegy to what it signifies."
- An "elegy" is a poem which mourns the death or loss of something. If a word is an "elegy," it means that the word reminds us that the thing which it refers to, or signifies, is lost.
- The speaker gives the example of the blackberry bush. According to this notion of loss, we can’t find the single, perfect example of "blackberry" anywhere in the world. Therefore, when we use the word "blackberry," it’s like we mourn the idea of some original blackberry which exists only in our minds. (To quote Homer Simpson, with the tongue lolling out of the mouth, "Mmmm...blaaackbeerrrry.")
- This is the "other" notion of loss, but it’s pretty close to Plato’s notion. Both ideas have less to do with the nature of real things, and more to do with the way words and language trick us into thinking that a more perfect world exists out there.
- So far, the discussion is very head-in-the-clouds and philosophical, but, even in these lines, the speaker already uses language to undercut the philosophical arguments that he raises.
- Notice how he uses the word "bramble" to refer not to a blackberry bush, but to the word "blackberry." It’s the kind of word that you would have a hard time saying really fast a bunch of times in a row, so "bramble" is a pretty good metaphor for how the word sounds.
- But, calling it a "bramble" also makes the word seem less like some lofty idea, and more like a real, everyday thing – a particular noise vibrating in the air.
- Keep an eye out for how Hass turns "words" into "things" for the rest of the poem.