Meditation at Lagunitas
by Robert Hass
Analysis: Sound Check
As we’ve mentioned elsewhere (see "Calling Card"), Hass is capable of writing really great poems that sound like prose. This one sounds like a regular person chatting with us as if he were an old friend. If you weren’t looking at the poem, you might think it was prose.
Listen to this line-break: "That the clown- / faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk" (lines 4-5). Because the word "clown-faced" is broken over the line, we’re tempted to put a pause right in the middle: Clown-(pause) faced. But, that wouldn’t sound right. You have to just barrel right through the line-break without a pause – this is known as an "enjambment." Hass creates a unique sense of rhythm in other ways as well, like the frequent use of commas.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker pokes fun at the hair-splitting of the "new thinkers" who argue that words don’t refer to things in the world. The poem sounds like a lawyer trying to put together an argument, but it’s a silly argument. The speaker uses legalistic phrases like "in this" and "for example" (lines 2, 3) to make this point.
Then, he starts to put words in italics. What’s that about? In terms of sound, it has about the same effect as using the "quotation marks" gesture with your hands. The italics call attention to the word as a word, and not just as a reference to something else, be it a fruit like "blackberry" or an abstract concept like "justice."
When you read these words on the page, because they’re in italics, you might find yourself saying them just a tad slower and really paying attention to how they sound. "Blackberry," in particular, is both fun and tricky to say, with all those consonants clustered together in the middle of the word. No wonder Hass uses it three times in a row at the end, as if it were a tongue twister.
"Meditation at Lagunitas" is a pastoral poem, which means it’s about nature, but Hass treats words like part of the scenery, to be admired and wondered over. The sweetness of the word "blackberry" is almost as good as the sweetness of the thing itself. Almost, we think, but not quite.