Study Guide

Meditation at Lagunitas Quotes

  • Language and Communication

    The idea, for example, that each particular
    Erases the luminous clarity of the general idea. (lines 3-4)

    The idea of the "particular" versus the "general" or "universal" is a part of our language. We can talk about bikes in general, or we can talk about that shiny red bike over there. One is universal, the other particular. Some philosophers, notably Plato, think that universal ideas are "clear" and "luminous": they shine light on the world. In contrast, particular things keep getting in the way with their imperfections. The obvious problem for the philosopher is: how do you know about a general idea except through particular things?

    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. (lines 8-11)

    This is a problem you’ve probably never considered before – it’s the kind of thing only a grammar expert would care about. The problem is that "blackberry" is a singular word, but there is no single "blackberry" in the world. There are lots and lots of blackberries, all very similar, but with ever-so-slight differences. So, when we talk about "the blackberry" in general, what are we referring to? We must be talking about some original blackberry that doesn’t exist anymore. The word is an "elegy" – or an expression of mourning – for this original blackberry. (Seriously, what’s next? Funerals for blackberries? A 21-gun salute?)

    Like we said, you’d have to be obsessed with the logic of language to get worked up over this issue, and the poem takes issue with these ultra-logical people. In this quote, he begins to treat words not just as ideas, but as real things. He calls the word "blackberry" a bramble, because it’s kind of difficult to say.

    We talked about it last night and in the voice
    of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
    almost querulous. (lines 12-14)

    The speaker and his friend aren’t too happy about the implications of the "new thinking" that words might refer to things which don’t exist in the world. But, Hass continues to undermine this argument by actually turning language into a thing – in this case, the friend’s voice seems to contain a hard physical object, that "thin wire of grief." Also, Hass chooses words that jump off the page and demand to be recognized for their sounds as well as their meanings. "Querulous," which means "full of complaints" or "whiny," is one of these words.

    After a while I understood that,
    talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
    pine, hair, woman, you, and I. (lines 14-16)

    At the beginning of the poem, the speaker seems deeply concerned about the possibility that words might not refer to real things. But, now he sees that this viewpoint denies the reality of even the most basic things. If we think that words refer to "lost" things, then we can’t talk about "justice," "hair," or even ourselves as they exist in the world. That’s a pretty ridiculous outcome, so it can’t be correct. Or, at least, it’s not very useful.

    There are moments when the body is as numinous
    as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
    Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
    saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

    He treats words like ideas throughout much of the poem, because that is what the Platonists think. For them, words are "numinous," or divine and spiritual. (SAT word alert!) Words don’t belong to our messy world. The speaker comes to realize that even things that do obviously belong to the messy world, like bodies, can be numinous. On the other hand, words don’t have to be ideas. They can be particular things that are "tender" like bodies. That is, they can have a real, physical presence in the world, like the sound of the word blackberry.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Meditation at Lagunitas (title)

    The title is the only reference to a place with a proper name in the poem. It helps let us know that the poem is a pastoral, or a celebration of nature. A "meditation" is a kind of deep spiritual or philosophical reflection, and "Lagunitas" is a cool woodsy spot in northern California, with lakes and forests a’plenty. But, if you didn’t know the title of this poem, would you think that it is inspired by a specific place?

    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. (lines 4-8)

    The speaker makes fun of the philosophical thinkers who say that particular things are not as good as general ideas. The imagery of the woodpecker is super-specific, even down to the "sculpted" shape of the trunk that it pecks into. The Platonic philosopher would say that the perfect, original idea of the woodpecker is "lost," which the speaker jokingly calls "tragic." But, the woodpecker doesn’t seem to mind its tragic situation very much. Its colorful, "clownish" face is a total contrast to the grim, sad view of the philosophers. It’s as if the bird says, "Lighten up! You guys think too much. You should get in on some of this ‘sculpted trunk’ action. It’s pretty sweet."

    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. (lines 8-11)

    The "other notion" is that words don’t actually refer to or "correspond" with real things in nature. So, when we say "blackberry," we’re not actually talking about the sweet little things that grow on bushes; we’re talking about some perfect idea that doesn’t exist in nature. By calling the word blackberry a "bramble," though, the speaker uses poetry to connect words with nature. The real blackberry bush is a "bramble," and so is the word. The two seem to "correspond," right?

    I felt a violent wonder at her presence
    like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
    with its willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
    muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
    called pumpkinseed. (lines 19-23)

    "General ideas" exist in the human mind, and "particulars" or specific things exist in nature. Although it can be fun to think about ideas, only particulars can make us feel a "violent wonder" at the existence of something. Here, the specific nature of the woman’s body makes the speaker remember a bunch of other specific things from his past. He connects with nature through his desire for her body.

    Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
    saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry. (lines 30-31)

    The word "blackberry" has such an intense sound that we might think that the speaker remembers a time of picking or eating real blackberries on "those afternoons and evenings." But, he’s not talking about the physical fruit here. For him, even repeating the word can be a "sweet" and "tender" experience. When we’re not in the presence of nature, we can experience some of the pleasant characteristics of nature through language. Like, say, reading a pastoral poem?

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Platonism

    All the new thinking is about loss.
    In this it resembles all the old thinking. (lines 1-2)

    The "new thinkers" are a hip, fashionable crowd; they want to be on the cutting edge of philosophy. But, they don’t realize that "loss" is a topic that philosophers covered for, oh, about 2,000 years. That’s the way fashion works. What was old goes out of style, and then comes back into style again once people forget about it. The "old thinking" here goes all the way back to Plato, the most influential philosopher of ancient Greece and, probably, of all time.

    The idea, for example, that each particular erases
    the luminous clarity of the general idea. That the clown-
    faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
    of that birch is, by his presence,
    some tragic falling off from a first world
    of undivided light. (lines 3-8)

    Plato really liked to use metaphors of light and darkness. Check out his "Allegory of the Cave," and you’ll see what we mean. Knowledge is light, enlightenment, illumination. Ignorance is all darkness and shadows. The speaker ironically talks like a Platonist in this quote by describing the "general idea" as a "luminous clarity." This sounds pretentious, and it’s supposed to. The "particular," that is, particular things, is like a big oaf that gets in the way out of the light, and you want to say, "Hey, you! Get out of the way! I’m trying to think about ideas here!"

    The world of ideas is considered to be original and perfect by the Platonists. It is a "first world" where light is "undivided," unlike earth, which is part-light and part-darkness. In this view, the poor woodpecker, because it exists on earth, is just a shadowy example of some perfect idea of a Woodpecker. But, we’re pretty sure it doesn’t care one way or the other.

    After a while I understood that,
    talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
    pine, hair, woman, you
    and I. (lines 14-16)

    Talking like a Platonist means that words always refer to perfect ideas which don’t exist in our world. But, if these things don’t exist in the here-and-now, what’s the point of talking about them? If you’re really a die-hard Plato groupie, even everyday meanings "dissolve," like a sugar cube in a glass of water.

    There are moments when the body is as numinous
    as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. (lines 28-29)

    Plato prefers the spiritual world of ideas, which is "numinous" or "heavenly," to the world of pesky "particulars," like bodies. But, the speaker claims that the body can be numinous, too – at least, sometimes. The two worlds aren’t strictly separate.

  • Memory and the Past

    All the new thinking is about loss.
    In this it resembles all the old thinking. (lines 1-2)

    The "new thinkers" don’t have such a great memory for ideas, or they’d know that what they consider "new" is actually quite old – ancient Greece old. We think that the speaker is being ironic when he says that the new thinking "resembles" the old. What he really means is that the two are the same.

    We talked about it late last night and in the voice
    of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
    almost querulous. (lines 12-14)

    The title of the poem suggests that the speaker thinks all these thoughts while in the natural scenery of Lagunitas. But, the poem actually keeps diving further and further back into memory. This is the first memory – of talking with a friend the night before.

    There was a woman I made love to and I remembered how, holding
    her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
    I felt a violent wonder at her presence
    like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
    with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
    muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
    called pumpkinseed. (lines 16-23)

    The conversation between the speaker and his friend seems to remind him of yet another memory, of a woman he makes love to. But, then, he remembers how the woman makes him think of yet another memory, this time all the way back to his childhood. So, let’s get this straight: guy looks at nature, nature makes guy think of conversation, conversation makes guy think of woman, woman makes guy think of childhood. Memory, in this poem, is like an infinite regression further and further back into the past. To us, this seems like a pretty accurate representation of how memory works.

    It hardly had to do with her. (line 23)

    The speaker’s desire for the woman has very little to do with her specific looks or personality. It has more to do with the positive, happy thoughts that she reminds him of, like fishing on a riverbank.

    Longing, we say, because desire is full
    of endless distances. I must have been the same to her. (lines 24-25)

    The "distance" here is one of time, not space. It’s the distance between the present and the past. The speaker digs into the language we use to talk about desire – the word "longing" – and tries to figure out why that word might be appropriate. We desire people because they connect us to the lost past, a place that exists only in memory. This is a bittersweet thought.

    But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
    the thing her father said that hurt her, what
    she dreamed.(lines 26-28)

    Oh, good. For a second there we thought that the speaker doesn’t know anything about the woman except for her small shoulders. But, he actually knows her pretty well, enough so that there are other pleasant memories which have more to do with her that can come to mind during sex. He finds it strange that these powerful memories aren’t as important to him as his own, private memories of his childhood.

  • Sex

    There was a woman
    I made love to and I remembered how, holding
    her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
    I felt a violent wonder at her presence
    like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
    with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
    muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
    called pumpkinseed.(lines 16-23)

    This is a pastoral poem, so it makes sense that even the act of sex is a celebration of natural scenery. The speaker has a very mature perspective of sex. He can talk about it openly without being juvenile or focusing on the pleasure that it gives him. He tries to uncover the source of his desire, which doesn’t have much to do with sex at all. The sudden shift into memory in these lines makes the encounter with the woman all the more mysterious.

    It hardly had to do with her.
    Longing, we say, because desire is full
    of endless distances. I must have been the same to her. (lines 23-25)

    We can imagine someone getting really offended if he/she knows that their lover thinks his or her desire "hardly had to do" with him/her. But, is it really so offensive? If that’s the way things are, then he is just being honest, and honesty is a very important part of any close relationship. Plus, she is associated with really happy memories, which can be kind of flattering. Most importantly, the speaker seems perfectly comfortable with the idea that she can relive her own memories through him.

    But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
    the thing her father said that hurt her, what
    she dreamed. (lines 26-28)

    The relationship with the woman is more than just sexual, more than just a random hook-up. He eats with her, discusses her family history, and listens to her dreams. How does this change the way that we feel about the speaker?

    There are moments when the body is as numinous
    as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. (lines 28-29)

    Um, we imagine that those "moments" might have something to do with sex. Even the days are erotic when he compares them to "good flesh." In this poem, sex is one of the ways we connect the world of particulars with the world of ideas.