Study Guide

Meditation at Lagunitas Language and Communication

By Robert Hass

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.

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