Meditation at Lagunitas Summary
The poet notes that smart people have tried to make sense of loss for a long time and, in particular, how language causes us to misunderstand the world. Some people think that talking about specific things in the world takes away from the more general idea of Things, with a capitol "T." In other words, the world of ideas is fuller and richer than the world of real, everyday things, like woodpeckers and blackberries.
People also say that the words we use don’t refer to real things at all, but to things that have been "lost." Sweet, tasty black things may grow on bushes, but the word "blackberry" refers to something that doesn’t exist anymore.
The poet remembers a philosophical conversation about loss with one of his pals. He feels frustrated and realizes that philosophy often just consists of pointless word-games, which seem to deny the most obvious facts of reality. Then, he remembers a woman whom he slept with, and how he is most interested in how she makes him think of long-gone things from his childhood, which has nothing to do with her. She probably feels the same way.
Finally, he decides that, sometimes, real things are just as good as pretty words and fancy ideas. Sometimes, even, the word "blackberry" can be a real thing that’s just as sweet as the fruit itself.
Section I (lines 1-4)
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.
Section II (lines 4-11)
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.
Section III (lines 12-16)
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
- The speaker just scoops us up and parachutes us down into his late-night conversation with one of his friends.
- They talked "last night," whenever that was, which means that the subject is fresh on his mind. It was probably one of those conversations where it’s so late and you’re so tired that you think everything you say sounds really smart and important.
- It’s a "serious" conversation, probably a friendly argument. We don’t know who took which side: if the friend was on Plato’s side, or if it was the speaker. But, we know that the friend, at least, gets frustrated. His voice expresses "grief," as if he mourns something, and his tone is "querulous," which means he complains a lot.
- We’re still on the subject of philosophy here, but, even so, the speaker sneakily keeps trying to turn language into everyday things.
- The image of the "thin wire of grief" is, we think, one of the most beautiful in the poem. In our mind, we can see the particular thing – a metal wire – combine with this totally abstract idea of grief.
After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I.
- It isn’t just the "friend" who gets frustrated with the overly philosophical conversation. After a while, the speaker realizes that all this talk about how words are reminders of some lost perfection actually causes imperfect, everyday things to become lost as well.
- The everyday world "dissolves," or disappears, in the face of this discussion about what’s real and what’s not. All these things we talk about, from "justice" to "pine" trees to a "woman," all become fancy ideas instead of particular things in the world.
- For the speaker, this isn’t a good outcome. He’s a poet, not a philosopher, and he wants words to connect to the everyday world.
- Basically, he’s saying, "There’s no point in thinking too much about how language works – or you’ll realize that it doesn’t work at all!"
Section IV (lines 16-25)
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. It hardly had to do with her.
- Boy, he doesn’t give us much warning when he changes the subject, does he?
- In the middle of line 16, we get airlifted out of the conversation about philosophical ideas (and not a moment too soon), and he starts discussing a memory of a woman he makes love to. Cue the soft lighting.
- We don’t know anything about her, except that she has "small shoulders," which makes her sound fragile – don’t break her, Mr. Speaker! In fact, her shoulders are small enough that he can hold them in his hands.
- He feels a "violent wonder" or amazement at her "presence" with him.
- Like the woodpecker, she is a very particular thing, and not a general idea. The poet seems to say that, despite our lofty and general ideas, we can’t ever pull ourselves away from the singular and specific – the things which, like this woman, can’t be completely defined in words. We need particular things like a thirsty person needs salt in his body.
- (Strange, but true – that’s why athletes who sweat a lot need to consume things with salt, like sports drinks.)
- The woman also reminds him of his past – specifically of his childhood. This is a large part of the reason that he's so attracted to her.
- For some inexplicable reason, her presence brings to mind this one super-specific memory of a "childhood river," as well as music and fishing.
- Like the description of the woodpecker, everything here feels solid and real, not dry and intellectual. Thus, even the name of the fish – the pumpkinseed – sounds like something we could reach out and taste. The name isn’t just an idea – it’s a thing.
- The speaker even goes so far as to say that his attraction to the woman has more to do with the things that she reminds him of, rather than anything relating to her: "It hardly had to do with her."
- At this point, we've got to wonder what she would think of this statement. Note to the reader: it’s probably not a good idea to tell someone that you only like them because they remind you of something else – save it for poetry you write later on and, for goodness sake, keep the person’s identity anonymous! This may sound brutally honest – too honest – but, hey, that’s what poetry is for.
- The speaker tries to get at the root of our attraction for real, touchable, taste-able things. At least he associates her with a good memory. Imagine if he had said: "She reminds me of having to wash the dishes after dinner." No good.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
- Now, more explicitly, he makes the idea from the previous lines. We desire or feel attracted to things because they remind us of "endless distances," like the distance between the present and the past.
- In other words, a desired object reminds us of things which are gone and lost. Sounds pretty sad. We even use the word "longing" to describe desire because it has the word "long" in it, which is a distance.
- And, if we are tempted to get mad at him for saying that he only likes the woman because she reminds him of a childhood memory, we have to give him some points for admitting that it is probably the same way for her. That is, he reminds her something from her own past, and "it hardly had to do with him."
- He doesn’t seem too upset by this possibility, so maybe it isn’t such an offensive thing to say after all. But, we’re not ready to let him off the hook just yet – he’s still on thin ice.
Section V (lines 26-31)
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
- It sounds like he’s still on clean-up duty for his comment about the woman. Now, he says that she isn’t just some object to him – a random hook-up, if you will.
- He actually knows the woman pretty well. He seems to eat dinner with her often enough to know how she breaks apart or "dismantles" bread. He also knows about her relationship with her father and her dreams.
- In other words, they aren’t strangers. They have a meaningful relationship.
- The speaker is kind of amazed that, despite all this stuff that he knows about her, he still is most attracted to the way she reminds him of his childhood. This seems strange to him, just as it probably seems strange to us.
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.
- Here, he ties it all together, and the result is – perhaps appropriately – very mysterious. There are moments, he says, when the body seems as "numinous," or divine, as words.
- By "numinous," he talks again about Plato’s "luminous clarity" of ideas. So, there are moments when the body seems like a perfect idea.
- As for "days that are the good flesh continuing," this is probably the most mysterious line in the poem. He seems to mean that there are days when we feel a pleasant satisfaction, like when desire is achieved through contact with "flesh."
- He’s not just talking about sex – although that’s certainly part of it. These days are happy and "tender," like being in the arms of a loved one. They are, in short, a whole lot better than arguing about philosophy.
- Then, in the last line, he seems to say that these days are spent saying the word "blackberry" over and over again. We imagine this would probably get pretty boring after, oh, two minutes. So, we’re guessing that it’s a metaphor.
- The first time that you say a word like "blackberry," it seems totally normal – you’re talking about a sweet, tasty fruit. But, when you repeat it a couple more times, the word itself starts to seem like a thing.
- Forgetting all about the fruit, the sound of the word itself is "sweet." The repetition of "blackberry" is a metaphor for the way ideas and things seem to blend together to produce a feeling of "tenderness." Bodies become "as numinous as words," and words, like "blackberry," become as tender as bodies.
- Now, if you excuse us, we have to rush to the store to buy a carton of fruit. For some reason, we can’t stop thinking about berries.