Study Guide

Meditation at Lagunitas Themes

  • Language and Communication

    This poem is a big game of linguistic dodge ball between poets and philosophers. The philosophers say that words are ideas which represent a perfect or original example of a thing. The poets say that words don’t just represent things, they are things. When we speak a word aloud, it sets the air to vibrating with a real, physical sound. According to the poem, this sound can be as sweet as a blackberry. Of course, we don’t hear the full story from the philosophers, because a poet speaks the entire time. But, this poet thinks that a certain type of philosopher wants to deny that words correspond to everyday things in the world, which seems to deny the possibility of real communication.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What is the difference between seeing words as "ideas" and seeing words as "things?" Does the poem settle on one or the other viewpoint?
    2. What does it mean to say that, "a word is elegy to what it signifies?"
    3. What is the effect of putting certain words in the poem in italics? How does it set them apart from the other words in the poem? What do these words have in common?
    4. The poet says at one point that "talking this way, everything dissolves" (15). How does our use of language affect the way we look at reality?

    Chew on This

    Although it seems to focus a lot on nature, the poem actually makes a serious argument that Platonic philosophy prevents us from dealing with concrete examples of injustice in the world.

    The poem argues that "general ideas" and "particulars" cannot be easily separated, and that words are a mix of both.

  • Man and the Natural World

    This poem falls under the genre of the "pastoral," which means that it celebrates natural beauty. But, the speaker doesn’t just celebrate; he also uses the natural world as evidence against people who say that "general ideas" are more beautiful than particular things. He argues that the source of all desire is a search for particular things we have loved and lost, like the peaceful riverbank of his childhood. Poetry, he thinks, is the best way to connect man’s intellectual world with the singular mysteries of nature. Even the word "blackberry" can be like a poem in praise of nature.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Do you know of any other pastoral poems? How does Hass’s "Meditation at Lagunitas" compare?
    2. How do the very specific images of nature in the poem help the speaker’s argument about the value of "particulars" versus "general ideas?"
    3. What, if anything, does natural beauty have to do with physical and sexual desire? Can the two be separated?
    4. Are words a part of nature, or do they belong to some higher spiritual realm?

    Chew on This

    The poet uses the image of the "tragic" woodpecker to show the absurdity of the Platonic philosophy. It’s laughable to think that the woodpecker could relate in any way to our human ideas of tragedy.

    Words are the link between the natural world of particulars and the intellectual world of ideas.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Platonism

    Plato’s name is never mentioned in the poem, but his fingerprints are everywhere. For example, Plato gives the first really self-conscious example of what might be the most common metaphor of all time: the comparison between light and knowledge. When the speaker of this poem describes the "general idea" as a "luminous clarity," we know he’s talking about Plato’s theory that ideas are the light which illuminates our shadowy world (line 4). But, Plato’s viewpoint doesn’t come off very well in this "Meditation." The poet thinks that people who follow his philosophy too closely end up tying themselves in logical knots – the end result of which is not being able to say anything about anything.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Platonism

    1. What words or phrases from everyday speech contain a metaphor comparing light and knowledge? (We can think of two right off the bat: "enlightenment" and "illumination.")
    2. Do you find Plato’s philosophy of a higher intellectual realm compelling? If so, do you disagree with the poem? If not, do you think you might be influenced by Plato’s idea in other subtle ways?
    3. Is there any difference between the "new thinking" and the "old thinking" about loss? What is Hass’s attitude toward the "new thinking?"
    4. Is it possible that Plato’s idea is partly responsible for the separation we feel from the natural world? Do non-western cultures free from Plato’s influence feel the same separation?

    Chew on This

    Although the poem starts out making fun of all the thinking about loss, by the end, it locates the source of desire in loss. The speaker never fully escapes Plato’s idea.

    The speaker believes that Platonic philosophy makes it impossible for people to talk about the real world.

  • Memory and the Past

    The poem argues that desire, both of the sexual and non-sexual varieties, has its roots in memory. We desire things which remind us of other things that we have lost, but want to recover. We are "thirsty" for the past. The poet remembers making love to a woman who reminds him of his favorite "childhood river," and he even comes to the surprising conclusion that this mental connection is more important to him than any of the woman’s specific traits. But – here’s a real mind-bender – maybe the pastoral setting of the poem is beautiful because it reminds him of the woman, who reminds him of his childhood. Desire might just be a trip further and further back into the distances of memory.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Do you agree with the poem’s argument that desire has its roots in memory? If that’s the case, can desire ever be fulfilled?
    2. Is there a difference in the way that the memory of the speaker’s childhood is presented, and the way that the memory of his lover is presented?
    3. Is the poem supposed to track the speaker’s "present" thoughts, or is the whole thing just a memory?
    4. Is the "distance" between the present and past the same as the distance between two places? What is the relationship between the two kinds of distance?

    Chew on This

    The speaker thinks that the natural scenery at Lagunitas is beautiful because it reminds him of his encounter with a lover.

    If desire is a longing for the past, then it can never be fulfilled.

  • Sex

    Hass is not a poet who thinks that sex is shocking or abnormal. He thinks it is a normal experience to discuss and puzzle over. So normal, in fact, that he doesn’t distinguish between sexual desire and desire for other things, like blackberries or the past. It’s all part of one big, gooey mess of feelings. He doesn’t want to turn you on, he wants you to pause and think beyond the normal clichés about lust and hormones to find the real source of desire, which may have nothing to do with the act of sex.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Does he distinguish sexual desire at all from other kinds of desire?
    2. Would you be offended to know that someone desires you because you remind him/her of his/her childhood?
    3. How does the poem transition from the scene of lovemaking to the speaker’s childhood memory?
    4. Is there such a thing as a "general idea" of sex and desire, or can we only talk about sex in reference to specific things or people we desire?

    Chew on This

    The poet’s acceptance that desire might have little to do with the desired person is a sign of maturity.

    The poet realizes that his comment that his sexual attraction "had little to do with her" is offensive, and he tries to atone for it later in the poem.