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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.