‘Meditations at Lagunitas’ was published in 1979 as part of Praise, Hass’s second collection of poetry. Since then, it has only grown in popularity, finding a place in several different American anthologies. The poem touches on heavy philosophical themes of Plato’s Idea, the nature of “Things”, existence, and human experience.
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Summary of Meditation at Lagunitas
Throughout the thirty-one lines of this poem, Hass makes an argument that the “idea” of things as put forward by Plato is not an ideal way to live one’s life. It is useless to sit around contemplating this philosophical principle, he says. Rather, he’d like to go out and connect with the world in a real way. He uses the example of a woman and how she reminds him of his past. This was something meaningful and real to him. Her presence was as real as his existence in the world allows it to be. She didn’t need to be the essence of “woman” for them to have a meaningful, although perhaps brief, relationship.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Meditation at Lagunitas
‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ by Robert Hass is a single stanza pastoral poem that is made up of thirty-one lines. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, a technique known as free verse. Despite what many think, free verse does not mean that the poem is totally devoid of structure or poetic techniques. A close reader can find several examples of half-rhyme within ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ as well as literary devices.
Literary Devices in Meditation at Lagunitas
Hass makes use of several literary devices in ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “black bird” in line six as well as “pleasure” and “places” in lines twenty-one and twenty-two.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line eight reads: “of undivided light. Or the other notion that”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several good examples in this poem. For instance, the transition between lines three and four as well as that between lines twelve and thirteen.
Analysis of Meditation at Lagunitas
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
In the first lines of ‘Meditation at Lagunitas,’ the speaker begins by suggesting that “loss” is one of the most important things that human beings have ever tried to think about. It is constantly on the mind of human beings who are trying to understand what it means. Thinking about loss is nothing new, the new thinking resembles “all the old thinking” on the subject.
The next lines shift to thinking about the “idea” of things versus the reality of things. This is a theory that originates from Plato. He argued that real things are different than their appearance suggests. The reality of objects (their essence) and all other “things” exist in a higher plane that human beings don’t have access to. This is the source of “old thinking” that Hass is interested in.
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
Hass creates a specific example of a “thing” so that he can talk about particulars verse the general essence of things. He describes a “woodpecker” that does not know of its “tragic falling”. Particulars, such as “that black birch” seem lesser than the more spiritual world. The essences are more important and of a different realm than the “fallen” (a clear reference to Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden). Though its existence the woodpecker informs the world that it is only one example of a woodpecker. It is a particular, not of the world of essences.
‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ gets more complicated in line eight as the speaker describes an elegy and uses the example of a blackberry bush. He describes how there’s no single blackberry that humans can find, look at, and know that is is the perfect example. He expresses the word “blackberry” as an elegy for the loss of the original nature of the blackberry. It mourns the loss of the purity of an original.
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. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
The speaker brings in other people, including himself, into ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’. He describes talking to his “friend” about these notions loss “late last night”. He recalls hearing grief in his friend’s voice during this discussion. His friend was frustrated with the conversation, as the speaker was and is. He “understood” that talking this way for a long time dissolves everything. The reality of the world that they know and can’t escape disappears into notions of philosophy and essences. The speaker doesn’t feel that this is an ideal outcome for the conversation when he isn’t trying to craft lofty philosophical arguments. He states that he wants to know the world. He has a desire to connect with the world.
The next line uses the example of a woman that he “made love to” and remembered holding. Her “presence” was very real, it was not abstract, disappointing, or “fallen”. This leads him down a path of memory, with some very good examples of imagery. He recalls his youth, the “island willows’ and the “silly music from the pleasure boat. (There is a good example of half-rhyme with “willows” and “silly.)
Although these things “hardly had to do with her,” they are the main reason that he was drawn to her. She reminds him of these memories of youth.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
The speaker believes that we “desire” things because they remind up of the “endless distances” of our own pasts and our futures. He also believes that he “must have been the same to her,” that she was only with him because he brought her some recollection of the past.
He takes the reader into some memories he has of being with her and things she told him. There was the way she cut bread and the “thing her father said that hurt her”. These are precise and very real experiences that are part of his memory. They make her an individual, something that he values. She does not have to be an essence, or the idea of perfection, to mean something to him.
Hass brings in a few more complicated phrases at the end of‘Meditation at Lagunitas’. He speaks about the “days that are the good flesh continuing”. These are the days of pleasant happiness, which is achieved through bodies coming together. The physical pleasure of being with another person, sexually and otherwise, is far more real to him than any lofty philosophical principle. This connects back to his argument that its harmful to spend too much time thinking about “essences” and “ideas” of “Things”.
‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ ends on a contemplative note in which the poet repeats the word “blackberry” three times. Here, he brings the poem back around the complex nature of language and how words can become things. When said enough times, “blackberry” no longer refers to fruit but is a “thing” in itself. The word’s meaning disappears and creates something new, a feeling of “tenderness”.