Reading Lao Tzu Again in the New Year Themes
by Charles Wright

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The first important theme in the poem is that the change of the year does not produce change or renewal but a seemingly endless cycle: “Old year, new year, old song, new song.” Nature is part of this repetitive cycle. The references to literary elements in the poem are worth noting, as they are also caught in an unrenewing cycle. “Prosodies rise and fall./ Structures rise in the mind and fall.” The change in prosodies does not give the poet a useable metrical system but a sense of chaos in the displacement of existing systems. The imagination of the poet is caught in this dead end as well; Structures may rise in the mind, but then they disintegrate. Furthermore, words—and thereby the naming and placing of objects, the most elemental tools of the poet—do not provide an instrument for vision but take one further from illumination.

The “emptiness” of the second section is an important thematic shift in the poem. It reflects not a repetitive cycle but a closure. Although it does not provide renewal, it is a step toward change and a way out of the endless cycles of the poem. The “loss” that has filled the first two parts of the poem is now a “gain.” Wright does not explain this paradox; he simply asserts it as a truth. In addition, there is a freedom of movement here that has not been seen earlier in the poem—“dark selves” move like bodies of water being moved by the tide. The darkness that has been so much a part of the poem is also altered in the last section as “Sunlight sprays on the ash limbs.” The image finally proclaims an illumination of the dark world and dark selves.

The place of humankind, for which the poet has been looking since the beginning of the poem, is discovered and asserted at the end. The phrase “We’re placed between now and not-now” seems at first to be merely a description of human displacement; people can never live truly in the present, only between two states. However, Wright adds another line to this formulation. People are also “Held by affection.” Both words are important: “Held” suggests human contact and being sustained, while “affection” suggests the feelings, bonds, and gestures of everyday life. With this assurance, this balance, the speaker can stop his metaphysical speculations about humankind and nature. Where he is in time becomes less important than being “Held by affection.” The last image is also important: “Large rock balanced upon a small rock.” The differences are brought together in an equilibrium that closes the poem.