The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

“Reading Lao Tzu Again in the New Year” is a poem of middle length (forty-seven lines) written in free verse. The title is somewhat misleading, since neither Lao Tzu nor whatever work of his Charles Wright has been reading is mentioned in the poem. Instead, the reading of Lao Tzu’s poetry and his view of nature seem to trigger a meditation on the end of the year and the absences or emptiness in nature and humankind. The speaker of the poem is the same speaker who appears in all the poems of Chickamauga and Wright’s next book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Black Zodiac (1997). He is an aspect of Wright himself, a seeker of some ultimate truth, some “essence,” who never seems to find the answers he is seeking. Instead, in this poem, the search sets in motion a meditation on “essence” that deals primarily with time and the winter landscape. The poem is divided into three distinct sections and has a clear movement and development. The first two sections portray the world as dead and the speaker close to despair. The third section shifts from this gloom to affirmation.

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The poem begins with the “Snub end of a dismal year.” The focus is on winter and the dying of nature rather than on any suggestion of renewal provided by the new year. This sense of endings is further defined and intensified in the description of the landscape. The sky has an “undercoat of blackwash,” and in his dead world the speaker must “answer to/ My life.” The tone is morbid, nearly despairing. A new year may be beginning, but “nothing will change hands.” There will be no revelation, only repetition.

The poem then meditates upon cycles of rising and falling: “Prosodies rise and fall./ Structures rise in the mind and fall.” The speaker thinks only of “failure,” and nature seems cut off from its own parts rather than being a unified and healing system. There is a more hopeful shift at the end of the second section, as all the “loss” the speaker sees becomes a “gain.”

The last section of the poem is more description than meditation. It is “Four days into January,” and tiny grass is growing “under the peach trees.” The birds are singing, and the speaker now sees the place of humankind in a more hopeful light. People may be “between now and not-now,” but they are “held by affection.” They are connected by bonds of feeling, not merely adrift in a world of failure and dead ends.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

One of the most important devices of the poem is Wright’s use of free verse. It is not a free verse that arbitrarily breaks lines; there is, instead, a clear integrity of the line. Wright also sets one line off against another by indenting some lines far toward the right margin. He thus creates a counterpoint between lines, adds asides that comment on the previous line, and makes forceful caesuras between lines.

Wright uses a number of traditional poetic devices in the poem, but imagery is clearly the most important. There are images of emptiness or diminishment in the first section—the “dwarf” orchard and the sky with its “undercoat of blackwash.” It is the “snub” end of a dismal year. There is also an interesting allusion in the first section: “this shirt I want to take off,/ which is on fire.” These lines allude to the shirt of Nessus, which caused Hercules to go mad after putting it on. In that fit of madness, he killed his wife and children.

The second section continues the negative imagery. Failure “reseeds the old ground”—a brilliant image that reverses the renewal of “seeding” into a cycle of failure and hopelessness. The rest of the second section is more statement than imagery: “Prosodies rise and fall./ Structures rise and fall.” There is, once more, a cycle that does not renew but only repeats. The references to prosody and structure are literary and suggest the problem of creating a meaningful poem in the midst of a meaningless cycle.

Images of nature follow these statements, but they are negative also. “Does the grass, with its inches in two worlds, love the dirt?/ Does the snowflake the raindrop?” Things that should be closely connected into structures instead have their parts cut off from each other; everything and everyone is isolated. There seems to be no solution to this problem, because “those who know will never tell us.” The “word” that should illuminate instead “leads us another step from the light.” At the end of the second section, however, the poem turns from its depiction of despair to the beginning of affirmation: “Loss is its own gain./ Its secret is emptiness.” The “dark selves” of the poem move as “the tide moves.” The acknowledgment of emptiness and the movement of self and nature together seem to point a way out of the dilemma.

In the last section, the images of nature are connected, in contrast to the isolation of the first section. “The grass grows tiny, tiny/ Under the peach trees.” Although the growth is tiny, it does provide some hope, and the speaker seizes upon that hope. Birds are singing, and nature is growing; only humankind is isolated “between now and not-now.” Yet even that displacement is “held by affection.” This tenuous affirmation is supported by the poem’s final, significant image: “Large rock balanced upon a small rock.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

Andrews, Tom, ed. The Point Where All Things Meet: Essays on Charles Wright. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1995.

Bourgeois, Louis. “An Interview with Charles Wright.” The Carolina Quarterly 56 (Spring/Summer, 2004): 30-37.

Wright, Charles. Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-1987. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.

Wright, Charles. Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

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Themes