The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)