Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers”

Stanley Kunitz, an American poet, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1905, named Poet Laureate in 2000, speaks of age, observant of its changes.

His poem, “The Layers” offers his observations of the steps and turns in a life lived thoughtfully, engaging in its twists, a life not left willingly at any age. “The Layers” speaks to the mature reader.

Some observations:

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Who among us with a few years behind us is not aware of her own existence and the sharing of it with those we have created and with those we have chosen to live with. My children, parents, ancestors, husband, and friends have molded me and yet a core of me is unique, my own self, present at my creation to which I cling, “from which I struggle not to stray,” demanding recognition for me. Egocentric? Good.

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

If we are smart, we learn from our past, observe our mistakes, build our talents. My reality now in my sixth decade is that I, like the speaker in the poem, have fewer milestones ahead of me. There are many abandoned camp-sites behind me.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Many affections, loves scattered–a feast of losses, a phrase profound in the recognition of a life lived with emotion.

In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

I’ve lost track of a few friends whom I often think of and would like to speak to again. That’s the nature of moving every two or three years over a period of 26 years. I am occasionally impressed with my will “to go wherever I need to go, but to be honest, I haven’t yet found “every stone on the road precious…”

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”

Ah, words to live by. “Live in the layers, not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Realistic optimism with a tough of fatalism–now that appeals to me.

Diane McCormick

7 thoughts on “Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers”

  1. How coincidental that we should both choose this poem to write about, Diane.

    I took a much more cursory look at the poem in January of 2002, when I wasn’t nearly as analytical as I am now.

  2. Excellent personal analysis. On target. Kunitz deserves more attention, although select pieces have received it. His body of work is masterful, stunning.

  3. I don’t think the line that says that includes ‘some principle of being abides’ is egocentric. I think its the opposite. He’s saying that at his core he is spirit and that the people around him, his family and friends do not belong to him and he not to them. To remember this is a very difficult thing to do because ultimately it means that there is no security in family and friends. We have to find our own way. That is not to say that loved ones aren’t important but they are fleeting, as we pass through one life to another. At least that is my view 🙂

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