The Layers

By Stanley Kunitz

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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.


The Stanley Kunitz’s poem ‘The Layers’ (1978) was suggested for inclusion in our Autumn Edition by Kay Lynn in response to the last Request for Submissions. You can also listen to it read by the author here: https://youtu.be/wk6xW41EFoA. Kay has also added a lovely personal note, fragments of which I am quoting with her permission. She wrote, ‘I am sorry to hear you will soon be handing the newsletter over Piotr. I have found the newsletter so special, salutary. I know others need to come in and create another style, but still I shall miss you. Your Stanley Kunitz poem reminded me of his poem “The Layers” which I turn to often…. Thank you for all your writing and the awareness of nature around you. I have a large garden and in the countryside in Oxfordshire. The combine harvesters have been busy. I am fascinated by them and watch them working for long days. I wonder is anyone else fascinated by them? The cut fields remain full of sunshine as I walk down to the river and watch the geese flying in. They are migrating and the sky nearing sunset is full of their V shared flight patterns and their distinctive call….’

Thank you, Kay, for your kind words, as well as for suggesting the above poem and for the striking image of combine harvesters hard at work, which gave me an idea for the accompanying photo. Your response has moved me intensely. I knew Kunitz’s poem ‘The Layers’, but after reading your message, Kay, the metaphors utilised by the poet stood out even more clearly, in particular these related to the life’s changing nature, and the inevitability of loss and failure. All the imagery of this poem has also brightened somehow, and the whole of its meaning has gained an extra vibrancy. In fact, now Stanley Kunitz’s maxim, “Live in the layers, not on the litter”, reminds me of how Paul Goodman saw the human development, not as a linear progress from one stage to another that has been typical of most of the developmental psychology, but rather as an accumulative process; so for instance, a 60 years old person like me is an aggregate of all his years: the 1st year, and the 2nd, the 5th, and 13th, 21st, and 60th – human being is, without prejudice, an infant and an adult, and hopefully fluidly drawing from all the life experience irrespectively how grown up or infantile, but mostly in response to his present life’s context. And yes, what can be more important than awareness of the ongoing change and the inevitability of death. I can see now, how the presence of combine harvesters ‘working for long days’ completes the picture so to say. Thank you very much, Kay!

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) is a towering figure in American poetry, writing some of his finest work well into his nineties. He wrote many poems and won much recognition. His vitality and continuing relevance was recognised when he was made the US Poet Laureate at the age of 95. Experiencing the sense of loss, alienation, change and death early in life, made such events the focal points in his poems.

His father’s suicide before his birth, and his stepfather’s death when he was only 14, had cast a long shadow over his life and shaped his poetry. However, Kunitz was never a confessional poet and maintained that, ‘by its nature poetry is an intimate medium…. perhaps that’s why it is so dangerously seductive to the creative spirit. The transformation of individual experience – the transpersonalization of the persona, if you will – is work that the imagination has to do, its obligatory task. One of the problems with so much of what was called, in the ’60s, confessional poetry was that it relied excessively on the exploitation of self, on the shock effect of raw experience. My conviction is that poetry is a legendary, not an anecdotal, art.’ He simply believed that poems ‘bear the stamp of their origins and are inseparable from them’ (The Poetry Archive). In his ‘Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation’, he declares:

‘Since that first morning when I crawled 
into the world, a naked grubby thing,
and found the world unkind,
my dearest faith has been that this
is but a trial: I shall be changed’.

UKAGP Newsletter, Autumn 2021
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