In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "The Layers" by Stanley Kunitz.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 6: “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz. --- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/poetrytothebrim/support

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to Poetry to the Brim.

Today I'll be reading the poem "The Layers" by Stanley Kunitz. I believe it was written in 1978 as the final poem of his first collected volume, as a sort of summary poem for his first fifty years of writing poetry from 1928 to 1978. I'll be leaving a link in the show notes of Kunitz himself reading this poem so be sure to check that out too.

--

"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.

--

So this poem is what's known as a dramatic monologue, a form of poetry that's composed of just one person's speech. In this poem, the speaker reconciles the losses of his life by recognizing them as just changes and layers of a life still in motion. Though there is an apparent solemnity in this poem, I think it's actually quite full of praise and hope—praise for the lives the speaker has thus endured and hope for the lives he's yet to live.

So the first thing I noticed in the poem was how far across the page the first line of the poem goes: "I have walked through many lives, some of them my own." "Some of them my own" sticks out so much from the right-hand side of the poem that to me it demonstrates the speaker's feeling that his own experiences and losses are so weighty that they seem to throw him off balance, if you will. This is a great example of how the form of a poem can be suggestive of its content, or more precisely in this case, the tone of the content to come. Right off the bat, with just one line, the tone of the poem is set; and then, right after that, in what follows in the rest of the first sentence, the questions the poem will address are stated: "and I am not who I was, / though some principle of being / abides, from which I struggle / not to stray."

Now what is the "principle of being [that] abides" in the speaker? It seems that he's referring to what the "nimbus-clouded voice" utters near the end of the poem: “Live in the layers, / not on the litter.” So what does this mean? In my opinion, the injunction is actually more clearly understood if we first understand why it's being made. Why must we live in the layers, not on the litter? The speaker has undergone many losses in his life, such as the friends who have "fell along the way," and to this circumstance, the voice seems to be saying that the losses in life are more than simply losses. They are more than simply the sense of lack—or "the litter"—they apparently feel like.

There's a sense in which we can only fully understand a relationship (to people, things, abilities, and so on), when it's buttressed by the experience of not having it. This is true of most things. The value of something is made apparent by its opposite. For instance, if we were blind and then we could see and then we were blind again, would we not have a deeper relationship and thus understanding of sight? It seems to be a common feature of human life that we can only fully make sense of and appreciate things once they've gone—once they've become like "abandoned camp-sites."

By the way, I loved the image in those lines "the abandoned camp-sites, / over which scavenger angels / wheel on heavy wings." Despite the heaviness of their wings, the speaker's "scavenger angels" are searching for what's precious and of value in those past experiences, in those now-abandoned spaces.

So, our losses are more than the reckless abandon and sense of lack they leave inside us. We must come out into abundance and joy again in order for us to consummate the loss and sorrow, to reach a state of praise for what seems lost, and to reach the next layer of our being so to speak. And thus "the next chapter / in [our] book of transformations" will unfold. This is super interesting. The conception of the future as something already written and the self as an inner unfolding: this reminds me of what Rilke said once. In the eighth of his ten letters to the young poet and cadet officer who once asked him about writing poetry, Rilke said, "the future enters into us ... to transmute itself into us, long before it takes place." While the future is conventionally viewed as something that happens to us from the outside, Rilke suggests a very different conception of time and thus changes perceived through time: one where, "the next chapter / in [our] book of transformations / is already written" but we must simply grow into an awareness of it and discover what it has to say.

In the letter, Rilke goes on to say, "The quieter, more patient, and more open we are as sorrowful persons, so much more deeply and steadily does the New progress in us, so much better do we appropriate it, so much more will it be our destiny, and when at a later day, it “happens” (that is, when it steps out from us to others), we will feel that our innermost selves are akin and near to it. And this is necessary" [2]. In other words, patience and attention are deeply necessary, and the quieter we are with our sorrows and fears, the more our future can enter into us and change us into what seems to be our fate, and the more we will be able to "live in the layers" as Kunitz says.

So I'll close by going out on a bit of a limb here: this might be reading too much into the poem, but I want to give it a shot. We are the unqualified awareness before experience: we are that which is aware of experience and all the apparent layers of our subjectivity moving across time that has shared those experiences with others. In what I believe is true, this is the principle of being beneath the apparent "principle of being" in the poem from which the speaker "struggle[s] not to stray," although he "lack[s] the art to decipher it." This is what is beneath the invocation to "live in the layers, not on the litter." We must dance in the abundant theater of experience, not grasping among the dust and dreams of what will always and most surely be lost.

--

"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.

--

Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. If you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend or two who might also enjoy it. If you read the poem differently and would like to share your thoughts with me or just have general suggestions about the show, I'd love to hear. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@acyanlight) or Instagram (@acyanlight), or email the show at poetrytothebrim@gmail.com.

Also, you can find a full transcript of the episode on the website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, as well as find ways to support the show.

Alright. Thanks again! Until next time.

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Show Notes

Citations

  1. Kunitz, Stanley. “The Layers.” The Collected Poems, W.W. Norton, New York, 2002.
  2. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet (p. 25-6). Hythloday Press. Kindle Edition.