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An Analysis of the Poem "The Layers" by Stanley Kunitz

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Stanley Kunitz and a Summary of The Layers

The Layers is a single-stanza, free-verse poem of 44 lines that focuses on change, loss and human will. It contains strong imagery and metaphor and has a contemplative tone.

In some respects, it is a religious poem; the language has biblical echoes in certain lines as part of the speaker's search for personal identity through higher influences. For example:

  • "struggle not to stray"
  • "gather strength"
  • "scavenger angels"
  • "made myself a tribe"
  • "a nimbus-clouded voice/directed me"

The speaker is basically saying that although he's strayed from the straight-and-narrow over time and gone through changes, he's still listening to that voice (whether outer or inner), which keeps him joyful, out of the garbage (litter), and ready for what lies ahead.

About the Poet

Massachusetts-born Stanley Kunitz (1905–2006) produced many poems over a long career, concentrating on identity, love, death, spirituality and being human. You'll find his work in many an anthology (including poems such as Touch Me and The Round), and he was the poet laureate of the United States from 2000 to 2001.

Much of his poetry is reflective and has a philosophical edge. He uses everyday language in a tender and conversational way, trying to fathom out just what it is about spirit and the flesh that keeps love for the world and positivity alive.

Take these few lines from the poem Testing Tree:

In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.

The Layers takes the reader into the mind of the speaker (the poet) as he looks back through life, sensitively summing up the changes, aware of loss and the need to persevere when times get dark.

These opening lines, Frost-like but confessional, set the reader up for the journey:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,

So here is a speaker who is well experienced and also self-aware, changes admitted. For someone who served in the army during world war II and led a long life as a teacher, creator and family man, this is to be expected.

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.
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.

Line-by-Line Analysis of The Layers

The Layers comprises 44 short lines as one stanza in a conversational and meditative tone in the first person so that the reader becomes used to the idea that the speaker is the poet and vice versa.

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Lines 1–6

The speaker is reflecting on the number of lives he's walked through, metaphorically speaking, including his own. This implies that one person has many lives. It's the same person experiencing all kinds of environments and becoming a changed person in the process.

This is an unusual opening because of that plural lives, which relates to the many changes the speaker has gone through, moving away from a former self, struggling not to lose a grip on the 'principle of being,' or the inner core of what he is. This inner core suggests a spirituality, a sense of goodness, a conscience, or a heart that sits right. This is what keeps the speaker stable and sane.

Lines 7–16

To have strength for the journey forward, the speaker has to look back, suggesting that the past is a place for learning and gaining perspective and truth to enable life to continue. He has to come to terms with past experiences.

Note the imagery and metaphors here: milestones/horizon/slow fires/camp-sites/scavenger angels/heavy wings. This is quite a biblical scene, with the campsites representing former lives, former events and former experiences—turning points in life. The slow fires imply that there is some heat retained; the past burns inside.

And those angels are picking up the pieces, which is rather sinister sounding as they wheel above what remains of the speaker's past.

Lines 17–19

To continue the scene, the metaphorical tribe is scattered. From the campsites, the truth has departed. These lines are a confession of fragmentation. Affection for former things has gone, and there's a hint of regret.

Lines 20–21

There is more hurt. The feelings are starved. How can they be fed again? The speaker has lost something and isn't certain they will ever be getting it back.

Lines 22–25

Again, imagery and symbolism play a leading role. Here are wind, dust, stinging and friends. The word dust implies death (ashes to ashes, dust to dust). Has the speaker lost friends along the way and is not yet over their demise? It seems so.

Lines 26–31

Here is the turning point of the poem as the speaker says that despite loss and change, he goes on, retaining a joy (exulting) and a will which allow freedom. Even the stones are precious, meaning that he doesn't take anything for granted; everything little thing holds something of value for him.

Lines 32–38

At his darkest time, he was guided by a voice (a nimbus-clouded voice—nimbus is often associated with halo and represents a holy glow or circle of light or fire) which is spiritual in nature.

The layers of life are where he needs to be. He mustn't dwell on the litter and the throwaway stuff. He must not waste time in the garbage. This is the crux—he must remain in the layers, which are part of the texture of life, and keep away from the waste.

Lines 39–43

Directed by this guiding voice (inner or outer?), the speaker isn't quite sure he fully understands it or can rationally reduce it, but he's convinced enough that life and destiny and change are already laid down in time going forward.

Metaphorically, note the literary language: chapter/book/written.

Line 44

The last line is a declaration of the ego, perhaps. Change will come again—he knows it. He's ready to change, and he looks forward to it.


© 2020 Andrew Spacey

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