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The Layers
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 Layers”. Copyright © 1978 by Stanley Kunitz, from THE COLLECTED POEMS by Stanley Kunitz.
Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.



Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) was born in Massachusetts to a working –class family and left home at 15. He earned a B.A. and a master’s degree in English from Harvard and worked as a newspaper reporter and editor before becoming a college professor, ultimately teaching at several of America’s most notable universities.  Stanley published a dozen books, two of which earned a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He served a 2-year term as the Poet Laureate of New York State  and served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States. Stanley was active in publishing and promoting poetry until well into his nineties. His writing often focused on life, death, and nature, and he was an avid gardener.



Post New Comment:
michael escoubas:
Like Kunitz' dictional flow--smooth, natural, reminds me of Ted Kooser. He invites me over for bagels and coffee; with Stanley, I'm comfortable in my own skin.
Posted 07/29/2019 01:00 PM
I adore Stanley Kunitz. I am so grateful that he lived and wrote.
Posted 07/29/2019 10:46 AM
Live in the of those lines requiring a full exploration. Regret seems to lie in the litter, both the detritus of living carelessly. Ah, to live in the layers that gift us with wisdom and compassion. A poem for these times.
Posted 07/29/2019 08:47 AM
Sorry about the typo in my previous comment. Also wanted to say that I saw Stanley read at the Dodge Poetry Festival and at the Poetry Center in Paterson, NJ. Always an honor to be in his presence and to be a member of Poets House in NYC, founded by Stanley Kunitz.
Posted 07/29/2019 08:17 AM
Brings tears to my eyes with every reading�one of my favorites!
Posted 07/29/2019 08:12 AM

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