The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

The meditative tone of ‘The Layers’ provides the reader with an atmosphere in which to contemplate their own life. Kunitz creates powerful images of the past and describes through clear language the struggles he has gone through trying to escape from his memories. ‘The Layers’ is a direct and personal poem that gets to the heart of what it means to change throughout one’s life and accept that which one cannot alter. 

 

Summary of The Layers

‘The Layers’ by Stanley Kunitz is a moving and emotional poem that depicts a speaker’s journey and choice to overcome his past. 

The speaker depicts his life through a series of powerful images. These images display for the reader a life that’s been filled with change and transformation. The speaker has been many people and lived different lives. Now, as he looks back on his past, he sees a wasteland. He struggles to overcome it, but in the middle of the poem, he makes a transition and decides that he’s going to accept the “layers” of his life and not live off the “litter”. The poem concludes on a hopeful and determined note. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of The Layers 

The Layers’ by Stanley Kunitz is a forty-four line poem that is contained within a single stanza. The poem is written without a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is a technique known as free verse. The lines are all fairly short and often flow into one another using a technique known as enjambment. 

 

Literary Devices in The Layers 

Kunitz makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Layers’. These include alliteration, metaphor, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines four and five as well as that between fifteen and sixteen. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is a good example in lines thirteen and fourteen when the poet is depicting his past, his memories, and his losses as “abandoned camp-sites”. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “wheel” and “wing” in line sixteen and “friends” and “fell” in lines twenty-three and twenty-four. 

 

Analysis of The Layers 

Lines 1-14 

I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

(…)

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

In the first lines of ‘The Layers,’ the speaker begins by telling the intended listener, whoever they may be, that he has “walked through many lives” and some of them have even been his own. This is an elegant and interesting way of describing the different ways this speaker has experienced the world. He has taken on different personalities, belief systems, and patterns, as we all do, throughout his life. Some of these even felt like they originated within his own mind or soul. The others were taken out of necessity or pushed on him. 

He continues on in the next lines to expand on his state of being. He has tried to maintain the “principle of being” that’s at his core. This could be described as a basic set of moral principles or beliefs. Perhaps he is thinking of his soul or the person he believes he was meant to be. It is a “struggle” he says not to “stray” from this baseline. While there are very few details in these lines it is easy enough to understand the struggle that this speaker is engaged in. 

His past is behind him. He looks on occasion when he feels compelled to. Through a metaphor, he compares it to “milestones” on the road and “slow fires trailing / from the abandoned camp-sites”. These “sites” represent moments in his personal history that stick out. They are turning points as well as moments of solidity where he was in one place, or one kind of person, for a period of time. They are now “abandoned”. The fires are left to ban themselves out until there are only ashes. 

Enjambment is quite obviously one of the most important techniques at work in this poem. The lines read as if someone is speaking them aloud. They flow one into the next, creating a fluid image. 

 

Lines 15-31

over which scavenger angels

(…)

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In the next section of ‘The Layers’ the speaker describes how over top of his past—the fires and miles stones— there are “scavenger angels” they “wheel” or fly around sharply on “heavy wings”. These peaceful and beautiful implications of the word “angel” are juxtaposed against the word “scavenger”. They are as much like vultures as they are guardians. 

The speaker’s emotions start to come through the next lines. His memories are powerful and he worries over what he cannot change. He remembers the past and things that used to be meaningful to him, like “affections” and his “tribe”. The speaker questions how he’s going to move based his “feast of losses”. He doesn’t have an answer to this question yet, but he is getting there. 

First, he explores the “friends’ he used to have and who “fell along the way”. Their loss stings his “face”. But, he’s determined to persevere. The speaker transitions into a more determined state of mind. He’s ready to move beyond the past and “turn,…turn” wherever he needs to go. The speaker’s outlook is more positive and he considers the “stones” on his past road as “precious”. They are no longer tormenting him. 

 

Lines 32-44

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

(…)

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

In the final lines of ‘The Layers,’ the speaker recalls a moving and likely metaphorical memory from the past. There were times in the “darkest night” when he would be roaming through the wreckage of his personal history that he’d hear a god-like voice. Kunitz describes it as “nimbus-clouded” as though its coming down from the heavens through the layer of clouds. 

The voice tells him to “Live in the layers / not on the litter”. He should take strength from the layers of his own life, the experiences he has and the people he’s been. It should be something that fuels him rather than something he struggles to overcome. The speaker should not stay in amongst the “litter” worrying over every messy thing that’s happened to him. 

The last lines suggest that the poet is the speaker in this piece. He is acknowledging the limits of his own poetry and accepting that he is not going to be able to “decipher” the future or adequately convey the past. He knows that the future is probably set and that he needs to accept whatever is going to come next. The poem concludes with the line “I am not done with my changes”. The speaker is going to continue to grow, moving away from this depressive state and into a more prosperous one. 

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