Warning: Poems Save Lives (“Live in the layers. Not in the litter.”)


Fly Away Home  “Fly Away Home”

Image and essay by Janet Riehl. Poem “The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz.

This morning readying for June’s Creative Catalyst post I opened a notebook  which turned out to be from 2008-2011. It fell open at page 31 to reveal Stanley Kunitz’ fine poem “The Layers.”  Ah, there’s the poem copied out in my own hand from a Memorial Booklet. It’s a poem of wisdom and compassion for self and others. Very much where I am now (and perhaps always have been).

I read the comments posted after the You Tube video of  Stanley Kunitz reading his poem “The Layers.” [Click to see.] People focus on how this is a poem of an older person. Some say what the heck is this about? Help me out here.

This poem is as close to my life story as anything  can get. It’s been the story of my life since my 20s. Now at 65 it’s still my life story. I believe our deepest life stories stay with us and do not change that much. I need no college course or poetry commentary or poetry discussion group to know in every syllable, word, and line  what this poem is about.

It’s about hope and heartbreak. It’s about the courage of not knowing. It’s about the fruits–both bitter and sweet–of a nomadic life of constant re-invention. Here you go.

Stanley Jasspon Kunitz (July 29, 1905–May 14, 2006) was a noted American poet who served two years (1974–1976) as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a precursor to the modern Poet Laureate program), and served another year as United States Poet Laureate in 2000.

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.

Stanley Kunitz, “The Layers” from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. Copyright © 1978 by Stanley Kunitz.  Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Source: The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2002)

_________________

Janet Riehl is a country girl who roamed the world and then came home. So many countries, so many homes, so many heartbreaks, and so many hopes. You can read more at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st century  where the mission is to create connections through the arts and across cultures.

7 responses to “Warning: Poems Save Lives (“Live in the layers. Not in the litter.”)

  1. villagerainbows

    Thank you, Janet. Thank you, Stanley. For the advice. For the synergy. Well said.

  2. I wonder Janet, do poems save lives or make lives, or perhaps they are one and the same. Poetry like this leads me away from the surface, the periphery of my life, where moments slip and slide into one another, becoming indecipherable from the cacophony of days lived at too hectic a pace. Reading Kunitz’s words is like lighting a candle which guides me ever deeper, ever onwards through the layers, away from the litter. Lovely post 🙂

    • Thank you, Edith. You’ve made a cogent case of reading poetry. Poetry can make/shape a life through influencing and inspiring us. Poetry can also save us from despair and isolation…and, may even stay the hand that might take life away. It’s mindful writing, isn’t it?

      • Janet, I certainly would like think this is true. Never thought of poetry before in the context of mindful. I meditate, practice yoga and know those are mindful. I write. Now I have a new view on that as well, thanks to you.

  3. Such a beautiful poem, so full of honesty about the process of living, lives and losses. Thanks so much, Janet. You share your own process so wonderfully, and educate all of your readers with your own experiences. Big cheers headed your way!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s