Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sunday's poem: Stanley Kunitiz and 'Living in the layers'

"That pack of scoundrels
stumbling through the gate
as the order of the state"
Stanley Kunitz

"Evil has become a product of manufacture, it is built into our whole industrial and political system, it is being manufactured every day, it is rolling off the assembly lines, it is being sold in the stores, it pollutes the air. And it's not a person!"
Stanley Kunitz

"A poem has secrets that the poet knows nothing of. It takes on a life and a will of its own" 
Stanley Kunitz

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 (1905-2006) is  one of my favorite poets and is considered among the US's most acclaimed poets, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.

Kunitz wrote poetry for over 80 years and until his death, aged 100, he was active as a poet, writer, activist and mentor to young poets. He was 95 when his Collected Poems was published.

Kunitz was largely unknown as a poet until well into his sixties. He was appointed official poet of the US Government and the State of New York, but saw his role in clear terms:

"The poet is not in the service of the state. On the contrary he defends the solitary conscience as opposed to the great power structure of the superstate."

Kunitz was a lifelong political progressive and pacifist. He was a conscientious objector during WW2 and opposed both the Vietnam and the US-led invasion of Iraq. He declined to write a poem in honor of the inauguration of George Bush.  He reminded people:

"A poet is also a citizen, and I try not to forget that"

Kunitz wrote poetry slowly, often at night, on an old manual typewriter. The secret of a long life, he claimed, was curiosity (he lived to over 100).

An interview with Stanley Kunitz is here and a long evocative article about Stanley Kunitz from the New Yorker magazine is here.

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