Monday, January 30, 2017

Stanley Kunitz: The Layers

"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's poem is one of my favorite poems. Kunitz wrote the poem in his late 70's to conclude  a collection of 60 years of his poetry.

Kunitz wrote poetry for over 80 years and until his death in 2006, 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.

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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