Friday, May 14, 2010


Stanley Kunitz
American Poet

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the death of Stanley Kunitz, one of our finest American poets. Kunitz graced us with his presence for more than one hundred years, and we who love poetry are much the better for it.

With a writing career that spanned eight decades, Kunitz was awarded nearly every honor that a poet can receive in this country. Among other things, he received the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes, a National Medal of of the Arts from President Clinton, and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America.  He also served a term as Poet Laureate of the United States.

While Kunitz is remembered primarily as a poet, he also had a great passion for gardening.  In fact, when one reads both Kunitz's poetry and his meditations on gardening, it is difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins.  In The Wild Braid, Kunitz strongly suggests that the two disciplines were interwoven in his life.  "I think of gardening," he wrote, "as an extension of one's being, something as deeply personal and intimate as writing a poem."  A similar note is found on the frontispiece of the book:
I associate the garden with the whole experience of being alive, and so, there is nothing in the range of human experience that is separate from what the garden can signify in its eagerness and its insistence, and in its driving energy to live -- to grow, to bear fruit.

Whether writing poetry or tending his garden, Kunitz spent his life focused on the ramifications of change, particularly those that occur within the human heart. In one of my favorite poems, The Layers, he spoke movingly about the painful losses in his own life and his struggle to move forward, as we all must.

                     THE LAYERS

     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 in 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.

I sense that Kunitz is still not done with his changes.  At the very least, he continues to change us with the heart-wrenching insights of his poetry.  To the question he raises in The Layers -- "How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? -- Kunitz offers no simplistic answers.  He suggests, however, that his own answers were lessons that can be learned from any garden -- a grateful acceptance of the complex layers of life, a commitment to go where one needs to go, and a spirit that is always open to the possibility of transformation.  


  1. Heart-wrenching is right. I am always so deeply moved by the stark yet reconciled reality of this poem. It does help to have a garden and to make sure that '...every stone on the road is precious ...'.

    So much hard-won wisdom in the layers of meaning in that work.

    Thanks George.

  2. hello George, thank you for stopping by my blog because that brought me over to yours and I am happy to find a kindred spirit- I too love gardening and poetry- I divide my time between outside in my zen gardens and greenhouse and inside in my studio- and I love this poem Layers-- I named my blog 'layers' to represent the layers of paint I love to put into my work, and 'layers' in life...

  3. To Donna,

    Thanks for the comments. What a coincidence that I discovered your site, "Layers," on the same day that I was writing the posting about Kunitz's poem. I didn't make the connection until you mentioned it. In any event, I look forward to following your blog. Thanks for the visit.

  4. To Bonnie,

    I'm glad that you, too, are moved by "The Layers," and I like your description of its "stark yet reconciled reality." i know of no greater skill than that of knowing how to deal with the inevitable losses in life. When that is mastered, to the extent it can be, life becomes much more hopeful.

  5. "Live in the layers, not in the litter." Beautiful wisdom. Thank you for featuring a great American poet.

  6. San,

    You are welcome. When one discovers something wise and wonderful, it's always nice to share it with others.

  7. This is the first time I have come across Stanley Kunitz, his poem is beautifully written.