Study Guide

The Layers

By Stanley Kunitz

The Layers Introduction

Have you ever entered an ancient building and felt like history was eerily alive in there, and that you were suddenly "in touch" with the past? Stanley Kunitz's 1978 poem, "The Layers," gives us that same eerie-yet-awesome feeling. The poem travels through past happenings and internal reflections before arriving at a transformation. Gear up for a mind-bending ride!

Kunitz is no stranger to epiphanies or insight. In fact, he sees poetry as a type of mythology, telling stories of past adventurers for readers to experience firsthand.

But who exactly is this Kunitz guy? Though he might not be on the literary radar like Dickinson or Whitman, he's got quite an impressive resume. He received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Harvard before teaching at colleges like Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. In addition to a slew of other accolades, Kunitz was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2000. He's known for weaving imagination with real-world experiences, such as growing up in a broken home, serving in World War II, and living close to nature. First published in 1978, "The Layers" is a prime example of the awe-inducing power of Kunitz's poetry, transporting us to other dimensions and allowing us to see the bigger picture of life, the universe, and all that good stuff.

What is The Layers About and Why Should I Care?

Old people are, well, old, and often overlooked, but let's face it—they've been on some crazy adventures (World Wars, the vinyl records era, and driving cars that get 15 mpg). Some elderly folk actually build off their experiences and increase their awesomeness with age (instead of turning into curmudgeons). Not to mention the fact that they possess that little thing called wisdom. And if we sit down to talk to them, they can have absolutely brilliant things to say.

Case in point: If a Jedi Master could come back as a poet, he would be Stanley Kunitz. That's because Stanley can harness the force like nobody's business. The significance of "The Layers" is summed up nicely by Yoda, "Through the Force, things you will see. Other places. The future... the past. Old friends long gone." What a trip. This poem reflects on a universal journey of life that we can all relate to. What makes it unique though is the authentic and dynamic delivery. The cases are real. The people are real. The rulings are final. Well, nothing is really final, but that's kind of the point. "The Layers" shows us that even when we're facing death, or a bad breakup, or finals week, we have an abundance of possibilities ahead of us. Life is a roller coaster but we don't have to be nauseous; we can lean into the curves and roll with it.

Still not convinced of this poem's epic-ness? Consider these questions:

Ever thought about why we feel like many people all wrapped inside of one? Read this poem.
Ever wondered why bad experiences happen to us and what we could possibly learn from them? Definitely read this poem.
Ever seen a picture of Stanley Kunitz at 100 years young? Google it and read this poem. He's the spitting image of Yoda. We're talking dead-on—not green, but otherwise, dead-on.

The Layers Resources

Websites

Foundational Kunitz
Here's a comprehensive biography as well as links to forty poems.

The Academy of American Poets
Check out another source for background info with poems to check out.

More Fodder
Here's one more resourceful website with a bio, quotes, and poems.

Video

Watch Stanley Read
Here's an awesome video of Kunitz reading his work accompanied by an equally awesome quote concerning his take on poetry. (The likeness to Yoda... can you see it?)

Interview
This video interview and reading with Gregory Orr is a must see.

Audio

Kunitz Reads "The Layers"
Is it everything you hoped for?

Another Reading on NPR
This NPR page provides "The Long Boat" in audio and text formats. Before Stanley starts to read, he says, "Everybody knows I'm not a youngster… and that's all right with me." Priceless.

Images

Writing Old-School Style
This is how real writers used to get it done.

His Slightly Younger Years
Okay, okay, let's be fair. This pic is pre-nineties—pre-ninety years old that is.

Articles and Interviews

The Paris Review
Here's a Paris Review interview from 1977 with Chris Busa.

The Atlantic in Awe
This article from The Atlantic captures Kunitz as a visionary.

Books

The Collected Poems
Check out The Collected Poems, last reprinted in 2002, including "The Layers."

Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected
Want more? Here's another book of his collected works.

The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden
Kunitz is in his element. Check out these reflective, wise poems centered around nature.