Study Guide

The Layers Analysis

  • Sound Check

    This poem is meditative and reflective in tone, by and large, but that makes the dynamic moments screech all the louder. When the speaker gets emotionally stirred-up in this poem, we can hear it—like in this exclamatory cry of grief: "My tribe is scattered!" (19), and in this hyper-dramatic question: "How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?" (20-21). These little sound dynamos give the poem a nice ebb and flow. They keep the poem eventful without overstaying their welcome (who wants to read a poem full of shouting, after all?).

    In terms of wordplay that titillates the tongue, there are a couple gems to note. Repetition takes place in line 26, "Yet I turn, turn," and lines 28-29, "with my will intact to go, / wherever I need to go." Since these repeated words are all bunched together within four lines, they pack an even greater kick, enacting the very qualities they are describing: changing, turning, and moving forward.

    Similarly, line 37, "Live in the layers," and line 38, "not on the litter," employ slant rhyme and also contain alliteration with recurring, initial L sounds. If we count the syllables in line 37 and line 38, we see that they each contain five syllables. These techniques combine to give the lines a catchy ring and cadence (or rhythm), making them stand out in our ears as a key takeaway for both speaker and reader.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Life isn't cut-and-dry; it's complicated. Kunitz shows that complexity by calling this poem "The Layers," which comes directly from lines 37-38: "Live in the layers, / not in the litter." Instead of using the whole line, "Live in the layers," as the title, Kunitz takes a more subtle approach. He's not telling us what to do, he's letting us experience "The Layers" for ourselves and pull our own meanings from the text.

    Most things are not as they appear on the surface and the truth lies somewhere below.

    Kunitz is tapping into these interior crevasses to broaden our perspectives on how life works and what's possible. Consciousness and memory are "in the layers," so to speak, and this poem dives right in.

  • Setting

    Setting is a little tricky because the entire poem takes place in the speaker's mind. With that said, he does reflect on several vague places. Kunitz presents us with a speaker who's been traveling far and wide, so it makes sense that he wouldn't be stuck in one locale. There's also no exact time period indicated by the setting, since this speaker is supposed to be sort of "timeless" in his existence. The poem starts off with the speaker metaphorically walking through "many lives." This internal setting sets the stage for a poem revolving around consciousness.

    A couple outdoorsy environments follow, with "milestones dwindling toward the horizon" and fires "trailing from the abandoned camp-sites." These give us a feeling of distance in terms of space as well as the speaker being very disconnected from other people, places, and things. Honestly, we don't know if these are real or made-up places, but for the sake of this poem, that's not crucial info.

    Midway through the poem, we step into conceptual territory, but physical details reemerge as the speaker roams "through wreckage" on a moonless night. Overall, setting functions as a vehicle for metaphor. Imagery is used to enact how the speaker feels about his past and present life instead of describing any particular landscape.

  • Speaker

    This speaker is less of a main character and more of a universal voice (kind of like Yoda-speak, remember?). As mentioned in the "Detailed Summary," we're not given any specific details about who he is or where he comes from (or if he's even a "he"). This allows us to focus on the conscious action taking place, or the journey through life, instead of who's at the wheel. The speaker dominates the text, however, with all but two lines being in first person, making the poem personal yet global in its reach. Because he's an "everyman," we can easily put ourselves in his shoes and read the poem as a blanket script concerning the human condition.

    We might not know where he's from (or if his name's Joe, or Luis, or Margaret), but the content of the poem gives us plenty of insight about his thought process (or how he operates) and his priorities in life. The poem illuminates the speaker's principled nature, his determination to move forward, and his reliance on metaphysical answers to life's challenges. These seem to be attributes that Kunitz holds in high regard and wants to communicate to his audience.

    What also know that the speaker's had one heck of a long life and he's fit for further travel (at least he's got the mental fortitude and gumption for it).

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    On first glance, "The Layers" seems like an easy climb. It's not full of huge, obscure words and we can get the gist of it. With further review, however, we find that the content is dense and weighty. There's a subtext smorgasbord to be had, we're talking consciousness, mortality, and the human condition, to name a few. This is a thinking-caps poem and it might help to light an incense stick.

  • Calling Card

    Back to Surreality

    Kunitz tends to use plain, direct language yet somehow manages to pack in a variety of meanings. His poems feel grounded yet they also float around in a liminal, conceptual space. He mixes concrete images with abstractions, so even heady ideas are tethered down. Consider "The Layers" for example: one moment we're looking at camp-sites and the next a crazy-cloud voice is delivering a Zen koan.

    Stylistically, Kunitz is a brave soul. He uses pure, succinct lines without shying away from complexity (or the occasional, emotional outburst). These pointed lines still have an organic movement, which probably stems from his deep connection with nature.

    He loved writing, reading, and mentoring others until he was one hundred. Hints of that passion can be detected in "The Layers" from direct references to art and books, as well as the "lesson" portrayed by the end of the poem. Check out some other models of Kunitz's work, like "The Testing Tree" or "A Spark of Laurel".

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    We don't have much to say about form and meter because Kunitz has kept it simple in that department. His earlier works were actually more formal (employing metrical feet and traditional structures), but not so in 1978, when this poem was published. "The Layers" is a free verse poem with no regular meter or rhyme scheme patterns. The entire poem is composed of forty-four lines in one long stanza. This structure echoes the theme of continuation as the lines meander along in a solid stream of text.

    The lines are short and sweet, but they combine to construct sentences with rather conventional punctuation. So while there is some enjambment (a phrase or clause carrying over a line break), many of the lines end with a punctuated pause. This creates three effects: the lines are direct (welcome to a flowery language no-fly zone), the poem moves at a steady pace despite the lack of multiple stanzas, but mainly the poem comes off as conversational in tone, direct and personal. This speaker is sharing something about his life with us, and we're invited into this discussion to listen.

  • Turning

    "The Layers" is rolling in change. Turning, or an object that turns, is important imagery, showcasing the transformation taking place in the poem, though it only occurs twice directly. Kunitz uses language that suggests a cyclical nature to life, without endings, only new beginnings. This idea is perfectly mirrored by the act of turning. See how it goes down in the following passages.

    • Line 16: Here, angels picking through the debris of the speaker's past "wheel on heavy wings." The word, "wheel," is being used creatively as a verb and as a symbol for both motion and change taking place. The scavenger angel's actions will play an essential role in the speaker's transformation to come. 
    • Line 26: The speaker says, "Yet I turn, I turn," a repetition of words expressing a shift in his internal state from despair to joy. Once he stops focusing on the fleeting things in life and starts concentrating on his core "principle"—he has renewed conviction to press on. This idea continues through line 29 with the speaker's "will intact" and another repetition of "go" occurring at the end of lines 28 and 29. These lines enact a clear shift in direction and show change, or transformation, in the form of forward motion.
  • External vs. Internal Worlds

    Throughout the poem, there's a stark contrast between how the external (or surface) world is described and how the internal (or conscious) world of the speaker is portrayed. Kunitz is establishing a compelling juxtaposition (side-by-side comparison) between these two spaces. The external world is filled with fleeting, decaying, and messy things (a big pile of death and destruction, basically). On the other hand, the internal world of the speaker is filled with constant, renewing, and centered things (dare we say immortal and everlasting?).

    • Line 4: The first constant and positive force appears here with "principle of being." This could be a nifty way of saying, "Be true to yourself." It also suggests aligning with deeper, otherworldly sources, and that comes to light as the poem develops.
    • Line 14: We don't know about you, but "abandoned camp-sites" trickling smoke into the air is imagery that carries bleak connotations for us. The idea of abandonment relates to some kind of ending or termination, like life was snuffed out or those living ran away (wow, that's depressing). 
    • Line 15: If scavengers eat dead things and angels are immortals from some celestial plane, then "scavenger angels" must be cleaning up the mortal mess left at those deserted camp-sites. It's not a pretty picture, but it's an apt way to say that transience is a drag.
    • Line 19: As the speaker considers his previous "earthly" attachments in life, he realizes that his "tribe is scattered." In other words, his old "affections" are strewn about and in disarray over many time periods and places. This is another example of the external world being characterized as "a mess" and there's more to come. 
    • Line 23: To make matters worse, the speaker's dead friends are described as "manic dust" that blows around and stings his face. Dust, or ash, swirling is yet another metaphor for a superficial life being chaotic and without direction. Manic dust sure doesn't sound like a happy way to go.
    • Line 28: When the speaker turns away from the "manic dust" of his old friends, he's no longer sad but stoked, with his "will intact" to carry on. A strong will (defined as the faculty of conscious or deliberate action) is universally associated with a steadfast, centered, and productive perspective. 
    • Line 34: Back on the surface, when the speaker recalls losing his way, he must navigate "through wreckage." Wreckage is synonymous with (or the same thing as) a trash heap of stuff that's been destroyed. Abandoned places, manic dust, and now wreckage? Bad times, gang.
    • Line 37: Instructions don't get more frank than "Live in the layers" falling from a voice in the sky. Note how "layers" and the adverb "in" imply seeking interior depth for positive guidance here.
    • Line 38: On the flipside of the coin, line 38 follows with "not on the litter." Note how "litter" and the adverb "on" serve as an analogy for superficial life being full of unnecessary, negative debris. (See "Sound Check" for an elaboration on the slant rhyme, cadence, and alliteration up in here.)
    • Line 42: This last metaphor in the poem is a constant, just chillin' in the internal, conscious side of space. The speaker's "book of transformations" stands for a life of continuous growth and renewal to look forward to. Where's the death and dismay? Oh yeah, this is the "happy place."
  • Stones

    Back in the day, stones were commonly used to construct major roads for travel. We still have phrases that reference that relationship. In "The Layers," stone imagery occurs twice, which is no coincidence. Kunitz utilizes the parallels between stones, time, and distance to reflect on the journey of life from the speaker's perspective.

    • Line 11: "Milestones" are shrinking as they approach the horizon, symbolizing the great distance the speaker has traveled over a long period of time. The speaker has lived "many lives" after all, and he's now approaching a unique crossroads. He can pass further milestones (also known as turning points or life stages) by applying the knowledge he's gained so far, or he can dwell in the past and halt his progress. Although milestones are functioning in some capacity as physical objects, they're primarily intended as imagery to mark the expansiveness of the speaker's conscious journey. 
    • Line 30-31: In these lines, the speaker says that he cherishes "every stone on the road" that has led him to where he is today. Previously in the poem, the speaker was struggling over hardships in his past. Now, he's embracing all of his life experiences as learning experiences. Each "stone" is a metaphor for a life experience, leading him one step closer to a vibrant and internally fulfilling future.
    • Steaminess Rating


      There might be some death happening in this poem, but none of it's gory, and it's definitely not hot. This guy is old and stuff.