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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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".
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.
"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.
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?).
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.
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.