December 17, 2010

Poem and Prayer #5: Stanley Kunitz and Gerard Manley Hopkins (Part II)

Editor's Note: If you didn't read yesterday's opening post about these poets, please do so. You don't have to but it will provide context for what Martin Dickinson writes in today's post.

I hope you were able to make time to listen to Stanley Kunitz reading “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. 

Kunitz, who died in 2006 at age 101, was poet laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. An avid gardener, he maintained one of the best seaside gardens in Provincetown, Massachusetts where he lived half of every year. 

Gardening, itself a kind of inspiration, and the long journey of life are the triggering subjects of Kunitz’s poem “The Layers” (below), which appears in his final book, The Wild Braid, a beautiful memoir of his poetic and gardening life. 

Although Kunitz is not a devotional poet, with every breath of his verse something close to spiritual devotion awaits the reader. You can almost reach out and touch it.

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 the 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'm not done with my changes.

─ Stanley Kunitz

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