Skunk Hour #
Robert Lowell’s acknowledgement of his emotional and psychological fragility is his strength, not his weakness.
Lowell is often considered the doyen of what is called “Confessional Poetry” in the tradition of Gerard Manly Hopkins.
Kay Redfield Jamison in “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character”, claims though he became a public person, he was never a public poet; he was, instead, a figure beheld in contemplation, working out the meanings of his thinking in plain view with what Joyce Carol Oates called Lowell’s ironic dignity”.
Dan Chiasson’s The Illness and Insight of Robert Lowell, brings clinical expertise to the poet’s case.
In his poetry, Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder), his marital problems, or his stay (one of many) in a mental hospital, or even other people’s private letters, on open display.
It is interesting that he became a mentor to a former student, Sylvia Plath, who too refused to become a passive victim, rather a defiant indomitable spirit of resistance; expressing her pain and “her cries from the heart”. Another student, Elizabeth Bishop, with her demons, prefers to objectify her issues behind the protective mask of universal experience. Lowell was exempt from Bishop’s outrage over the dominating School of Anguish, as she scornfully called them - “the self-pitiers.” In an interview for a Time cover story on Lowell, in 1967, she was careful to implicate only his imitators when she said, “You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.”
Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee stresses that though Louise Glück’s voice “is candid and uncompromising and signals that this poet wants to be understood. She has humour and biting wit. Her unmistakeable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.
*“Even if her autobiographical background is significant in her works, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. She seeks universality …striving for clarity, three characteristics unite to reoccur in her works: the topic of family life, an austere but also playful intelligence, and a refined sense of composition.” *
Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell’s second wife, a figure of equanimity and patience, remarked of Lowell that he seemed to like women writers. Though they had a daughter, Harriet, and were both writers, they had an unsettled marriage over thirty years, and at the end, lecturing in England, he moved in with for Lady Caroline Blackwood, an heiress to the Guinness fortune, moved into a manor house in England, and had a child. When this too didn’t pan out, he flew back to Boston, caught a cab to Hardwick’s flat where he died of a heart attack.
In 1954, Lowell had spent three weeks in the locked ward of Payne Whitney Clinic in New York City. In recovery, at the suggestion of his psychiatrist, Lowell began his writing, marked by “images and ironic or amusing particulars.” Particulars were not symbols; Lowell had found a way to write that did not require him to shunt every detail into cosmic significance. He had found a tone that implied pity, acceptance, and nostalgia, mild emotions that could be sustained across the arc of a narrative. Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire.
Skunk Hour #
(For Elizabeth Bishop)
Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Poetic technique in Skunk Hour #
Skunk Hour, *is a poem Lowell wrote in 1957 in answer to Elizabeth Bishop’s The Armadillo. Both poems use animals to represent aspects of the human condition. The Armadillo can be read as an allegory of the innocent civilian victims of the bombing raids of WWII that Lowell refused to accept so spent five months in prison as a conscientious objector.
Like most modern poets, Lowell struggles with breaking out of the formalist traditions. Aristotle quipped that “rules are made for the guidance of the wise, and the blind obedience of fools". Chaucer also knew how to follow a code of manners without becoming a slave to it. Robert Frost claimed: “Free verse is like playing tennis without a net”
In an interview with Frederick Seidel, Lowell admits he “began to have a certain disrespect for the tight form, regularity seems to ruin the honesty of the sentiment and become rhetorical, taking away from the creativity. The problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel”.
Lowell claims he finished the poem in about a month. “It was written backwards, first the last two stanzas then the next to last two. I found the bleak personal violence too repellent. All was too close, though watching the lovers was not mine, but from an anecdote about Walt Whitman in his old age. I began to feel that real poetry came, not from fierce confessions, but from something almost meaningless but imagined.
*I was haunted by an image of a blue china doorknob. I never used the doorknob, or know what it meant, yet somehow it started the current of images in my opening stanzas. They were written in reverse order, and at last gave my poem an earth to stand on and space to breathe. *
The dedication is to Elizabeth Bishop, because re-reading her suggested a way of breaking through the shell of my old manner.
Her rhythms, idiom, images, and stanza structure seemed to belong to a later century. …’The Armadillo’ is a better poem. Both poems use short line stanzas, starts with drifting description and end with a single animal”.
Structure of Skunk Hour #
The eight stanzas can be seen as two parts, the first four stanzas deal with appraisals of his society and his own general disintegration. Lowell: *“a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town. I move from the ocean, inland. Sterility howls through the scenery, but I give a tone of tolerance, candour and randomness to the sad prospect. The composition drifts, the direction sinks out of sight into the casual, chancy arrangements of nature and decay. * It imbues an atmosphere of affluent lethargy, of an effete, directionless community. The wealthy can afford to buy their privacy.
All the drabness is contrasted to the bright vibrant colours of back drops; the “red fox stain” – autumn season and life? “orange cork, orange his cobbler’s bench”
The first part creates an atmosphere of eccentricity of the ageing, rich, reclusive, crumbling “Spartan cottage” in New England Tradition. It captures the break down of tradition, life-affirming culture giving way to crass materialism and conformism. The time, society and world is doomed - “The season’s ill” –“she’s in her dotage”.
Then it all comes alive in Stanza V and VI.
Rather than he, it is the pathetic fallacy of: “my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull.” (Golgotha?) He has stolen this situation of being a voyeur. The cars lay together like ships, “hull to hull”, where the graveyard shelves on the town”. What a distinctive image!
The oxymoronic song, “Love, O careless Love…” a traditional blues song, echoes his desperate isolation – “nobody’s here”.
Lowell then includes himself: “My mind’s not right”. It moves into the dark night of the soul – existential angst – Walpurgisnacht – “I myself am hell”. either paraphrases John Milton, or is an allusion to Mephistopheles from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.
Lowell confronts his destiny – an honest question of survival – a point at which it is so dark where one’s one free act is suicide. Man can live within this hell, or gain strength, like the skunk, by feeding on the garbage of our civilisation. Within this hell there is a reality of something better – he pulls himself up – “I stand on top/of our back steps and breathe the rich air”. The ambiguity arises with the word “rich”. Anyone who has been sprayed by a skunk knows how rich that can be.
The introduction of the skunk livens the scene by contrast. Their natural needs, contrast with our perverse needs. Their confidence is marked by the defiant verb “marched on their soles up Main Street, …under the chalk dry and spar spire/ of the Trinitarian Church”. Further the strong assertive verb, “jabs” and the bold purposeful defiant “and will not scare”. At least the Skunk with its “red fire eyes” know what it wants and with animal energy, is determined to go to any length to get it by living off the refuse of society. Is civilisation giving way to nature?
Though a secular exploration of the human condition, we can at least articulate our anxieties,- it references a lot of religious symbols and language.
“Her son’s a bishop”, hill’s skull, graveyard, “marched on their soles up Main Street, …under the chalk dry and spar spire/ of the Trinitarian Church”. Cumulatively it could imply the demise of established religion.
Lowell’s acknowledgement of his emotional and psychological fragility is his strength, not his weakness.
Between 1949 and 1964, a period that covers his second marriage, to Elizabeth Hardwick; the birth of their daughter, Harriet; and the publication of two of the most important books in the history of American poetry, “Life Studies” and “For the Union Dead,”** Lowell was hospitalized twelve times, usually for periods of several months.
Some of his best poems are pained audits of the damage he and those around him incurred as a result of his treating flesh-and-blood conflicts as clashes between allegorical opposites.