Skunk Hour

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'Skunk Hour' is one of Robert Lowell's most frequently anthologized poems. It was published in his groundbreaking book of poems, Life Studies, and is regarded as a key early example of Confessional poetry.[1]

Composition[edit]

'Skunk Hour' was the final poem in Life Studies, but it was the first to be completed.[2] Lowell began work on the poem in August 1957, and the poem was first published, alongside the poems "Man and Wife" and "Memories of West Street and Lepke" in the January 1958 issue of the Partisan Review.[3]

He describes the writing of it thus: "I began writing lines in a new style. No poem, however, got finished and soon I left off and tried to forget the whole headache. ... When I began writing 'Skunk Hour', I felt that most of what I knew about writing was a hindrance. The dedication is to Elizabeth Bishop, because re-reading her suggested a way of breaking through the shell of my old manner."[4] The poem was in part based on Bishop's poem "Armadillo" and Lowell wrote that "her rhythms, idiom, images, and stanza structure seemed to belong to a later century... Both 'Skunk Hour' and 'The Armadillo' use short line stanzas, start with drifting description, and end with a single animal."[5]

In the same essay, Lowell describes the setting as "a declining Maine sea town. I move from the ocean inland."[6]

References[edit]

The poem makes reference to The New Testament, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and to the song "Careless Love." Lowell notes that stanzas V and VI reference "John of the Cross's poem."[7]

Interpretation[edit]

During his Guggenheim Reading from 1963, Lowell notes that there have been conflicting interpretations of the final image of skunks in the poem. He states that "Richard Wilbur said that [the skunks] were delightful creatures. . . and John Berryman wrote. . .[that the skunks] were utterly terrifying, catatonic creatures." Lowell concludes that "both [interpretations] could be right." [8]

Sources[edit]

  • Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, University of Michigan, 1988
  • Twentieth-Century American Poetry by Christopher Beach, Cambridge University Press, 2003

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Groundbreaking Books from Poets.org website.Poets.org
  2. ^ Robert Lowell in conversation with Al Alvarez, printed originally in The Review #8, August 1963, pages 36 – 40, and then collected in Ian Hamilton's The Modern Poet (1969), also included in Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs, edited by Jeffrey Meyers, University of Michigan, 1988.
  3. ^ Lowell, Robert. "On 'Skunk Hour'." Collected Prose. New York: FS&G, 1987.
  4. ^ Ostroff, Anthony, The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1964. pages 107 – 110, quoted in Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, edited by Lloyd Schwartz, Sybil P Estess, University of Michigan, 1983.
  5. ^ Lowell, Robert. "On 'Skunk Hour'." Collected Prose. New York: FS&G, 1987. 227.
  6. ^ Lowell, Robert. "On 'Skunk Hour'." Collected Prose. New York: 1987.
  7. ^ Lowell, Robert. "On 'Skunk Hour'." Collected Prose. New York: FS&G, 1987. 226.
  8. ^ Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Guggenheim Poetry Reading. Academy of American Poets, 1963. 88 minutes.

External links[edit]