Much of our discussion focused on “Skunk Hour,” his most memorable, and perhaps most frequently analyzed poem in his book Life Studies which won the National Book Award in 1960.
Here is the poem:
By Robert Lowell
(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.
Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour” from Life Studies. Copyright © 1956, 1959 by Robert Lowell, renewed © 1987 by Harriet W. Lowell, Sheridan Lowell, and Caroline Lowell. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.
Source: Life Studies (1987)
This is a rich and startling poem, one that has often been interpreted as autobiographical and confessional. You can find one such article by Troy Jollimore http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/179983#guide.
Here’s what Lowell said about it.
“I found the bleak personal violence [of the last stanza of the poem] repellent. All was too close, though watching the lovers was not mine, but from an anecdote on Walt Whitman in his old age. I began to feel that real poetry came, not from fierce confessions, but from something almost meaningless, bur imagined."
Lowell on “ Skunk Hour,” in The Poet and his Critics III, a symposium edited by Anthony Ostroff, New World Writing 21, 1962, 109-10. from Robert C. Elliott, The Literary Persona, U of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 86-87.
And below is the section of Whitman’s Song of Myself where some critics argue that Whitman disguises himself as a woman so as to gaze in secret on a group of naked male bathers and that he is the voyeur of the poem.
Song of Myself, Walt Whitman, 1892
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
Lowell was an amazingly prolific poet, distinguished for “the astonishing variety in his work.”
In one of his last poems, “Loneliness” the poet reflects on his life and his work.
Loneliness (from Last Poems, 1977)
A stonesthrow off
seven eider duck
float and dive in their watery commune . . .
a family, though not a marriage –
we have learned not to share.
so by ourselves and calm this summer,
I would wish to live forever,
like the small boy on the wharf
marching alone, far ahead of the others,
still anxiously flapping
their particolored sails in the calm.