#52 “Skunk Hour” (Robert Lowell)

Poem #52 on the Countdown, Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” is related to a couple that we’ve read already this semester. It is the direct counterpart to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Armadillo”, and it’s similar in setting (though worlds apart in tone) to Marianne Moore’s “Steeple-Jack”.

Lowell and Bishop wrote these two poems to and for each other, almost as a challenge match. The results are more remarkable than any writing challenge since William Cowper wrote “The Task.” “The Armadillo” is simple and austere (too austere for some of our tastes). “Skunk Hour” is all over the place. It starts in some tiny shore community, full of safe, fussy people. There’s even a church spire! But the safe, fussy people are down-at-heel. The place is full of “eyesores,” its local curiosities “auctioned off,” its “fairy decorator” (the one regrettably dated note of homophobia in the poem) unable to earn a living.

As if giving the lie to Moore’s suggestion that “it could not be dangerous” to live in this kind of town, the speaker of Lowell’s poem goes lavishly out of his mind. As with “The Armadillo,” the poem is titled by and works around to an animal. Again, I think it’s more a literal animal than an emblematic animal. It’s just a skunk, one of the most common North American creatures. Skunks are more comical than dangerous, though their capacity for annoyance is not to be underrated. The skunks that Lowell’s speaker sees don’t threaten him directly. But they seem to have a mind of their own, zombie-like. I especially like the way they get into, mess around with, and otherwise take part in the margins of human lifestyles. Their unhumanness seems a perfect, desperate counterpoint to the speaker’s psychological predicament: to, if you like, his melancholy.

The form of the poem is free verse (no attention to rhyme or meter, just to how the sentences break across the lines). The mode is “confessional,” a mode we’ll see again in the countdown. I wouldn’t conclude from the term that confessional poets open their veins directly onto the page. All poetry is dramatic to some extent. The poet creates a persona, a speaker / character / mask, and lets that persona do the talking. A poem works when we are fascinated by, and identify with, that persona.

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3 responses to “#52 “Skunk Hour” (Robert Lowell)

  1. This poem actually made a lot of sense to me. In my opinion, this whole poem is about boredom. The man in this poem probably lived in this old beach town, that used to be popular, but is now pretty vacant. He has probably lived there his whole life. The poem talks about a man wondering around this town in search of finding life. He states the the millionaires have moved out. There’s no one to see kissing at the top of the hill. This man is just trying to find something to do! I think the only way for him to solve that is by moving!!

  2. firewaterboi321

    Although I didn’t completely understand Lowell’s meaning in this poem, the overall sense I felt was of loneliness. This feels like a loneliness that comes when there is nothing left to believe or understand. The “fairy decorator” works to no end, maybe wanting to find a rich wife to marry? The “hermit heiress” tries to buy up all the “eyesores” but to no avail. The narrator’s “watching love-cars” on the hill points to a very unusual (or deviant) behavior which we call stalking, and he even states “My mind’s not right.” Is this his realization of his own deviance or is this more of a statement of a fact without any sort of hope? Skunks are generally annoying (or irritating) but don’t really harm anyone. Are the skunks a metaphor for being socially isolated just for being one’s self? It seems as though Lowell is comparing this sense of isolation and loneliness to the lives of skunks in the town. They “march” in the town and refuse to be driven off by scare tactics, insisting on simply “being” what they are.

  3. I believe this poem is describing someones death and the day of their funeral. I think the writer is trying to describe how the day went and how lonely people felt. This poem puts me in a sad mood because it talks about death. The poem is a little hard to understand. The poet writes the poem to make a person think. This poem can have different meanings for different people. I think it gives eberyone a sense of loneliness.

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