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.