Jul 13, 2011

Aristocrats and Skunks

A Litter of Aristocrats

In the visitor comments last time, Brenda’s Arizona tossed in a few large questions. They touch on important components of poetry and other writing, and they pose the still larger question for everyone, not just writers, "How does the way we speak affect what we say and the way we're heard?"

Skunk Hour- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Marjorie Perloff's comment about the speaker’s voice in “Skunk Hour” was part of a larger point:  Lowell is addressing things in both a public and private way. There are moments, says Perloff, “when Lowell wanted more than autobiography, wanted to write a poetry of witness, of cultural commentary and political assessment.”

The opening stanzas show Lowell expanding the poem into public concerns—Nautilus Island as a historical and sociopolitical place. By the end of the poem, Lowell has zoomed his lens to a more specific, smaller point of focus and a more personal voice.

I am not a skunk

Is constancy of voice and tone widely accepted as a requirement in a poem?  Surely it depends upon the poem’s need for such shifting or fluctuation. First, let’s remember that some kinds of constancy can become boring  and static.  Secondly, if there is fluctuation in voice, it might reflect the speaker’s character developing through the poem. Or maybe the situation changes in a way that requires him to change emotionally, speak differently, or shift to different kinds of imagery.  I think that happens in “Skunk Hour.”  Consider: we begin with an heiress, a bishop, a millionaire, and a gay merchant/decorator. We end with skunks—and a more or less anonymous speaker. Can we identify what has happened to take us from  A  to  B,  and does that begin to explain any changes in the speaker's voice, his way of being in his world?  

I find it hard to imagine a case in which an unmotivated, inexplicable change is purposeful, organic, and therefore acceptable. For me, “Skunk Hour” flirts with crossing that line, and because of that, I still don’t care about the speaker until the humanization of him, as I see it, in the last few stanzas.

Also, remember that my original comment was that I felt uninterested, left out, a bit clueless during those first seveal stanzas. I’m not much of a believer in heiresses, bishops. or millionaires in L.L. Bean attire. If the speaker misses them in some important way, how shall I make myself care?

I am not a skunk
Aristocrat Stalks Lovers in Parked Cars
So mine was a personal response—or lack of response—more than an analytical argument about a weakness in the poem, and the gap in communication may be my fault more than Lowell’s. This is one of the major poems of a major poet. But once I heard Marjorie Perloff agree that there was a change, something curious, if not downright wrong, a shift in the speaker from a sociological survey by an enervated aristocrat (more or less) to something like a plain old guy deserted by what he’s always known and encroached upon by skunks—then I felt better. Then I cared.



Ken Mac said...

a perfect title

Anonymous said...

I like where this is headed.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

funny thing, i cared because it all appears exotic to me. if the players were is some quasi sounding place (here it's New Port or Lido Island or one more developer trying to create an "arts district" and calling it the East Village.) I could follow the notion of ho hum, so what. this place is all Gray Gardens - Jackie o, Gore Vidal. Even the timber of speakers voice had me.

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