Jul 1, 2011

Robert Lowell, "Skunk Hour"

As I try to make these posts shorter, they get ridiculously, offensively longer. I apologize. But I’ve never really wrestled with a Robert Lowell poem, and what I’ve come up with interests me too much to stuff it in the sea chest at the foot of the bed.  So please feel especially free to quit early, at the end of Part One, or even earlier, or come back more than once  (you might want to look at my last two or three paragraphs in Part Two, as I try to wrap it all up). Now you have the apology that writers are never supposed to offer.

Part One

Robert Lowell (1917-77) is often considered the first confessional poet. He was a literary soul mate of Elizabeth Bishop, as well as a teacher of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.  It’s high time I gave him some attention, so here is “Skunk Hour,” which, Wikipedia tells us, he wrote as a response to Bishop’s poem, “Armadillo.”  (Wikipedia is good again for a biographical intro to Lowell).

 First a minor point of fact:  Nautilus Island (which is currently for sale, by the way) consists of 37 acres close to the Maine shoreline, south of Bangor and west of Bar Harbor. It sounds like a fitting getaway spot for a descendant of prominent New England Puritans, which Robert Lowell was.  He also struggled with manic-depression.

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

Although I'll argue that the skunks save the poem in the end, I have some concerns about “Skunk Hour,” chief of which is the absence of causes for the speaker’s neurasthenic soul, the emptiness and depression at the heart of the poem. We see only the effects, the morose mood itself, not its origins. Psychiatry has known for awhile now that depression is a largely biochemical matter, so I’m probably wrong to ask what’s bothering the speaker. But I think the poem wants me to feel with him, on his side,  about his island and the state of things, and for that I simply need more information, whether or not it’s a reasonable request.

We are asked to feel the haunt of the matriarchal spirit of the “hermit heiress,” queen of the island. But If I’m to accept her cloud over him, I need to know more about both characters.

If I’m to see lovers resembling the hulls of boats or if I’m to care about the disappearance of some spry millionaire in L.L. Bean attire—if I’m to feel emptiness, decay and death in everything on Nautilus Island, I need to know and feel the reasons for such psychic fatigue. Unmotivated ennui may be a psychiatric fact, but it is not a literary birthright, a condition we should feel because some poem’s speaker feels it.  The writer has to make us empathize, and that’s my major reservation about "Skunk Hour," in spite of some compelling imagery and phrasing.

Stanza 6 seems self-indulgent in that we don’t know why the speaker has an “ill-spirit” that sobs, even as his own hand tries to strangle that spirit. 
I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,                    
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
nobody's here--
There is a spare vigor and interest in this language, but we don’t know why “I myself am hell,/nobody’s here.”   Can we share his mood merely he's declaring it for us, or are we justified in insisting that the speaker explain what’s got him down? Citing chemical imbalance is not much help to witnesses standing by, wondering what went wrong—maybe even wondering how they might have helped.

Casual readers may now prefer to skip to the end of Part Two  (or just go outside and play).


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

Now I want to look at Lowell’s poem as a piece of writing.

First is a basic mechanical issue. Lowell surely understood the differences between commas as opposed to semicolons and dashes, so I don’t see why we need comma splices breeding like bunnies. Poetic license needs a rationale, and it's hard to find one one for the punctuation in “Skunk Hour.”

Nor do I see a rationale for the spaghetti-long lines here and there, which seem arbitrarily different from the poem’s overall line length and structure. Is there some hidden significance to these markedly longer lines? 

Are they solely for the purpose of rhyme? In the first stanza, Lowell could have a natural end rhyme in winter and farmer,  but he chooses cottage-village-dotage. That trio is more interesting and compelling, but should he artificially, intrusively stretch Line 2 to achieve that interest?  Lowell probably won’t go to Hell for his choice, but the guys at the coffee shop might call him erratic.

Similarly, in Stanza 7, “spar spire” strikes me as artificial and self-indulgent. I suppose a spar and a spire might loosely resemble each other, but to me it feels like an excess in word play that jumps up and down, out of control, screaming, “Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m  Bob and I’m a Word Play! I’m playing with sound!  I’m double-alliteration and internal half-rhyme, all in one pair of words! Look at me! I’m practically running with scissors!”

I'm inclined to say, “Sit down and shut up, kid.  You look like you’re just some hyperactive poetic device strutting around to give high school kids something to write about.”  Once again, it’s the artifice, intrusion, and self-indulgence that bother me. Every poet does it, but they don’t get away with it every time.

On the speaker’s back steps, there is suddenly a reference to “our,” and I wonder to whom this refers. The speaker and his wife? Shouldn’t we know? Is this an iconic New England family porch that’s being encroached upon by the striped bearers of stink?  Or are the humans just some teachers or social workers who have rented here for a week? 

I also wonder if “rich” air is a bit blatant as the set-up for a second introduction of the skunks.

But it’s also here that I start to like the poem and care about its situation, if not its speaker. I don’t dislike him; I just don’t know him well enough to care a lot about his mood. Most importantly, I don't know if I trust his dour take on things. 

“Rich air” joins other images of the genteel, or at least mainstream notes of tradition and conventionality that are being menaced by that “wedge-head” of a mother skunk and her “column”  of illegitimate offspring.  "Column."  Of skunk pups. What a great word! Does it imply a Roman column?  That stink-bearing curiosity of a beast approaches with her bastard children, their tails both casual and triumphantly high. They know they’ll get what they want; they don’t need to hurry.  Tromp, tromp. March, march. Like cockroaches, maybe skunks are the soul of inevitability.

I wonder about describing one animal’s tail by comparing it to another animal’s tail. Is the ostrich contributing any pictorial element that’s really necessary, or even helpful? Is the need for any comparison urgent enough to clarify an American skunk by calling forth a big Australian bird? 

But on the whole, the final two, or even three, stanzas are so strong that I’ll concede to Lowell his skunk-ostrich as the nocturnal monster of choice.  Also, I like the poet’s earlier, unusual use of “shelves” and the direct, understated complexity of “My mind’s not right”:

    where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
    My mind's not right.

The “hill’s skull” might be a little precious, yet I like the death-resonance and the pictorial clarity more than I resist any self-consciousness in it.

So I have my reservations about “Skunk Hour,” but the final two stanzas pretty much win me over. Strolling skunks make a terrific nightmare metaphor for various menaces that march toward us and “will not scare.”  Their approach is a mini-apocalypse. Skunks might be only a fraction of our body mass, yet we’ll not oppose them if we’re unarmed; we’ll let them eat our sour cream. Maybe such a creature deserves our respect, or at least our anxiety.

Lowell’s odd, almost humorous little skunk mama and column of baby skunks on Main Street give us pause and make us more likely to surrender with the speaker to a vague but encompassing world-weariness. The heiress is invisible, houses are falling, her sons, the tourists, and the millionaire are gone, the "fairy decoratior" is dissatisfied with his orange work, lovers have become tipped boats, and it's fall, the season of old age on a deserted island. Maybe we can, after all, feel some of the speaker's emptiness, defeat, chaos, decay. And now, here come the skunks; the nights are alive with casually fearsome, small invaders--who want our trash.  Or else.

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


Unknown said...

What is to blame for his mood? He tells us: “I myself am hell,/nobody’s here.”  

But someone is there. The unexpected skunk pup. Lots of other wildness stirring that isn't immediately obvious.

I take this poem and Bishop's "The Moose" as buttoned-down Boston moments that have been liberated by the surprise of claws. And when the self includes that larger, more interesting "we", the poem -- and the poet -- makes his hay. The organic escape from prose.

Banjo52 said...

"buttoned-down Boston moments that have been liberated by the surprise of claws." Now THAT is good stuff! Thanks for hanging in, Some. Of course, it might have been your ref. to Lowell that started up my acoustic windbag.

I might understand "the organic escape from prose," but if you care to elaborate, I'm all ears.

gothpunkuncle said...

I'll admit that R.L. is one of those poets who I respect more than I enjoy, but I like this shift toward the personal, away from fare such as "Lord Weary's Castle." For me, it's enough that the speaker is troubled, enough that he's found himself more in step with the the solitary heiress than the young lovers in their cars. For me, the loneliness, the decline (I think it's fair to assume the distress at growing older) all come through. The sexuality of those musky critters with their litters, always in the shadows of polite society, always finding a little sour cream kind of amazes me here.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

neurasthenic..... how about a dictionary link? ok. back to the post

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I actually don't understood the differences between commas, semicolons and dashes. I like to put them in places I want you to pause or hook up a partial sentence or cause I like the way they look. Me bad.

My interpretation is that he's middle aged and lonely like the widow. He's jealous of youth and rather alienated by it. Maybe he likes the return of the wild in the form of Victorians in disrepair and the skunks taking over main street. What ever his intent, I think I could come to like any poem thats read by the author. His voice is appealing.

Banjo52 said...

Sounds as if we're all seeing and liking the same things. I'm not sure I've pinpointed--in the post or in my own head--what's limiting my enthusiasm for the poem's first half or two-thirds. I'll keep at it.

PA, I think I learned that word in Streetcar Named Desire. Or my Abnormal Psych course in college? I suspect I remembered it because it's long and fancy-sounding.

The punctuation? Ask me what I know about making visual art. Also, unfortunately, the only way I know to teach that punctuation includes going back to subject-verb stuff. And then after it's learned, hotshot poets come along and ignore it. In public! In the nude!

How's this: semicolons, like periods, are stronger than commas, and dashes are more sudden than commas.

Exclamation points are the sexiest, but they cannot be trusted.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Does his line "Her son's a bishop" refer to Elizabeth's surname? What does it mean???

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, one secondary source implied that he had that in mind. But what seems more central to the poem is the fact that he will not be carrying on the bloodline of the heiress--another form of emptiness on the island.

Lovers' Lane