Jul 10, 2011

Skunks Are Lovelier the Second Time Around: Robert Lowell Again

The Crooner Guards the Gate against Skunks

I realize I’m probably the only one still interested in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,”  but I checked some secondary sources on the poem and found some interesting commentary. I’m offering it up whether or not anyone reads or cares about it. Some would call that heroic on my part (don’t ask me who).  Others might offer “stubborn,” “tedious,” “obsessive,” “pedantic” . . . .

(For those who just can’t stand more skunk time, here again are those delightful cloggers from days of yore.  Some of you have expressed restrained pleasure as you watched. However, I want to travel back there and live in that house, and watch them dance 24/7.    Or do I???).  

YouTube - ‪Best Bluegrass Clog Dancing Video Ever Made

Here is the poem, in case someone does want to think about it again.

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

First, there’s the matter of Lowell’s “fairy decorator,” which I ignored because I was stumped. I couldn’t believe that even in the 1950s a man of Lowell’s stature could get away with such flagrant gay-bashing, or would want to. Aren’t artists and intellectuals more enlightened than that? Isn’t there a higher percentage of gays in those circles than in the general population?  Wasn’t Elizabeth Bishop, a lesbian, his good friend? Well, I'm a child again; maybe I'm getting used to it. 

So I was working for an alternate meaning in “fairy decorator.” Not only did I fail to find one, but also several sources, including Lowell himself, were casual and confident about the derogatory interpretation of “fairy.”  So the reference to the decorator’s desire for a wife means he wants to marry for money rather than working for it. Or maybe he wants that desperately to appear more conventional—that is, heterosexual.

Autumn Decay
In either case, his desire to suppress his identity is another sign of decay and emptiness on the mostly abandoned Nautilus Island.  Further, his orange nets suggest he’s more concerned with flashy designs than functional fishing equipment, which the store sold in the island's good old days. 

My second problem with the poem was my inability to feel involved in its first half or two-thirds. I couldn't figure out why I didn't care about the speaker or the island. So I was glad to read Marjorie Perloff's point that those opening stanzas reflect an elitist East Coast mentality, including a preoccupation with lost status—an heiress, a bishop, a spiffy millionaire. As for the poem's homophobia, she quotes gay poet Frank O'Hara in a 1965 interview: "'Lowell has . . a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you're supposed to be interested because he's supposed to be so upset.'" (http://marjorieperloff.com/reviews/lowell-return/)

The speaker of the last three or four stanzas comes across as a more mainstream human with a more universal vulnerability, which has little or nothing to do with social status. Whether you cheer for some peculiar animal charm in the skunks or relate to the alienated speaker, his unease about the approach of skunks is something most people might identify with.

(Except for humans who keep skunks as pets, which is more common than I knew. See Wikipedia on skunk pets).

Okay, that’s still too long, but who’s still reading anyway?  Please make a big red Burpee mark on your computer screen at the place where you lost interest and quit.  

And yet I wish all a happy Monday.  May your banjo stay tuned.  May it thrill to every pluck.




-K- said...

So glad you found the O'Hara quote which, to be honest, is about all I know about Lowell.

And I'm guessing you know about the O'Hara/Lowell confrontation that resulted in O'Hara's "Lana Turner" poem.

Banjo52 said...

No, K, I don't. Is it easy to google?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

benign neglect is the last station before nostalgia

Anonymous said...

Perhaps skunks are the most civilized of all creatures. When in life and death situations, they don't tear, claw, shoot, bomb, bite, draw blood. All they do is fart. And it works.

Brenda's Arizona said...

So, Banjomyn, as our professor - profess to us: does the voice in a poem need to stay the same? Not the cadence, but the theme/tone/story?

A long poem is much easier to follow, to read, when it goes from point A to point B. Or when the poet stays on task. But as a teacher, a lover of poems, do you rate poems by their follow through? Or does it all come down to personal preference?
Are the last few stanzas of this poem disassociated from the beginning? Does it matter in a poem?

I'm with AH here. My uncles were all drinkers and farters. Cause and effect? They solved their problems with a bottle and a fart. What can I say.

Skunks have a way about 'em...

Banjo52 said...

This is becoming profound and malodorous.

PA, that applies to Lowell's Nautilus Island? Yes or no, it's a very interesting proposition. Is it yours or a quotation? Very deep. Seriously.

AH, I don't think you're properly reverent, but I like it. Maybe you can persuade Republican leaders that they need not bomb, bite, chew, draw blood since they're already farting out their mouths day in, day out, every breath a hater's delight, a dead-end defoliant, enemy of joy.

On the other hand, Brenda's uncles know how to fart and make everyone happy.

Did I digress?

Brenda, How can I respond to all that? You shouldn't do unto me what I do unto you. Who said THAT was fair? Just kidding. I love those questions and I tried to respond, but it got long--can you imagine? Me? Get windy? (to sustain our central metaphor . . .)

So I might turn my responses into another post. If not, I'll put them back here. Can you hold the phone for a bit? I also want to look into the thing K brought up, above.

You folks are really sharp on this.

Also, re: the other day, I'm wondering about a post that invites readers to send in their favorite (and/or worst) endings in fiction or poetry. Would it be interesting enough to work?

Brenda, I haven't re-read it yet, so this is iffy: I wonder if Yeats' "Circus Animals' Desertion" is another example of a changing voice within one poem. I seem to remember not caring much about its almost academic-sounding middle, but being blown away by its last few lines, which contain "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."


Lovers' Lane