The Poem

“Skunk Hour” is written in free verse, but with a formal pattern of eight six-line stanzas (sestets) with a loosely regular rhyme scheme. The title suggests a particular hour in the day—the hour when skunks are likely to come out—and implies that this hour occurs on a regular basis. The title hints that time will be an important element in the poem.

Set in Maine, where Robert Lowell had a summer home, the poem begins by showing a series of events that denote a decaying society: The elderly heiress has bought up the houses facing hers and let them go to ruin; the millionaire has lost his money and auctioned off his yacht; the homosexual decorator has used the tools of fishing (net, cork, and awl) to brighten his shop. These events suggest that the human order has somehow gone wrong. They are narrated as one tells a story, in the third person. Although they are recounted in the present tense, in each case the action has already occurred.

Beginning with the fifth stanza, exactly halfway through the poem, the poet enters in the first person. (Lowell’s biography almost insists that the speaker and the poet be considered identical.) He remembers (in the past tense) “one dark night” when he drove his “Tudor Ford” up the hill to watch for lovers in their cars. In the only metaphor of the poem, he describes the cars as though they were boats, lying together “hull to hull.” He concludes, “My mind’s not right.” From this point...

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Forms and Devices

In Life Studies, 1959, Lowell broke from the formal verse for which he was already famous to write in free-verse lines. “Skunk Hour” is its final poem, unfolding in a pattern that exhibits Lowell’s sure sense of rhyme. A quick examination of each stanza reveals its particular variation. “Skunk Hour” is more a study in sound, however; with its dense, packed language, it is very difficult to read aloud. There is often evidence of an iambic beat, as though that were the ghost rhythm on which the poem was built. Examples of this rhythm are the moments when the speaker says “My mind’s not right” and the final line “and will not scare.”

Sound seems, somehow, to mirror meaning. The shift from a continuous past to an active present is marked by a shift of consonants. The early use of l sounds—the soothing sound of the past—changes, in the later stanzas, into a harsh, intense present dominated by r and k sounds. In addition, an urgency of accented syllables, or stresses, alters the tone of the poem as it moves into the present. “They march on their soles up Main Street:/ white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire” (with its many spondees) slows the voice for emphasis.

Shortly after seeing Allen Ginsberg read his poetry in San Francisco in March, 1957, Lowell began to feel that his own poems were stiff and humorless. In Life Studies, published two years later, he worked to make...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Cosgrave, Patrick. The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell. New York: Taplinger, 1970.

Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.

Mariani, Paul L. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Perloff, Marjorie G. The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Wallingford, Katherine. Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Williamson, Alan. Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.