by James McWilliams
Life Studies / From the Union Dead
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176pp
In 1958, The Partisan Review published Robert Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour.” This was a notable moment in American literary history. The poem was closely linked to Lowell’s friendship with Elizabeth Bishop. Reading and re-reading Bishop’s work allowed Lowell to escape, as he put it, “the shell of my old manner.” It is to her that he dedicates this poem.
“Skunk Hour” is worthy of close study because it captures Robert Lowell in the midst of creative transformation. He alters himself from a formal to a confessional poet in the middle of the poem. It happens “right before our eyes,” as one critic aptly put it.
What follows is my own stanza-by-stanza attempt to make sense of it. I’ve always loved this poem for the way it hits my ear, and the shifting imagery. But I’ve never really slowed down and tried to figure out why. This is what I’m doing here. My comments are italicized —jm———