Christina Davis

Mind's not right (PoemTalk #102)

Robert Lowell, 'Skunk Hour'

PoemTalk #102 was recorded in the Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, Harvard University. From left to right: Lisa New, Rafael Campo, Christina Davis.

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Al Filreis traveled to Harvard University and was hosted for this on-the-road episode of PoemTalk by the staff of the Woodberry Poetry Room (WPR) in Lamont Library, where Lisa New, Rafael Campo, and WPR Director Christina Davis joined him for a conversation about Robert Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour.” Probably Lowell’s most well-known poem, it was placed last in Life Studies (1959) but had been written first — and can be said to have inaugurated Lowell’s “looser” style, associated with his so-called “confessional” mode. When Lowell began composing “Skunk Hour,” he later recalled, “I felt that most of what I knew about writing was a hindrance.” Our conversation is taken up by the many conflicting aspects of that perceived hindrance. And on top of those there are, of course, the hindrances put up by the new, allegedly freeing style itself.

A slowing 1: Intraacting with absence

Some works give more. Often by giving less.  

Telling us what to think is not the same as moving the mind to think differently.  Powerful art can slow and stun us. The sense of a shock is something to shake off, and yet to draw the reader into silent attention – this is the power that moves us. The mind slows.  

I know when art makes me attend better to the world. How might we know the heart breaks – is it metaphor? – if the fissure was not made perceptible? How would we understand the pain of loss if we could not sense absence? There is the hollow, the what-is-not-there. This is the stuff of slowing.

We interact, react.  In this both/and simultaneity of art the experience is “intraactive,” in the words of Karen Barad

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