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. How to work through the unfree assumptions behind the island’s “fairy decorator” as a stock character? What exactly is the “hierarchic privacy” the poem mocks and at the same time seems to desire? Is such longing discernible in the poem’s portentous poetics? What inner theological struggle does the poem express and can the speaker draw from New England’s Puritan relationship to the land and indigenous languages a means of managing Miltonian sin? How open is the skunk as a symbol? And whence the quoted phrases from pop music and Milton’s Satan side by side? The four talkers do not agree on answers to these questions and they are variously doubtful and amazed by Lowell’s emotional and lyric pretensions and by his projection of psychological crisis on New England history and nature, but they come — iteratively in conversation and collaboratively — to admire the complexity of the poem’s mix of transitional poetic stances.

We at PoemTalk wish to thank Christina Davis and her staff for hosting us. This episode was engineered by Al Filreis even as he performed his hosting and moderating duties, and later has been phonologically mastered and edited by Zach Carduner.