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Spence, Robert Traill Lowell IV was a well-known American poet of the twentieth century. Lowell was born into a Boston Brahmin family of Mayflower ancestors. His profound love for his family can be evident in many of his works, as he always referred to them. His childhood home of Boston has had a significant influence on the poet, as he often set his poems there. Lowell's two most popular works, Life Studies, and Notebook, brought him the most praise. Life Studies would go on to win the author the National Book Award in 1960. (Axelrod 7). The emotional piece featured an intense, unguarded debate on psychological, family, and personal struggles.
Lowell was considered a monumental part of the confessional poetry movement. He remains one of the most decorated poets as he won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice (1974, 1947). Lowell served as the 6th Poet Laureate in Poetry at the Library of Congress in 1947. He would later go on to win the national Institute of Arts and Letters Award the same year and the National Books Critics Award thirty years letter (Axelrod 9). There is a consensus among the American performing arts community that he was one of the most important influential poets in the post-war era.
Skunk Hour, one of Lowell’s most passionate works, is a confessional poem. The poet opens up about his personal secrets. He reveals that he is leading a meaningless life. He intimates that he is suffering from the loss of desire, courage, and faith in life. The poem uses deep imagery right from the beginning. Its title, “Skunk Hour” symbolizes a disgusting, difficult, or unappealing period in the poet’s life. It depicts a time in Lowell (13)’s existence where he lost the will and purpose to continue living. Though much of the poem takes pessimistic approach, the author appears to receive an epiphany and abandons his grim outlook. He uses irony to illustrate his change in perspective about life. As Lowell resigns to mental ruin, he comes across a skunk, a very deplorable animal (Axelrod 258). Despite being one of the most despised animals, the skunk seemed to enjoy life. It mastered the spiritual, mental, and physical strength to continue to play despite the immense negative energy surrounding it. After the observation, Lowell elects to change his outlook in life.
The poem was written at the beginning of the Cold War. It was a difficult time in America as the economy had been destroyed, and the country ravished by expensive wars, and it seemed as if though it would be roped into one again (Axelrod 258). Lowell shared the feeling with many people all across the country. He saw no use to stay positive as signs of his country going into disrepair almost instantaneously were all around him. The poet comments that the “season is ill” and recounts how a “summer millionaire” has just auctioned his yacht after going bankrupt.
The poem speaks from a Christian cultural context. The poet depicts himself as being in deep agony and spiritual crisis. His spirit wails, and his mind is not at rest. “I myself am Hell!” the poet laments. His attention turns to the skunk, who alongside with its kittens, had found its way to the city streets and was eating garbage. The skunk’s resolve, naturalness, virility, and a strong desire for life made the poet appreciate that he lacks the qualities to sustain a meaningful life (Axelrod 258). The poet takes a lesson and begins a new life. The poem has its own vernacular. It addresses a given challenge in a way that person understands. Those outside the scope of this argument may not correctly understand what the challenge the poem presents.
The poem is an answer to the question; What causes the desire to live?
The poem is centered on a difficult time in the speaker and his community existed. The poet felt as if he had no more reasons to live. However much he tried to rationalize his predicament and develop answers to his questions, he wouldn’t find any. Lowell (35) is at the point of giving up on life when he is accosted by the skunk and its family. He is surprised by the seemingly positive nature taken by the animal despite being at the very rock bottom. He is consumed by the creative, spiritual, mental, and physical energy the creatures have. Lowell (38) is quick to understand he must have a fighting spirit and determination to live. The reinvigorated skunk symbolizes the goodness of nature, independence, persistence of life, and creativity. The author appreciates that only when a person has realized and utilized what he refers to as the potentials or revitalization of the inner energy can they be rescued from their suicidal frustration.
According to the author, the desire to live is often far more than the deliverance from suicidal frustration but to embrace the vitality of life. One must comprehend the science of simplicity and acknowledge where they are as a person.
Axelrod, Steven Gould. "Between Modernism and Postmodernism: The Cold War Poetics of Bishop, Lowell, and Ginsberg." Pacific Coast Philology 42.1 (2007): 1-23.
Axelrod, Steven. "Baudelaire and the Poetry of Robert Lowell." Twentieth Century Literature 17.4 (1971): 257-274.
Lowell, Robert. "Skunk Hour." (2005).
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