1950s American Poetry (II

)
American Literature, 1945 to Date
Mihai Mindra, Spring 2013
Contents with List
▪ San Francisco Renaissance
▪ Beat Poetry
▪ Confessionalism
▪ Allan Ginsberg (1926 –1997)
▪ Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)
Background
▪ Harry S. Truman (Democrat, 1945 – 1953)
▪ Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: August 6 and 9, 1945
▪ The Korean War (part of the Cold War: mid-1940s to the early 1990s): 1950 -
1953
▪ McCarthyism (Republican senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy [1908-1957]):
▪ activities associated with the period in the United States known as the
Second Red Scare (First Red Scare:shortly after the end of World War I
and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; fear of anarchism: 1917 – 1920)
▪ roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s
▪ characterized by heightened fears of Communist influence on American
institutions and espionage by Soviet agents.
Background
▪ Term coined by Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block.
▪ Block and others used the word as a synonym for
demagoguery, baseless defamation, and mudslinging.
▪ Later, embraced by McCarthy and some of his supporters.
"McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled,“
(McCarthy, a 1952 speech; later that year he published a
book titled McCarthyism: The Fight For America).


Background
▪ Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican, 1953 – 1961)
▪ commanding general of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II
▪ truce in Korea
▪ moderate policies
▪ continued most of the New Deal and Fair Deal programs; balanced budget
▪ reinforced desegregation of schools
▪ "atoms for peace" program--the loan of American uranium to "have not"
nations for peaceful purposes
▪ tried to ease Cold War tensions
▪ ordered the complete desegregation of the Armed Forces.

Background
Postwar years:
economic boom - started at the end of World War II and continued
throughout the '50s, '60s, and early '70s
military victory by Allied forces & the American move into spaces
formerly dominated by European imperialism
new developments in science and technology = sources of increased ease
and comfort in the imminent future
improvements in middle-class living conditions  many people
overlooked ongoing inequities in the distribution of wealth
  a sense of power and even invincibility among Americans. (Sterritt
20)
Background
▪ Consumerism vs. Economic anxiety and Existential distress (materialism):
▪ growth of a credit-card economy  the acquisition of debt and obligations as well as
goods and services
▪ Explosion of road and highway systems  rootlessness as well as mobility;
▪ suburban homes were comfortable but undistinguished and indistinguishable
▪ explosion of marriage, childbearing, and "togetherness"  more household oriented living
 new worries about education, juvenile delinquency, health care, and other family-
related issues;
▪ purchases of alcohol and tranquilizers boomed, indicating unease and insecurity despite
the many signs of abundance that surrounded people in material fact and media
representation. (Sterritt 20)
Background
▪ media representation  culture of consensus (IGNORING THE
INDIVIDUAL; FOCUS ON SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC WELL-BEING;
SELF-ALIENATION) :
▪ message of group-adjustment via self-manipulation
▪ social and economic advancement via thrift, hard work, and
similar virtues
▪ inspirational literature of the Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent
Peale variety (pragmatc success oriented thinking), incl.
periodicals with such titles as Journal of Living and Your
Personality, which recommend "self-manipulative exercises for
the sake not only of business success but of such vaguer, non-
work goals as popularity" (Sterritt 28)
BEAT POETRY
▪ Members of the original New York group : Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac & Gregory Corso.
▪ Associated with a specific time frame and a particular state of mind.
▪ No shared formal aesthetic beyond their practice of experimental free-verse forms &
interest in poetry as performance, frequently with jazz accompaniment
▪ Roots in the manifestos of the Black Mountain school of poetry:
▪ Group of poets at Black Mountain College (North Carolina), under the guidance of the
rector, Charles Olson
▪ Charles Olson in his Projective Verse (1950) called for a unit of poetic expression based not
on a more or less fixed metrical foot but on the poet’s ‘breath’ and the rhythms of the
body
▪ The poem should represent FEELING AT THE MOMENT OF COMPOSITION  THE
POEM WAS PROVISIONAL
▪ Contrary to New Critics’ claims. FILM BREAK


BEAT POETRY
▪ Earliest published writing by the New York Beat authors - autobiographical:
John Clellon Holmes’s Go. (1952),William Burroughs’Junky (1953) ,
Distinguishable feature: the poets’ rebellious questioning of conventional
American cultural values during the Cold War.
▪ put the American dream of individual freedom to its ultimate test
▪ rebelled against what they saw as their country’s social conformity,
political repression, prevailing materialism by championing
unconventional sexual aesthetic & spiritual values.
▪ In the dissemination of this movement, LIFESTYLE was as important as
literary values / principles; the Beats introduced new social forms and
practices (bohemian) [M. Davidson, x]

BEAT POETRY
▪ They insisted that Americans could find an alternate life-style despite the
prevailing conformism of their time
▪ like Emerson and Thoreau , they reaffirmed the essential sanctity of
individual experience.
▪ Definition of the term :
▪ The Random House Dictionary credited Jack Kerouac for defining the term
Beat Generation as “members of the generation that came of age after Worl
War II who, supposedly as a result of disillusionment stemming from the Cold
War ,espouse mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual
tensions.”
BEAT POETRY
▪ first heard by Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs in New York City, Times
Square,1944, from a hustler, Herbert Huncke, meaning “exhausted, at the
bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive,
rejected by society, on your own, streetwise.”
▪ According to Ginsberg they (the earliest Beat writers in New York) shared an
awareness of “the PAHNTOM NATURE of being,” the transitoriness of
existence.

BEAT POETRY
▪ Ginsberg wrote the poem “Howl” in August 1955.
▪ two months later he organized a poetry reading at the Six Gallery,
San Francisco, with five other poets (Gary Snyder, Michael
McClure, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, Kenneth Rexroth) -
October 7, 1955.
▪ A change of MEDIUM: poetry as VOICE not as printing
(Rexroth)
▪ Michael McClure: all the poets participating at the event felt
oppressed by “the pressures of the war culture. We were
locked in the Cold War and the first Asian debacle-the Korean
War (1950-53)...As artists we were oppressed and indeed the
people of the nation were oppressed

BEAT POETRY
We had to speak out as poets. We saw that the art of poetry was
essentially dead- killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of
love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.”
“...The audience [knew] at the deepest level that a barrier had been
broken.”
The Beats: destruction of the barrier between popular & high art (poetry read at street
corners, jazz clubs & Playboy) [M. Davidson, x]
Return to the pre-Enlightment meaning and purpose of literature, i.e. not of ‘civilizing’
but of enriching one’s spiritual life
BEAT POETRY
▪ Allen Ginsberg, Interview with Thomas Clark
▪ Recorded in 1965; published in Spring 1966 in Paris Review
▪ “About 1945 I got interested in Supreme Reality with a capital S and R, and I
wrote big long poems about a last voyage looking for the Supreme Reality.
Which was like a Dostoevskian or Thomas Wolfeian idealization or like Rimbaud
– what was Rimbaud’s term, new vision, was that it?”
▪ Object / Experience of poetry (ref. to Blake):
▪ “that sense sublime of something more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is
the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the … living air (..). So I think
this experience is characteristic of all high poetry. I mean that’s the way I began
seeing poetry as the communication of the particular experience – not just any
experience but THIS EXPERIENCE.”

BEAT POETRY
▪ Associated to / outgrowth of Romanticism [M. Davidson, 2]
▪ As opposed to modernist doctrines of impersonality (e.g.: A. Ginsberg’s relationship with W. C.
Williams, for instance, as reflected in Ginsberg’s first volume of poetry, Empty Mirror) & New
Criticism principles (formalism: the author is not important, the text is all that matters).
▪ Romanticism & Beat – common point:
▪ Perception of life in allegorical terms, “each moment intersecting with the divine” (M. Davidson,
2)
▪ Differences – many, including among the members of the Beats / San Francisco
Renaissance
▪ E.g. impulse toward orality and performance; popular / low culture; significance of the political /
contingency; surrealist techniques etc.

BEAT POETRY
▪ “Howl and Other Poems” (1957)
▪ Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “The great obscene wastes of Howl are
the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom
bombs and insane nationalisms.”
▪ seized by the U.S.Customs in San Francisco on March 25, 1957,
with the charge that Ginsberg’s language describing
homosexual acts was obscene.

BEAT POETRY
▪ Finally the judge ruled that Ginsberg had not written an obscene poem.
His decision established judicial precedent by stating that if the printed
material has social importance, it is protected by the First and Fourteenth
Amendments of the United States Constitution.
▪ What had been the private cultural rebellion of an obscure literary group in
New York was energized and given political focus by the contact of the East
Coast Beats (New York beats) with the West Coast poets (the San Francisco
Poetry Renaissance), who were sustained by a flourishing tradition of radical
poetry .
 Not only an aesthetic revolt but also a radical assault on mainstream
cultural values.
 ROOTS : Whitman & William Carlos Williams.

BEAT POETRY
▪ 1970s the Beat and the San Francisco Renaissance poets were
recognized as a vital part of American culture
▪ The Beat and Beatnik labels were changed for hippie
▪ leading writers were gradually accepted into the literary
establishment
▪ four of the poets, Ginsberg, Baraka\ Jones, Ferlinghetti, Snyder,
entered the literary canon.

BEAT POETRY
▪ 1974 Ginsberg became a member of the National Institute of Arts
and Letters and won a National Book Award for The Fall of America.
▪ In his acceptance speech he signaled the end of the Beat
Generation as a literary movement
▪ In its place he hoped for the survival of what he called the
sovereignty of the individual mind in post-Vietnam America.
BEAT POETRY
▪ Nation, February 23, 1957: M.L. Rosenthal’s review of Howl:
▪ “poetry of genuine suffering...the elementary need for freedom of sympathy...for the open
response of man to man so long repressed by the smooth machinery of intellectual
distortion.
▪ National Review ,November 18 ,1961, Ralph de Toledano:
▪ “an overflow as accidental as a bathtub running over”
▪ the Beat “artistic revolt” was “as graceless and unproductive as the copulation of mules.”
▪ defending the disciplined sensibility and reverence for tradition shown by T. S. Eliot, Wallace
Stevens, and Marianne Moore, he concludes : “the bumps and grinds of the Beat school
may appeal to the blunted tastes and stunted sensibilities of our times, but they have as
little connection with poetry as a strip act does with the sex act.”
▪ 1960s - growing number of dissident writers and small press publishers became
recognized as the development of an American “counterculture”.



The Beatnik
▪ Norman Mailer , essay “The White Negro”:
▪ ‘the American existentialist’: sees value in moods, feelings, actions as
opposed to logical causality
▪ Society represents authority from without, he seeks authority within his
ego.
▪ a pioneer, an explorer of inward reality ( see Puritanical roots )
▪ the religious mystic has taken advantage of modern chemistry : drugs.
▪ like the existentialist the beatnik tries to maintain the significance of the
individual personality in a world devoid of God, spiritual values.
▪ an attempt at re-humanizing themselves by a total re-examination of the
meaning of life.
The Beatnik
▪ Human personality is to be defended against the overwhelming pressures of
conformity, competition and respectability- quantitative externals opposed by
qualitative living.
▪ The continuous search for inner reality is a quest for authentic existence & moods
are indices to his reality
▪ would not try, as the rationalist to overcome his fears, his dread, but he would
exploit these feelings in order to reach new levels of truth about himself.
▪ the confessional character of Beat literature (celebration of intimate
biographical detail ) which to the social conservative appears as
exhibitionism.
▪ to the authentic beatnik nothing that is human or personal can be degrading.
So, the alleged foolishness of the “hip” values turns out to be a criticism of the
accepted American practices.

The Beatnik
▪ Paul O’Neil ( “ The Only Rebellion Around ”, Life, November 30, 1959) :
▪ the Beats feel that “the only way man can call his soul his own is by becoming
an outcast .“
▪ They are not reformers. Institutionalized reform would not change anything.
So his solution : he disaffiliates, “drops out “ of the entire scheme of traditional
civilization and asks only to be left alone (e.g. that is why Thoreau is something
of a Beat hero).
▪ Carl Michalson – the Beatniks are similar to Existentialists:
▪ “Social relations which are based upon existential individualism will be initiated
in the creative force of personal volition. Which means when individuals come
together, they will not lose their identity by social proximity.” (Carl
Michalson, “What is Existentialism?” Christianity and the Existentialists, ed. Carl
Michalson (New York, 1956 ),p.13.


The Beatnik
▪ Modern society has mangled the concept of ‘self’ by twisting interpersonal
relationships into categories of competition, barter, argument, belligerence -
covering it all with a glossy mantle of respectability.
“Howl” (1956)
▪ biographical info: documentary screened at the course (The Source)
▪ “Howl”: 3 parts + a Footnote (another poem)
▪ program stated at the end of Part I - aestheticist:
▪ “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless
and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to
the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head.”
▪ Part II of Howl
▪ identifies the hostile universe with which the vulnerable sensibility cannot cope - American
capitalism / devouring mechanical civilization




“Howl” (1956)
▪ Part III
▪ focuses on one person: Carl Solomon - Rockland State Hospital (New York State mental
hospital)
▪ ends, like the other two parts on a note of lamentation combined with ambiguous
affirmation.
▪ ‘Footnote to Howl’
▪ begins with a line that repeats the outcry ‘Holy!’ fifteen times
▪ brings under the same sign of holiness the tragic, the comic, the ordinary, and the
hallucinatory.
▪ Whitmanesque vitality and cosmic vision of mankind as an all comprising miracle.


“Howl” (1956)
▪ A. Ginsberg - “Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl’” (1959)
▪ “By 1955 I wrote poetry adapted from prose seeds, journals,
scratchings, arranged by PHRASING or BREATH GROUPS into
little short-line patterns according to ideas of measure of American
speech I’d picked up from W. C. Williams’s imagist preoccupations.
(…) I thought I wouldn’t write a poem, but just write what I wanted
to without fear, let my imagination go, open secrecy, and scribble
magic lines from my real mind (…).”


“Howl” (1956)
▪ Composition:
▪ “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit … My breath is long – that’s the
Measure, one physical and mental inspiration of thought
contained in the elastic of a breath. It probably bugs Williams now
(SHORT SENTENCES), but it’s a natural consequence, my own heightened
conversation, not cooler average – daily talk short breath.”
▪ Mystical process (started exploring Buddhism in 1954)– union of body & mind
▪ Compare this statement with E. Pound’s (and even W. C. Williams’ objectivist
phase) imagist credo – union of the intellectual & the emotional.
▪ The poem – an experiment with Whitman’s long line.
▪ Part I: depended on the word “who” “to keep the beat, a base to keep measure,
return to and take off again onto another streak of invention (…) I went on to
what my imagination believed true to Eternity […] and what my memory could
reconstitute of the data of celestial experience”
“Howl” (1956)
▪ Part II: the long line is used as a stanza form broken within into exclamatory units
punctuated by a base repetition, Moloch.
▪ Part III: almost the same as Part I.

▪ Thematically:
▪ “Part I, a lament for the lamb in America with instances of remarkable lamblike
youths; Part II names the monster of mental consciousness that preys on the lamb;
Part III a litany of affirmation of the Lamb in its glory […]”

▪ Listening – Recording of ‘Howl’.

“Howl” (1956)
rhetorical shock supported by the reiterated insistence that a generation of
Americans had been betrayed & psychically crippled
elemental language engulfed in deliberately intellectual phrasing (e.g. “ a vision
of ultimate cunt eluding the last gyzym of consciousness “ , “solipsisms of johns”)
or rhapsodic lyricism (“sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the
sunset“)
 compulsive search for love confronting external, automatic activity: “I saw the
best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked...”
“Howl” (1956)
revolutionary social and political criticism implied (Rosenthal p.93)
rejection of the established order
breakdown of respectable assumptions in the moral sphere involving generally
the whole range of expectation of what will make a meaningful, self-regulated
life
normal masculine pride and adult personality are abandoned because of the
terror created by a mad & brutal world
some people ‘adjusted’ so well that they can not see how irrelevant their lives
are.

ALLEN GINSBERG & CONFESSIONAL POETRY
▪ Public recitation and rhetoric are at cross- purposes with the
deeper aim of bringing very personal private concerns to the
surface.
▪ Lowell and Plath: the latter aim embodies the issues of cultural
crisis in the crisis of the poet’s own life
▪ Rhetorical extroverted poetry sharing with confessional writing its
hatred or pain at the damage wreaked by Moloch.
▪ Piled - up details about his generation: many clues to Ginsberg’s
private experiences; he is groping toward a fuller release of his real,
private demons (see Kaddish, 1961)
ALLEN GINSBERG & CONFESSIONAL POETRY
Kaddish and Other Poems 1958 - 1960 (1961),
dated 1959 by the author.
Full title is ‘Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg 1894-1956’.
formal elegy written as a tribute to his mother Naomi, who had been a communist
sympathizer during his boyhood; had died in a mental hospital in 1956.
The traditional kaddish is the Hebrew lament for the dead, which is at the same time a hymn of
praise to God.
Modeling his poem on the traditional form , Ginsberg divides it into a sequence of six parts called
‘Proem’, ‘Narrative’, ‘Hymmnn’ (so spelled to suggest the wailing incantation of the Hebrew
prayer.) , ‘Lament’, ‘Litany’, ‘Fugue’.
The story of Naomi Ginsberg’s paranoia, degeneration and death told in detail.
ALLEN GINSBERG & CONFESSIONAL POETRY
▪ Through Naomi’s story politics becomes a matter of life,
human predicament. At the same time it is a protest against the
repression of radical thought and organization in the USA after
the Second World War, associated with ‘McCarthysm’.
▪ The virtual sealing off of any legitimacy for revolutionary debate
and organization, in the wake of a war that had already done
immense damage to private personality throughout the
Western world wrought even more psychic than political havoc.
▪ effort to establish the human validity of a retroactively
outlawed type of experience
▪ violence done by modern existence to the most vulnerable.

ALLEN GINSBERG (1926 –1997)
▪ The poet’s rebelliousness (homosexuality, use of drugs, rejection of
squeamishness) is a familiar motif of his generation
▪ The barriers of fastidiousness once broken down, the sophisticated
intelligence must learn (with Whitman) entirely new perspectives of
human acceptance and value (see Rosenthal pp.105-106)
▪ STRUCTURE & STYLE:
▪ careless in diction, syntax, and rhythmic movement
▪ deliberately having the quality of a series of memories noted down
in haste or snatched up out of the subconscious.
▪ The influence of Whitman - reiterative style, parallelism

ALLEN GINSBERG (1926 –1997)
▪ this technique indicates a cumulative poetical movement suited
to Ginsberg’s “expanding ego psychology” which “results in an
enumerative style, the cataloging of a representative and
symbolical succession of images, conveying the sensation of
pantheistic unity and endless becoming.”

▪ This goes back to Hebraic roots, acknowledged by Ginsberg :
repeating and balancing ideas and sentences instead of
syllables or accents.

▪ The reader is not supposed to look for a rational connection of
ideas. There is richness of imagery and density & spontaneity.


“A Supermarket in California” (1956)
▪ Criticism of the prosperous Eisenhower era
▪ Criticism of capitalist America as opposed to romantic / individualist /
inspired America of Walt Whitman; ‘shopping for images”
▪ In the store, Ginsberg sees whole families of consumers, emblematic
of the capitalist societies that produced them: F. G. Lorca, Walt
Whitman
▪ The theme of homosexuality openly asserted – subverting middle
class ideals & norms.

Confessional Poetry – Robert Lowell
Label first applied, disapprovingly, to Robert Lowelll’s Life Studies (1959)
a collection of autobiographical prose and poetry
confessional -violated the norms of decorum for subject matter (impresonality / indirectness), specific
for WASP middle class postwar art
Overall aim of his poetry: to locate personal experience, stray events, into epic history
History & personal experience – apocalyptic overtones
Studied poetry with John Crowe Ransom  came into contact with New Criticism and, briefly, the
Fugitive movement (southern agrarians opposed to what they perceived as northern corrupting
industrialism)
Conversion to Roman Catholicism (he was a Protestant), 1940; opposition to American policies in World
War II, and later on Vietnam
Interested in psychoanalysis as a mode of address to postwar existential misery
Note: Other New Critics in America - I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, R. P. Blackmur, Cleanth Brooks, Allen
Tate.

Confessional Poetry – Robert Lowell
▪ Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959) - often cited as “the most
sustained attempt to develop a confessional mode and a 'turning
point' in postwar poetry” (Halliwell 72)
▪ Exploration of Lowell's family relationships
▪ Begins his 'Life Studies' sequence with the line: '“I won't go with you. I want to
stay with Grandpa!”
▪ E.g. Lowell recalls his Uncle Devereux Winslow dying of Hogdkin's disease at
age twenty-nine. He provides direct expressions of his uncle's dress ('his
trousers were solid cream from the top of the bottle') as a child would to hide
his fears (Ί cowered in terror'), conflicting impulses which are brought together
when the poem describes his hands: 'warm, then cool, on the piles / of earth
and lime, a black pile and a white pile …' as his uncle blends 'to the one colour'
in death. (Halliwell 73)
Martin Halliwell, American Culture in the 1950s. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University
Press, 2007.

Confessional Poetry
▪ Main New Criticism tenets:
▪ valid interpretations had to avoid the Intentional Fallacy (searching for
presumed intentions of the author) and the Affective Fallacy (crediting
emotional effects produced in the reader)
▪ In order to arrive at correct or “universal” meanings the reader has to
approach the poem as an ahistorical, self-enclosed / - sufficient system,
an object made of language : “a vebal icon” (W.C.Wimsatt )
▪ late 1950s - 1960s: reaction against what was perceived as high modernist
/ new criticism formalism
▪ Search for ways to reintroduce both Intention and Affect in the
discussion of poetic value.


Confessional Poetry
▪ Most outspoken – the Beats
▪ Confessional poetry - not overtly political, but it participated in the
protest against Impersonality as a poetical value by reinstating an
insistently autobiographical first person.



Confessional Poetry
▪ Common features / conditions of the confessional poets:
▪ had developed close personal affiliations: Lowell - the teacher and mentor of Snodgrass, Sexton,
and Plath; all these poets knew each other’s work.
▪ psychological breakdowns and treatment, following rather early marriages / conformity with middle class
standards in force
▪ Interest in Freudian psychonalysis
▪ Their poetry - investigation into middle class social institutions (e.g. marriage / family – dominated
postwar American culture)
▪ Poetry in the first person: historical events & personal experiences.
Common Stylistic Features
▪ Confessionalist characteristics:
▪ poems in the first-person voice with little apparent distance between the
speaker and the poet;
▪ emotional in tone
▪ autobiographical in content
▪ narrative in structure.
▪ Personal reflections no longer took the form of the distanced idiom
characteristic of both modernism and New Criticism. (Beach 174)

“ Skunk Hour” -- Robert Lowell

(For Elizabeth Bishop)
Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season's ill--
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.


 One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
"Love, O careless Love. . . ." I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody's here--

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage
pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

1959
“Skunk Hour” (1959)
▪ Often cited as the quintessential poem of the confessional
movement
▪ Lowell began the poem in August 1957 while he was visiting the
costal town of Castine, Maine; as he remembers it, Lowell was struck
by “having nothing to write, of having, at least, no language”
▪ He abandoned his previous formalist style with this poem; the model
– Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo”
▪ He decided to write a poem in “short stanzas with drafting
description.” (Beach 156)
“Skunk Hour” (1959)
▪ The poem comprises eight six-line stanzas of variable meter and
rhyme scheme
▪ The first four stanza: the decay of the town; the second four – the
poet’s personal ordeal, the “dark night of the soul” from which he is
“saved” by the appearance of a family of skunks.
▪ The first half of the poem:
▪ Caricature of the town and its inhabitants: the lady who prefers to live in the
Victorian age; the “summer millionaire” who seemed to leap out of an “L. L.
Bean / catalogue”, a.o.
▪ The moral and social fabric of the town – decayed: “the season’s ill”
▪ The town – analogous for the poet’s state of mind.



“Skunk Hour” (1959)
▪ The second part of the poem:
▪ The illness of the season turns into the poet’s “ill-spirit” / “My mind’s not right”
▪ Comparison of his state of mind with the love cars (compared to boats sailing
on the ocean): the love cars lie “hull to hull”
▪ The encounters of the lovers seemed perverted and morbid, particularly by the
location of the car park in relation to the town’s cemetery
▪ The city is transformed into a “skull” ; a popular love song is associated with
Milton’s Paradise Lost – “I myself am Hell”
▪ The popular love song contains a reference to death also: “Now you see what
careless love will do … Make you kill yourself and your sweetheart too”
▪ The cemetery “shelves on the town”- ambiguous meaning:
▪ = sloping / inclining
▪ = building on the town  interlocking fates of the living and the dead.


“Skunk Hour” (1959)
▪ The appearance of the skunks  turn from despair to a humorous
tone
▪ The poet makes the attempt at connecting with otherness, here
embodied by prereflective natural order.
▪ The skunks – a comical sight; not concerned with moral / religious /
artistic existence
▪ A partial restitution of meaning: devoid of social / civic (symbolized
by the Main Street) or religious implications (the view of the
Trinitarian Church)
▪ As the identification of man & skunk = partial; no salvation in sight.
(Beach 157)