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It's well known that famous poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were very close friends, and it's even rumored that he proposed to her once and she refused – we wouldn't keep you out of the gossip loop! The two used to write letters to each other constantly, and were very concerned about what one thought of the other's work. In a letter Bishop wrote in 1948, while she was staying in Stonington, Maine, Bishop said,
I think you said a while ago that I'd "laugh you to scorn" over some conversation you & I had about how to protect yourself against solitude & ennui – but indeed I wouldn't. That's just the kind of "suffering" I'm most at home with & helpless about, I'm afraid, and what with two days of fog and alarmingly low tides, I've really got it bad… (source)
Well, it looks like Lowell took something from this letter, because he dedicated this 1958 poem to Bishop, and it takes place in coastal Maine, and it's all about solitude and depression. Bishop, by the way, wrote a response to this poem, which was dedicated to Lowell and called "The Armadillo."
It's also well known that Lowell suffered from manic depression. So Lowell might share some of the same feelings as our speaker in this poem – darting around from one subject to the next, followed by feelings of extreme loneliness and sadness the whole way. It's never a very good idea to try to find out about the poet's life from his or her poems, but in this case, maybe it's OK to make a small exception.
We're all intrigued at one point or another (especially during Halloween) by the ghoulish, nightmarish aspect of things. Everyone likes to get spooked once in a while. That's why we tell ghost stories around the campfire, scream our way through haunted houses, and invite nightmares by watching every Saw or Freddie Krueger movie ever made.
What's cool, and ultimately disturbing, about this poem is that Robert Lowell didn't have to write about ghosts, witches, or zombies to create that spooky effect. The speaker of the poem is admittedly mentally ill, and his life – without any of the spider webs or fake blood – is nightmare enough. Nothing scary ever happens in this poem – he roams this seaside town aimlessly through day and night, not really doing anything but observing or maybe looking for something that he never finds. The disturbing discovery that we readers make is that the speaker is caught in the haunted house of his mind and all the doors are locked! That's enough to leave us with goose bumps for a good, long time.
A brief biography of Lowell and selected poetry.
A more extensive biography and links to selected poetry.
Modern American Poetry
A great site from the University of Illinois. Lowell's page includes many scholars' thoughts on a variety of Lowell's poetry, including "Skunk Hour."
Lowell reads "Skunk Hour."
Lowell as a young(ish) man.
Lowell looking a little disheveled in the library!
See Lowell and Bishop walking along the beach – an image familiar to both of their work.
Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell
It's all the juicy stuff! This book tracks the friendship of Lowell and Bishop through their long letter-writing correspondence.