This poem is a mouthful! The first two lines are hard to say without sounding like you have a mouth packed with marbles. There's a lot going on in many of these lines – some are super long and chock-full of syllables. Others are short and direct. This creates contrast, and really sets off the short, usually declarative lines. Think of listening to the sound of running water for a while, then all the sudden someone bangs a pot against the wall! For example, in the fifth stanza we have these two really syllabically tight lines, "my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull" and, "where the graveyard shelves on the town." But the last line of the stanza is the short, "My mind's not right." This switching from long, descriptive, and poetic language to the simple declaration make those declarations stand out big time. Also, these fluctuations between long and short, poetic and plain, mimic the restlessness and unpredictability of the speaker's mind.
Then there's the rhyme. It's doing much the same thing as what the short vs. long lines is doing. Rhyme is present throughout the poem, but it doesn't follow a predictable pattern! It's like Lowell was trying to show us how this poem (like our fragile speaker) is trying so desperately to keep it together, but just keeps going off the rails a bit. Very clever!
Robert Lowell has plenty of fun throughout this poem toying around with double meanings and puns. When he writes one thing, be ready for the wink wink, nudge nudge that leads you to the tongue-in-cheek meaning. The title is just another example of that wordplay. "Skunk Hour" is a play on "witching hour" – literally midnight, but thought to be the time when witches are active, doing all their creepy, witchy stuff like boiling frogs and casting spells. So, "Skunk Hour" is the time of night when the town is empty except for the skunks, and it's spooky and the speaker is feeling ill at ease.
"Skunk Hour" is set on an island off the coast of Maine. In the first part of the poem, the speaker shows us the major players of the community, and it seems to take place during the daytime hours. The second half of the poem, however, takes place at night as the speaker journeys up the town's hill in his car. The town is deserted and he's abandoned the rich seaside description for a darker, lonelier look at things. We see dark streets and foraging skunks – and not much else.
The speaker is someone who is mentally ill. He seems sad and lonely, as well as bitter (note the tone he uses when describing the townspeople) and restless (driving around all night, standing on his back porch watching the skunks). So can we trust this guy? Well, it's hard to say. You can definitely see the descriptions, especially as the poem progresses, getting stranger. It's pretty cool, actually, to know that everything we find out about this place is slightly distorted because it's seen through the lens of somebody who's mentally unstable. Who knows, maybe the sane version would have been super boring.
At first read "Skunk Hour" can be a little bit of a head scratcher. Understanding what the skunks have to do with anything can be super frustrating. But once you start to break it down and become more comfortable knowing the uneasiness of the speaker, you can relax and give in to the wildness of it all. So you'll need your compass and the right tools, but no need to set the distress flares off yet.
Lowell is known for including tons of stuff in his poems. They often seem to start out with a narrative style (telling a story), then a wrench gets thrown into the system – he starts off on something entirely different, interrupts himself, or makes bold statements seemingly out of nowhere. What you end up with are rich poems full of twists and turns, and that often give the reader an emotional shock. Look at this poem, for example – we start off talking about rich old ladies, move to L.L. Bean characters, then drop into the abyss of personal sadness, and finally end on skunks! If you find yourself scratching your head, don't worry –you've been zigzagged like the rest of us!
This poem seems to be formally organized, but it's really all over the place. At first read, you see that the stanzas are all the same length (six lines apiece) and that there's definitely some rhyming going on. But, going back through the poem trying to figure out the rhyme scheme is like banging your head against the wall! In some stanzas, Lowell sticks to a perfectly predictable pattern. Look at the fourth stanza: ABCBCA. Perfectly neat. But none of the other stanzas follow that pattern exactly. They all have some rhyming in them. In fact, most of the time each end word (the last word in a line) has a rhyming match within the stanza, but when and where the match comes varies throughout the poem.
There's no predicting this man. The fake-out rhyme scattering that Lowell does in "Skunk Hour" mirrors the progress of the poem, and of our fragile-minded speaker.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Let's face it, the skunks don't get a whole lot of "air time" in this poem, but they're definitely major players on the symbolic level. We get the first hint that they're important when Lowell sticks them in the title. "Skunk Hour" is a play on "witching hour," or midnight – the time when witches are supposed to be most active doing all their weird, witchy stuff. So right away we see that the skunks are being compared to witches, at least indirectly – they're associated with the spooky and otherworldly, where strange and disturbing things are possible. They also (not coincidentally) pop up right after the speaker admits that he's feeling kind of crazy. So whatever the skunks do in this poem, they sort of act as the backdrop or catch-all of this guy's madness. It's not just skunks being skunks anymore, but skunks as seen through the eyes of a mentally ill man – needless to say, these animals take on a stranger, darker light.
This poem is told through the lens of someone who is mentally ill. The speaker even admits, "My mind's not right." So it shouldn't surprise us that the words and phrases in this poem have shifting, sneaky, and sometimes funny, double meanings. In some instances the other meaning is important to the poem, and in others, it appears as though Lowell was just having a bit of fun. Either way, this poem's chock full of 'em, and they add an extra dimension to what's going on.
There's a tongue-in-cheek mention of homosexuality near the beginning of the poem, and then we get the "love cars" in the next stanza. Nothing actually happens, but there are moments of potential steam. Tuck the babies in before you open this poem up.