Fever Dreams and Robert Lowell

I’ve been interested by one of the two modes of poetry that is brought up in class.  That of Robert Lowell: why not tell what happened.   I think mostly because in my poetry, I struggle to tell what happened— too often getting lost in an blind attempt to create beauty through cerebral language and fancy romantic predictable style.

It should be noted, however, that my essays often get bogged down by spending too much time telling what happened.  But when a poem can convey a precision in story or scene, there’s a lot more room to play with language.  One of my favorite poems of all time is “Skunk Hour” if you haven’t read it recommend it.    In the spirit of not unintentionally violating copyright law, I’ll examine three non-sequential stanzas.

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.


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.


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.


Okay! The first stanza is the poem’s third and seems to establish the first few pangs of anguish that crescendo toward the middle before we are left with the revoltingly dignified image of a mother skunk and her flock of kittens.   We know it’s the dead of fall, signified by the loss of the summer millionaire and red fox hill.  The poem weaves a nautical thread throughout, a nine-knot yawl, is a boat capable of traveling nine-knots , not a particularly fast boat.

He manages in our second stanza to revert the observant narrator who notices things like missing millionaires into a voyeuristic creep.  But look how beautiful the language is.  It’s something like make out point that shelves the town, it is  nautical and naughty, exactly how it happened and deeply confessional.  That confession points to a sickness that subverts the narrators authority, but Lowell’s mode of telling what happened ensures that we don’t doubt the exactitude of it all.

The last stanza I’ve included includes one of the best phrases to read in poetry (in my opinion, for whatever that’s worth) read everything after the colon in one breath and just about as quickly as possible. The phonetics at play are almost too pretty to talk about with clunky metaphors.  Just read them and tell me that’s not good poetry at play.  And, the keen observer coming home after a late night in Geneseo can catch a skunks marching along to the beat of all our trash. Hammering home telling what happened.


Go read the whole poem.

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