Robert Lowell began his poetic career by studying with New Criticism poets such as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. He wrote rigorously formal verse and at thirty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his second book, Lord Weary's Castle. However, his most famous book, Life Studies, was a radical departure not only from his earlier work, but also from the larger poetry scene at the time of its publication in 1959.
Along with W. D. Snodgrass's Heart's Needle, Lowell's book launched the Confessional Poetry movement. Inspired by his battle with mental illness, his marital problems, and war, Life Studies demonstrates a dramatic turn toward deeply personal work with a loosened adherence to meter and form. The poems are characterized by specific and unflinching autobiographical detail.
Life Studies includes many of Lowell's most famous poems, such as: "On a Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich," "Man and Wife," and "Commander Lowell." It also features his poem for Elizabeth Bishop, "Skunk Hour," in response to her poem, "The Armadillo." Lowell described "Skunk Hour" as follows:
"The first four stanzas are meant to give a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town. I move from the ocean inland. Sterility howls through the scenery, but I try to give a tone of tolerance, humor, and randomness to the sad prospect. The composition drifts, its direction sinks out of sight into the casual, chancy arrangements of nature and decay."
Considered by many to be one of the most influential poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, Lowell's work in Life Studies had an especially profound impact that is discernible not only in the poetry of his direct contemporaries, such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but also in the treatment of biographical detail by countless poets who followed.