One Art

 Overview

A tricky little poem that tries to convince us that the poet has come to terms with losing in life, but in reality is about the opposite. What begins as a general reflection on the inevitability of loss (both physical and memory) and the need to put things in perspective and get on with life, soon gives way to the revelation of her own personal losses and their impact upon her.

In the final stanza Bishop reveals the real focus of the poem. Whilst the poem’s generalised advice seem to be directed at anyone, this last stanza reveals the poem is really addressed to one individual that she has lost and this loss has left her devastated.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster. 

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master. 

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster. 

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master. 

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. 

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

I wasn’t familiar with Elizabeth Bishop prior to reading ‘One Art’, but I found the poem really compelling and spent a fair bit of time reading about her life. She had a fascinating, but often tragic, life and this poem has a pretty tasty story behind it. I can heartily recommend reading this feature in the New Yorker.

Her childhood was a fairly miserable time as she lost her father when she was 18 months old, an event which sent her mother into a spiral of depression that saw her in mental care until her death when Bishop was only 5 years old. As she moved between relatives on either side of her family, she was afflicted with ailments that kept her away from regular schooling until she was 14-15.

Her adult life was filled with travel and many of her works reflect this existence, including some references in our poem. Her poetry was recognised with various prestigious awards and lauded by many, while her letters (written during her 15 years living in Brazil) were immortalised in the film ‘Reaching for the Moon’.

Anyway, we need to skip forward to Bishop’s 60’s when she was teaching at Harvard. Here she began seeing a much younger woman, Alice Methfessel. Methfessel was 27 when they met in 1970, while Bishop was 59 and suffering from various medical problems. Understandably, Bishop was concerned that she would lose her lover and in 1975 she did. Methfessel went off with a young chap called Peter and Bishop was left so devastated that she attempted to take her own life. Fortunately she didn’t succeed and soon after worked fervently on writing ‘One Art’, going through 17 drafts in double-quick time.

Thus it seems sensible to relate the poem back to this biographical moment of intense loss, while at the same time recognising the universality of the ideas in the poem.

Oh, and don’t worry, there was a happy ending… of sorts. Shortly after the poem had been composed, Methfessel returned to Bishop and they stayed together for another year or so before Bishop popped her clogs.

 

 Themes

Don’t be fooled by what the poem seems to be saying initially, this is all the difficulty of coping with loss. Although the most significant element of this relates to romantic love, you could equally find it a fitting description of losing friends, family, loved ones or even important memories or mementoes.

Content

In the opening stanza, Bishop begins as a sage offering wisdom to a general audience. She tells us that we should learn to treat loss as something that is inevitable and unavoidable. If we have this mindset, she assures us that despite our losses life will go on. At this stage her focus appears to be very trivial and this continues in the second stanza. The association of losing keys or wasting time makes the poem’s focus seem insignificant or almost a bit jokey.

However, this begins to ramp up with memories being next on the list of things left. Although we forget the names of places or people in our lives, she assures us that even this is not disastrous. There is still a sense that these details are peripheral and their loss might be sad, but should not be something that we cannot recover from or need to dwell on.

The poem shifts notably in the fourth stanza as the generalisations of loss are interrupted by her personal loss of a family memento and a home she has known (faded from memory). Even these personal loss are met with her positive approach to dealing with loss and accepted as inevitabilities that can be lived with.

More memories and treasured moments of her life fade in the fifth and this is the first time her mantle of positivity slips somewhat. She admits to missing these things, but maintains that life still goes on. However, the sixth stanza sees her mask slip completely and she reveals the one pivotal loss in her life. Suddenly the poem shifts from being for general consumption to being deeply personal and addressed to a specific individual. The repeated assurance that loss does not equate to disaster is modified from ‘isn’t hard’ to ‘isn’t too hard’, demonstrating that some loss can be difficult. In addition, the final line admits that this loss (and loss like it) can look and feel like disaster.

So, the poem ends with the initial wisdom overturned and the sense of emotional strength being replaced with a deep vulnerability in the poet.  

Language and techniques

I always think it is a good idea to read a poem independently of its context first as I feel the most important element of a poem is what jumps out to you, which is not necessarily the same as what the poet initially intended. In this case, my first reading made me think about Alzheimer’s disease. The initial sense of denial and trivialisation of losses, which become more and more serious until the point where the most important thing/person in life is lost, seems to mirror the horrendous decaying of memories as Alzheimer’s takes hold.

Although my comments here will be focused predominantly upon the interpretation of the poem in relation to Bishop’s life, this is an interesting interpretation to consider and potentially explore in your writing. I will touch upon it from time to time in this section, but I am sure you will be able to fill in any gaps I leave by focusing on the other interpretations.

Okay, let’s consider the title. When we talk about something as an ‘art’ we don’t associate it with being easy to master, think about martial arts or the art of war – skilled and specialist activities that take a lifetime to master. So immediately the title is at odds with Bishop’s initial attitude towards dealing with and accepting loss. If the title positions it as the ‘One Art’ this could suggest that really she recognises this as the most important and most difficult thing to master, as the end of the poem would seem to demonstrate.

In the opening two stanzas, we are presented with the view that it’s no big deal to lose something. Not only do we have the frequently repeated ‘losing isn’t hard to master’, but also the concept of loss is trivialised through associations with ‘lost door keys’ and ‘the hour badly spent’ representing the wasting of time. These are things that everyone has lost at many points in their lives and something that really has no deep impact upon us, other than leaving us a bit pissed off at ourselves. Notice the use of the word ‘fluster’, which should conjure ideas of mild irritation, anger or bother, but this is very much self-directed. It is no wonder that at this stage Bishop recommends for us to ‘Lose something every day’ to practice coping with loss as these loses are completely unimportant and easy to deal with, thus ‘no disaster’. However, do they really equip us to deal with the more serious loss she explores further on.

Bishop escalates the losses in the third. Losing ‘places, and names’ suggests that memories are fading and becoming lost completely. We recognise these losses as more significant as they are considered to be ‘losing further… [and] faster’ than the previous examples. In addition, there is a slight shift in the poems second refrain (a line repeated several times) with the initial losses ‘no disaster’ and the memories ‘will [not] bring disaster’. Subtle, but clearly a shift that shows that these losses cause some pain as memories are part of our identity.

Hopefully you can also see why I would associate this with Alzheimer’s as we can see this losses progressing from the mundane inability to remember where you left your keys to the fading of peripheral memories. At first these losses could be considered just a slip of the mind, but when we forget where we were ‘meant to travel’, that seems more like a sign of mental deterioration to the extent that it is actually having a more notable impact on life.

In the fourth stanza, you need to comment on Bishop switching from generalised advice and comment about loss, to sharing her personal experiences. The use of first person pronouns (‘I’) now connects us with the losses in Bishop’s life and the struggle at the centre of the poem. These losses have clear sentimental value. Losing a family heirloom such as ‘my mother’s watch’ would understandable cause some distress, but particularly so if we consider Bishop’s memories of her own mother routed in her early childhood and then associated with a tragic mental demise. This watch may be the way she remembers her mother and something special to connect her to parental roots that were so tragically brief. In addition, memory fades of the places she has lived and called home in her life. These are described as ‘loved’ and clearly were the setting of many key moments in her life, but now have faded into obscurity, so much so that she isn’t sure whether she has forgotten her ‘last, or next-to-last’. The level of distress is magnified by the exclamation of her shock that these could be lost.

Even though Bishop has now moved into sharing personal loses, she still repeats the refrain that ‘losing isn’t hard to master’. This is beginning to look more and more like the repetition is for her benefit, to try to convince herself that she can overcome loss. However, the train of thought in the poem is in an upward spiral and seemingly she cannot be stopped from contemplating the truly difficult or painful losses in life.

At first glance the fifth stanza may not seem like an escalation as, although it remains personal, it focuses on less personal places than the ‘loved houses’ of the previous stanza. However, these places represent more than just physical space, I see them as representing stages of her life. We know Bishop was well-travelled and spent many year living abroad, so perhaps the ‘two cities, lovely ones’ and ‘a continent’ represent places she has lived and loved, but where her memories have faded along with the life and friendship she built in those places. Beyond even this, the ‘vaster… realms I owned’ may be a metaphor to describe her professional life and role in literary circles or education where she felt she belonged and was confident in her authority. Regardless of our precise interpretation, we have a real sign of struggling with loss here as she reveals that ‘I miss them’. The present tense demonstrates that these losses have not healed over and are still a source of pain, although their loss ‘wasn’t a disaster.’

And then… her facade collapses. Notice the brief pause at the beginning of this stanza with the hyphen, this signifies an intake of breath prior to reading and makes me think she needs to steady her emotions and try to remain calm when speaking about this most personal of losses. The generalisations are over, but so to is the assumption that the poem is addressed to a general audience as Bishop refers to ‘losing you’ and thus a specific individual. Given the time of composition, it is pretty clear this references her breakup with her toygirl, Methfessel.

If the intake of breath demonstrates Bishop trying to keep her emotions under control, so too does the opening line and a half. ‘Even losing you… I shan’t have lied’ shows that she is still maintaining that it is relatively easy to cope with loss and thus all that comes before in the poem is not a lie. However, she doesn’t do a good job as this line is interrupted with the parentheses ‘(the joking voice, the gesture I love)’, which reveals Bishop’s suffering and longing to be with this person. Again, notice the use of present tense, indicating that this love is still very much alive and current. We see that she cannot bring herself to repeat her oft-repeated line ‘losing isn’t hard’ exactly, instead lessening her resolve with the slightly less certain ‘losing’s not too hard’. A significant switch, but one that demonstrates she is still trying to convince herself that she will be able to get over this loss. However, she can’t quite do it and collapses in the final line revealing that this loss ‘look[s] like… like disaster.’ The reassurances throughout the rest of the poem can now be seen to be Bishop trying to convince herself that everything will be okay, but her she final admits to herself exactly how she feels with a stutter (the two ‘like’s). She parentheses ‘Write it!’ as if her subconscious is ordering her to finally admit to her pain.

Structure

This poem is written in a complicated poetic form called the villanelle. It consists of 19 lines, with five three-line stanzas and one six line stanza to conclude. It is particularly complicated as it only involves two rhymes, which are repeated throughout the poem: an A and a B running through the poem as so ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA. It is difficult to do this, let alone to do it without disrupting the tone and flow of a poem, as Bishop has done.

I would contrast this structure with the title of the poem. Bishop is a professional poet and is demonstrating to us the extent of her talents with this complicated form of the art. And yet, the poem is called ‘One Art’ and suggests that the only art that matters is being able to cope with loss, which in a way renders her poetic abilities meaningless as they are insignificant as she has been unable to master the art of losing and thus is struggling to cope with the loss of her loved one.

Tone

As I said right at the beginning, the poetic voice is a trickster and begins in an authoritative, yet conversational manner, assuring us of how we should approach and think about loss. However, as the conversational flows we get the gradual sense of doubt creeping in when personal experiences are examined by Bishop and then finally the positive front collapses when she confronts her internal suffering and melancholy and recognises this loss as a personal disaster.

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