Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ is a poem whose apparent detached simplicity is undermined by its rigid villanelle structure and mounting emotional tension. Perhaps her most well-known poem, it centers around the theme of loss and the way in which the speaker – and, by extension, the reader – deals with it. Here, Bishop converts losing into an art form and explores how, by potentially mastering this skill, we may distance ourselves from the pain of loss. At eight months old, Elizabeth Bishop lost her father, her mother then succumbed to mental illness and she later lost her lover to suicide. Therefore, we may see this poem as in part autobiographical. In it, the poet presents a list of things we may lose in life, increasing in importance, until the final culmination in the loss of a loved one.
Analysis of One Art
The title should not be overlooked. With these two small words, Elizabeth Bishop encompasses the poem’s entire purpose: to remove the pain of loss by first leveling out everything that we lose; from door keys to houses to people (One), and second by mastering the fact of losing through practise (Art).
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;so many things seem filled with the intentto be lost that their loss is no disaster.
In the first stanza, Bishop sets out her intentions. She seems to affirm that loss is part of the human condition: we lose both significant and insignificant things constantly and should thus accept this as a natural part of life, and even master this practice so as to remove any sensation of disaster we may take from it. These two points will be repeated throughout ‘One Art’ so as to emphasize them.
Lose something every day.
In the second stanza, she invites the reader in by naming two extremely common things to lose: keys and time. The enjambment between the first and second lines causes us to pause and contemplate how ridiculous is this ‘fluster’ that occurs when we lose our keys. She eases us slowly into her idea: the universality of these two occurrences allows us to relate and thus agree that indeed, this is not too hard to master and is certainly not a disaster.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:places, and names, and where it was you meantto travel.
The emotional tension begins to subtly build in the third stanza as Bishop incites us to further our practise, broadening the scope of our loss. Here, the things we lose are more related to thought and memory: people, places, and plans that, with time, naturally escape our head and no longer form part of our lives. This is harder for the reader to accept and the familiar affirmation that this will not bring disaster becomes less comforting. House keys and an hour here and there seem commonplace and natural and to consciously lose these things to aid our mastering of losing does not seem too difficult. Places, names, and plans require a larger effort and a degree of emotional distancing that the second stanza did not call for.
There is a subtle change from the third to the fourth stanza, a perfect split in keeping with the poem’s rigid structure. Almost imperceptibly, the speaker switches from addressing the reader to drawing on her own experience. It is here that Bishop begins to undermine her meticulous structural details and carefully impassive tone. “I lost my mother’s watch”, she states an admission that seems to come from nowhere. However, the casual tone is disappearing; the inexplicable mention of this personal aspect of the speaker’s life has upped the emotional stakes. As the stanza continues, it becomes clear that this is a further attempt to demonstrate the universality of loss. The picture becomes bigger and the distance larger. The exclamation: “And look!” betrays yet more emotion, despite its apparent offhand tone. Now Bishop tells us to look at our losses on a bigger scale: the houses we lived in – not so disastrous except for the use of the word “loved” here. Indeed, these were just places we lived in, but we nonetheless also loved in them.
The first person speaker continues in the fifth stanza as the poet attempts to further distance herself from loss. She is stepping further and further back and the picture she is painting reaches a higher geographical level: to cities and continents. Nevertheless, this is undermined by a wistful tone: the cities she lost were “lovely ones” and, although she maintains that their loss was not a disaster, she does admit that she misses them. Faced with this unusual outlook, the reader is forced to ask at this point: if the loss of a continent is no disaster, what would thus constitute one?
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gestureI love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evidentthe art of losing’s not too hard to masterthough it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
The fifth stanza leads us to a brief look at the structure of ‘One Art’. The villanelle allows for a break in its pattern of tercets and tight rhyme, giving away to one quatrain with a repeated rhyme. Just as the structure cracks, as does the poetic voice. The final stanza opens with a dash, which could perhaps be seen as an attempt at a casual tone but in fact serves to slow the poem down here, allowing for yet more emotion to permeate the final words. The reader is forced to consider this “you”, and we see how the poem has taken a journey: starting with the little objects, going through thought and memory, to houses, places, and continents forming one huge picture until at the end, zooming in on and pinpointing this “you”. A “you” with, as we infer from the parentheses, a personality, a memorable tone of voice, and gestures. A person lost; an irreplaceable entity, in fact.
Here, however, instead of simply demonstrating the pain of losing this person, what Bishop is doing is showing us how we can try to deal with this. Through the practise of loss: recognizing the little things we lose every day and looking at the bigger picture of life and all the things we lose that are, objectively, not disastrous, we can help ourselves to get through the pain of losing the most significant things. In ‘One Art’, the poet allows us to take notice of the natural process of loss that permeates our life on an everyday basis, and in this way prevent us from losing ourselves in the process.
If we read only the first and last stanzas of ‘One Art’ we would perhaps find it unfeeling and indifferent. Nevertheless, the poem as a whole reads more like a sympathetic list of advice. Just as the act of losing is a natural part of life, as are the feelings of regret and sadness that accompany it, reflected in the hints of emotion carried by the poetic voice. Just as we find we can relate to losing our keys and our former houses, as we find empathy in the description of the loss of a loved one. This idea has its ultimate echo in the parenthesis in the final line: “Write it!” Bishop tells us, demonstrating how, by writing her own experience of loss, she finds catharsis and an opportunity to share this experience and thus perhaps help others to avoid disaster.
About Elizabeth Bishop
Born in 1911, Elizabeth Bishop experienced a chaotic early life following the death of her father when she was not yet one, and her mother’s subsequent mental problems meant she was committed when the poet was five. She never saw her mother again. As a result, she was moved around considerably during her childhood before being sent to an elite school by her paternal grandparents. After graduating from Vassar College she spent many years traveling, scenes of which are reflected in her poetry, and later spent some time in Brazil. Here she led a life under scrutiny from the locals in Petrópolis, the town where she lived with her female lover: the architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Soares took her own life in 1967 and after this Bishop returned to the United States where she became a teacher at Harvard. She received the Pulitzer Prize and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
A perfectionist more concerned with producing highly polished works than a large body of poetry, she published only 101 poems. Somewhat of an enigma during her lifetime, she became more well-known after her death in 1979. Her work is characterized by a calm attention to detail and a measured and flawlessly subtle examination of life.