Everybody knows the feeling of losing little things. For most of us, the list of these things is very long. We lose pens and pencil cases at school, scarfs and gloves on trains or keys and wallets in restaurants. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”, which was published in her 1976 volume Geography III, can be read as an instruction on how to deal with our losses. In her essay „Bishop’s Sexual Poetics“, Joanne Feit Diehl argues that the poem presents “a series of losses as if to reassure both its author and its reader that control is possible“ (24). Its aim, as is the case with all of Bishop’s work, is not to be assigned into any particular classification (Vendler 294). Rather the poem reads like a lecture by an expert who teaches us “the art of losing”. In this term paper, I will show that Bishop’s “One Art” initially succeeds in building up an indifferent façade. However, in the course of the poem, the lyrical I realises that she cannot apply her approach to the loss of a person. While “One Art” serves as a recipe on how to deal with small everyday losses, it fails to provide strategies for coping with significant losses in life we all have to face.
2. “One Art”: A Lesson in Losing?
The central idea of Bishop’s 1976 poem “One Art” is introduced as early as in the first line: “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” (1). Thematically, the poem can be divided into two parts. While the first three stanzas deal with the loss of everyday objects, the three remaining stanzas are concerned with emotional losses that are considerably harder to face.
In the first stanza, the lyrical I implies that some things „seem filled with the intent to be lost“ (2-3). While this is a nuisance, nothing can be done to prevent these losses. Bishop suggests to “[a]ccept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent” (4-5). In order to be able to get used to these losses, she even encourages the reader to face the problem head on, to “[l]ose something every day” (4). In the third stanza, she continues with this step by step manual and lists a number of things that are more abstract in nature. Still, she invites the reader to practise losing, to lose “farther and faster” (7), while assuring herself and the reader that “[n]one of these things will bring disaster” (9).
As the poem progresses, the losses she mentions grow more and more significant. With the fourth stanza, the speaker introduces the idea of lost things that are of emotional value: her mother’s watch, two houses (9-19). However, her description of coping with these losses remains mostly reserved. The lyrical I still suggests that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” (12). Until the last two stanzas, her mantra seems to be working, and she succeeds in making the reader believe that none of her losses affect her. Verse 15 serves as a first tentative break with this pattern as she now admits to miss some of the things that have been lost. There is talk of two cities, two rivers, a continent: “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster”. It is only in the very last stanza that the speaker reveals the truth about the instruction of losing. Having experienced the loss of someone she loves, it becomes apparent that the lyrical I has been trying to convince herself of the validity of her mantra all along.
Although Bishop makes use of a clear and simple language, the form of the poem is used to underline its theme. “One Art” follows a traditional verse form called the villanelle. It consists of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain (see The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms). The end rhymes in the first and third line of the first stanza – “master” and “disaster” – are repeated alternately in the following stanzas. They also form the final couplet in the quatrain. Through using the villanelle, Bishop tries to project her quest for emotional control onto the form of the poem. Her use of the villanelle emphasises that although she uses this strict verse scheme, losing a beloved person cannot be controlled by structure. Additionally, her use of the villanelle “increases the emotional pitch and, paradoxically, contributes to the sense of personal pain” (Schwartz and Estess 151).
“One Art” also shares other characteristics with Bishop’s published poems. Goldensohn argues that it avoids overt references to gender or sexuality (31). Besides the clear language, this is why any reader of the poem can identify with the speaker describing her memories of losses. Moreover, in the first three stanzas the speaker clearly addresses the reader. With her advice to “[l]ose something every day” (4), and the list of everyday objects she offers, the speaker provides examples that almost anyone can relate to. This helps to initially convince the reader that her theory is reasonable. Bishop chooses to refer to losing as an “art”, which may seem an unusual word choice in regards to loss. However, since an art form is something that can be acquired, her word choice underlines the instructional character of her poem (see DiYanni 16).
With the addition of the pronoun "I", the personal address shifts to a self-directed one from the third stanza to the fourth. From there, as Schwartz and Estess claim, “the expert presents us with her credentials, the list of losses. Each succeeding item increases in magnitude, from her mother’s watch, a house she loved, to ‘some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent’.” (150). This list emphasises that the speaker knows from personal experience what she is talking about.
Despite her pragmatic way of presenting the lost objects, it becomes more and more apparent that the speaker is losing herself further in her memories. The fourth and fifth stanza carry an underlying sense of desperation, as the speaker tries harder to convince the reader of being indifferent. In verse 12, she once again repeats, “[t]he art of losing isn’t hard to master”, only to finally admit to herself in the next stanza that she does indeed miss these lost things (15). The full truth, however, is only revealed in the last stanza. In Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art, Schwartz and Estess argue that “the crisis in the poem is not in the past, it is in the present” (150). In fact, the speaker changes from directly addressing the reader – and giving him or her practicing tips – to presenting of her own personal losses. The speaker confesses that the actual disaster is taking place in the present:
–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. (16-19)
By using “you”, the speaker also shifts away from the use of objects to describe “the art of losing” and introduces a person she might lose. The pronoun change that occurs in the last stanza stresses how difficult the possibility of this final loss must feel to the speaker. Moreover, as Millier remarks, the word “shan’t”, the abbreviated form of the verb shall not in the rarely used future perfect tense, refers to a possible resolution in the future (see 240). The lyrical I has to force herself to admit that this crisis is not over and that it could indeed end in disaster. This can also be seen in the italicised interruption “(Write it!)” (18), which reinforces that the speaker has been speaking – and lying – to herself the whole time.