The Art Of Losing Essay, Research Paper
May 25, 2000
The Art of Losing
Elizabeth Bishop?s poem “One Art” tries to teach the reader how to deal with loss. The off-handed and ironic method of speech within the blank verse is natural sounding and deceptively informal, given the formal requirements of the lyric. The poem is a villanelle, which is French, but stems from Italian folk song. Like all villanelles, it has nineteen lines divided into six stanzas – five tercets and one quatrain – turning on two rhymes and built around two refrains. The first and third lines rhyme throughout, as do the middle lines of each stanza. The first and third lines become the refrain of alternate stanzas and the final two lines of the poem. As the tercets progress, Bishop modifies the verse to suit her own needs. The first line – ?The art of losing isn’t hard to master? – repeats exactly throughout the poem, whereas the second refrain never repeats in its initial form and modulates entirely around the word ?disaster?. It also combines feminine or multi syllabic rhymes (such as ?master? and ?disaster?) with masculine or one-syllable rhymes (such as ?spent? and ?meant?), skillfully varying its full or exact rhymes with half-rhymes (such as ?fluster? and ?master?). Bishop also runs an enjambed line into an end-stopped one as in the fourth stanza: ?And look! my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went?. This creates a sense of hesitation to go forward and momentary rest.
What is most recognizable is that she starts small and continually enlarges the losses, beginning with insignificant things – the door keys, the wasted hour – and moving up from there. The third stanza provides the essential clue as to how we are comprehend and consequently to interpret this poem. ?Then practice losing farther, losing faster?, she writes, signifying that the losses are going to progress, going farther, coming more quickly. It is worse to give up ?places, and names, and where it was you meant / to travel? than to misplace keys or misspend an hour, though, as she hastens to add, it’s still not a catastrophe. She then takes one large jump, moving to the first distressing loss in the poem, the first thing that truly matters: ?I lost my mother’s watch?. ?And look!? she exclaims, focusing the reader into an intimate listener, a confidante: ?my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went?.
In the next stanza she enlarges that loss yet again, moving from a house to two beautiful cities and, even larger than that, some ?realms?, including a couple of splendid rivers and an entire continent where she once lived. We have proceeded though loss that moves from losing door keys to relinquishing a continent. And now for the first time in the poem, in the fifteenth line and the penultimate stanza, she acknowledges losing something she actually misses. ?I miss them?, she admits, immediately adding, ?but it wasn’t a disaster?. In the poem, the two refrain lines are working in tandem and counterpoint. Even as the speaker must acknowledge that the losses are cutting deeper and deeper, she also keeps insisting that they aren’t disastrous. This way she can resist the feeling of approaching catastrophe.
We come to the final stanza where, in an extraordinary turn, the lyric becomes a love poem. By the flow of the poem, the movement from the small to the large, the loss of the beloved must necessarily be the greatest loss of all. ?Even losing you?, she says, momentarily turning and addressing her lover directly, then just as quickly pulling back, adding parenthetically ?the joking voice, a gesture / I love?.
The conclusion of the poem is the first acknowledgment, after everything that has come before, that this final loss actually feels disastrous. As the losses have accumulated throughout the poem, the denial has stayed in place until in the end. This poem of terrific understatement finally breaks down and admits that this single loss feels catastrophic to her. At that point she commands herself to ?Write it!?. By capitalizing and italicizing the verb write, she draws emphasis on the action that will force herself to write it down just as she is forcing herself to admit and face it. The repetition of the word ?like? compounds the effect.
The process of recognition becomes the emotional discovery of this poem. The reader overhears what the poet is forcing herself to acknowledge. Thus the words psychologically enacts the experience of coming to terms with a universe of loss. ?One Art? is a poem that summons elements of mortal panic and fear even as it resists, contains, and tries not to succumb to them. That makes it all the more moving when the resistance finally caves in at the end.
Bishop, Elizabeth. ?One Art?. Class Handout. 2000